As I read this story, I wondered – how much can really be true?
How, given the emotional brainwashing and abuse of her childhood, could Tara succeed so brilliantly – from unschooled junk-yard kid, through Harvard and Cambridge to a PhD in only ten years? If I was reviewing this as fiction I would call it unbelievably contrived.
This is Tara Westover’s story of her dysfunctional, isolationist Mormon family. As I read, I was sceptical. How did such a family dynamic look to an outsider, and why did no one intervene? They might be wacky in rural Idaho, but unregistered, home schooled children who came to church with horrific injuries should have sounded some alarm bells.
It was only when I finished the book and listened to interviews with Tara Westover that I was seriously impressed. What an amazing woman! As truth, this story is an extraordinary testimony to the power of education to fix a life you would imagine irreparably damaged. That said, I’m still uneasy about the format, it feels far more like fiction than autobiography. It’s a very well told, coming-of-age story, full of insight on love and damage and loss, with the strange addition of half a dozen academic notes thrown in to clarify irrelevant specifics (eg. what year the family got a phone) suggesting that, in contrast, everything else is absolute fact. True fiction. I’ll mull that one over.
Tara grew up on a mountain in Idaho, under the command of her domineering survivalist father, psychopathic brother, suppressed other siblings and subservient mother. The family waited for the end-of-days, stockpiling guns and supplies while the kids helped dad work his dangerous and disaster-prone scrapyard and mum made herbal salves for whoever who came home broken and burnt. Doctors were forbidden, schooling was forbidden, God proscribed small roles for women and when Tara talked to a boy her brother dragged her by her hair and shoved her face in the toilet bowl until she would admit she was a whore.
When she broke free, reluctantly accepted help from outside and put herself into the education system, Tara ripped apart as she grew estranged from home, physically and culturally. Her parents could not understand or forgive her. Her violent brother put her life in danger whenever she ventured back to the family and her father’s emotional blackmail tormented her.
The story of Tara’s mother was particularly sad. A highly intelligent woman, brainwashed into her husband’s delusions, she loved her children but could not accept their truths. Her husband persuaded her to take on the role of community mid-wife – illegally, unregulated, and without qualifications – on the understanding that God would guide her. She made herbal remedies in the kitchen for the family. Painkillers that did nothing, as Tara realised when, as an adult, she took her first pharmaceutical pain relief tablet. Her mother did not take her husband to hospital when he was horribly burnt, she laid him on the couch and smothered his glutinous, syrupy skin in comfrey salve. He didn’t die. Hallelujah. This was proof that God’s cure bettered hospital treatment and turned the miracle herbal cures into a highly successful business.
There were seven kids. Three broke away and got educated, all achieved doctorates. The four who stayed on the mountain with no qualification between them remained under the influence of their father, leading lives with little freedom of thought.
The book is called Education, but it’s not about education with a capital E. We delve very little into Tara’s studies, they are background to the education that comes when a woman learns to think for herself.
Education, by Tara Westover, is a good choice for a book club read. There is terrific character development, well rounded secondary characters, tension all the way through, some pretty horrible stuff (never gratuitous), and the clear, analytical voice of the older Tara telling the story of the 16 year old girl she was. It is an intelligent book and reads well. Discuss what happens when religions turn into cults, how delusions control people, the effect of family dynamics on children, children turning away from their parents, and the nature and importance of education.