Dr. Tara Westover grew up on an Idaho mountainside, youngest of seven children. Her parents considered her sufficiently schooled if she could read; they cared more about the imminent Apocalypse, which her father, deeply devout and plagued with visions, expected any day. After Ruby Ridge, she wondered whether Armageddon or the government crackdown would come first. Because her parents never registered her birth, to this day, Westover doesn’t know her own birthdate.
Yet somewhere in her teens, she had enough. She taught herself enough math to pass standardized tests and, at age seventeen, enrolled at BYU. College, which many well-heeled white people consider a layover between childhood and career, was for Westover a harsh collision between her isolated upbringing and the larger world. On the cusp of adulthood, she must learn rules everyone else savvied as toddlers. She must remain ever-vigilant, taking nothing for granted.
This has proven one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written, because I see myself so clearly in this memoir. No, my father wasn’t a messianic survivalist who used personal charm and physical force to control me or my family, nor did that messianism manifest in domestic violence between siblings. But like Dr. Westover, my father equated intellectual disagreement with personal disloyalty, and encouraged distrust of credentials, state, and self. Unlike Dr. Westover, I haven’t broken the spell yet.
The Westover family lived adjacent to her father’s junkyard, where she and all her siblings worked from very early ages. She emerged from a world free from government oversight, schools, and state-based tedium, but also basic OSHA safety precautions. She describes injuries that should’ve amputated her limbs or, considering her family’s aversion to immunization, given her terminal tetanus. And she got off lightly; traumatic head injuries were the norm, not the exception, among her brothers.
Yet as she established an increasing identity outside the home, some other siblings doubled down. Her brother Shawn looms large, as successively powerful head injuries eliminate his ability to filter his actions. (Maimings are apparently a rite of passage for Westovers.) Like Dad, Shawn becomes increasingly capricious: lovingly tender one moment, lashing out with Freudian cruelty the next. But where Dad relies on shame and religion, Shawn uses physical violence as his tool of domination.
So Westover enrolls at BYU at seventeen to escape. Before her first Freshman lecture, she’d never attended one day of classroom instruction in her life. She initially majors in music, planning to lead church choirs and ensembles, and her entire education has a similar utilitarian texture. She maintains a 4.0 GPA, not because she’s especially gifted, but because losing her GPA means losing her scholarship. That would mean moving back home, or worse, accepting government aid.
But somewhere during that workaday education, Westover becomes… curious. The more of reality she learns her father’s religiosity concealed from her, the more she yearns to discover. Music becomes a sidelight; without realizing it, she becomes a skilled historian. Still battered by her father’s judgment from afar, she never fully trusts herself, until a summer opportunity at Cambridge University introduces her to paternal figures who actually encourage her. The British see something her father couldn’t.
Were Westover a novelist, we’d see a defining break where she stops being beholden to her past, and becomes her own woman, an academic and a fully realized human being together. But real life is sloppier than that. The transition requires, not one moment of dawning realization, but several little moments that, piece by piece, break her father’s conditioning. It makes me wonder: how many other people never have the sequence of opportunities to escape the past?
Sometimes I feel burdened by the chiché “this book isn’t for everyone.” Well, this book really is for everyone. I recommend it for students, to understand what education really offers beyond job skills; parents, to recognize how their choices reflect across generations; instructors, to see how flippant moments can change lives; religious leaders, to spark discussions about the difference between faith and oppression. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book.