Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
Tara Westover grew up with a family of survivalists, a father who suffered from symptoms of bipolar disorder and a mother with an untreated brain injury. Yet her story of escaping that world to get a Ph.D from Cambridge may be the survival story of all.
Before reading this book, whenever I heard of kids having difficulty to get an education, I imagined something like these children in rural China:
Which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize you’re really looking at this:
An 800 meter cliff, to be climbed up and down every day.
And yet these kids have what Tara didn’t: a facts-based reality with supportive parents who realized they didn’t know everything, and that the outside world knew more.
Tara’s father owned a junkyard, and her mother peddled essential oils. Both avoided dependence on an outside world they believed to be fallen and would end soon. They intoned how modern medicine, the government, and even other Mormons were of the Devil and the Illuminati and should not be trusted. Hence, Tara’s true birthday is unknown even to her, and she did not receive a formal education until college.
How do you learn when the reality you knew isn’t real? When there is no foundation to set your building blocks? The answer is with extreme difficulty. By buying algebra books, getting trigonometry tutoring from a friend, and daring to apply to scholarships, Tara got into BYU, then Cambridge, then Harvard.
Even with these setbacks, the true difficulty Tara presents in her memoir is her difficulty in creating lasting, meaningful relationships with people on the “outside” while also preserving her relationship to her parents, her siblings who had listened to them, and her past – her home. Her ignorance of the Holocaust helped cost her her one friendly acquaintance in a junior-level art class, and her abysmally poor hygiene habits made working relationships with her roommates impossible. When she made progress in any of those fields, her parents shrunk further away, berating her for accepting socialist nonsense and retreating from God. Eventually, these ties became too great to bear, and Tara broke off relations with much of her family during her Harvard fellowship.
Tara’s story makes me wonder about whether people like her merely escape her past, or whether it’s possible to form a bridge between two worlds. From Tara’s standpoint, her enstrangement from her parents and half her family wasn’t because they weren’t educated and she was, or that she accepted outside help and they didn’t. Instead, she realized their emotional manipulation of her and the resulting realities shifting beneath her feet whenever she came home meant to cage her when she didn’t want to be caged. She couldn’t keep her past and her future together.
Does it have to be this way, for all families? Tara noted her parent’s business was booming now, in part because they sell essential oils as an alternative to vaccines and Obamacare. How many more families are like Tara’s? And how many more Taras are there? When do you give up trying to save the people you love?
A must-read book into an oft-overlooked section of America. I couldn’t put this one down.