Tara Westover

Questions of knowing drive this memoir from an author in her early 30s who was raised off the grid by Mormon parents in Idaho before going to college in Utah and, eventually, Cambridge and Harvard. Along the way, she transforms from being a recipient of fate to a creator of story.

Living by a mountain, with its “hushing of human drama”, Westover’s family makes tactical preparations for the Second Coming, while her father, whom she later diagnoses with a range of psychological conditions, works in construction and becomes increasingly convinced that the feds will raid his family. Young Tara knows of the 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992, when Randy Weaver held a bloody standoff with the United States government, but lacks any context besides what her dad imagines – he believes formal education is a tool of the Illuminati.

Over the years, the Westovers, seven children and two parents, experience a shocking array of physical disasters, many of which result in brain injuries and internal bleeding. These would be hard to read even if participants sought medical care, rather than recuperating on the couch and rising weeks later, never to be the same.   

We know from the felicitous phrasing that Westover will overcome great odds and live to tell the tale. But it’s deeper than a victim-to-victory story. Westover leaves her family only piece by piece, following the mixed and changeable examples of her siblings. She recognises that her long childhood hours puzzling out Mormon texts constitute her critical education. Her slow exit, with its many hurdles and returns, will be familiar to any reader who has resolved to leave a stultifying family.

Yet Westover’s situation is full of horrors, and her apprehension of them is also slow to come. When she finally understands the behaviour of her big brother Shawn, who first likes to call her “siddle lister”, then much worse, the book becomes very dark and bitter. Westover confronts her family at great cost and the questions of knowledge gain urgency and significance. How do we know what we know, when everyone we love believes something different?

So-called “misery memoirs” solicit stock emotions and assume stock shapes. But at the end of this book, Westover is not left with triumph. The reader doesn’t envy her experience, but admires her character.  CR

Hutchinson, 324pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Tara Westover, Educated ".

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Reviewer: CR