Book review by Deane Barker tags: biography

Absolutely, one of the best books I’ve read in years. Enraging in places, it’s one of those books where you watch the protagonist suffer, and make choices you don’t really understand because you’re not as deep into the situation as they are. But, in the end, you have some appreciation for how they suffered and the goals they were trying to achieve.

Tara was born to rural, fundamentalist Mormons. Her father was convinced “The End Times” were coming, and that “the Feds” would try to control the population. They lived as close to off-the-grid as possible. Tara was born at home, and didn’t get a birth certificate until she was 9 (she still doesn’t know her exact birth date). She never spent a day in school. She ended up educating herself (hence the title), escaping her family, and she is currently a PhD of historiography (the history of historians).

The antagonist of the story is her father, who was (is?) clearly mentally ill – Tara came to learn about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and is convinced her father suffers from both. Her mother doesn’t help, having been so inculcated in the fundamentalist Mormon tradition that she never questions her husband. She’s prone to fantasy as well, believing in homeopathic remedies that go far beyond into spiritual healing (so much so, that any mainstream Christian tradition would say they border on the occult).

And then there’s Tara’s older brother, who abuses her, and who sets up the major conflict. Her desire for justice and acknowledgment from her family breaks it apart. Her brother suffers an almost comical number of head injuries throughout the book and becomes a violent, controlling psychopath.

(In fact, since Tara’s mother and father believed the medical establishment was evil and trying to control the population, they rarely seek professional medical help. Given that the family business is construction and scrap metal salvage (and poor use of motor vehicles), the number of physical injuries they suffer is amazing. The father eventually has a horrifying brush with death, and simply never gets treated, just convalescing on the couch for months. They seem to a case study in how humans “survived” before modern medicine.)

The writing is wonderful, somehow simple, clear, and yet poetic. The author seems to cut to the core of how families can be complicated, and loyalties shift with time. Her father and brother can be horrible one moment, and loving the next. It’s just hard to draw clear boundaries around anyone. You can only view her family in trends over time – if you try to snapshot them, they might be heroes or villains, depending on the moment.

The book is also a study in recollection. Tara’s writing concedes that fact that memories shift with time, and she acknowledges alternate theories of incidents that she recounts. In some footnotes, she even notes that other people have claimed different versions of events she discusses. Her memories are fallible, and her writing reflects that memories of trauma aren’t movies – you tend to remember them in snapshots, strung together with frames missing.

I ended the book feeling badly for Tara’s father. This is a man who desperately needed help – both traditional therapy and likely large doses of medication. He spent his life deep in a nightmare about forces aligning against him, from which he could never break free. It’s a case study in how flawed family leadership will trickle down through generations.

By the time the book ends, grandchildren have been born. A defy anyone to think that they’ll turn out much better.

Book Info

Tara Westover
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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