By Tara Westover
Feb 20, 2018
Mar 5, 2020
Mar 19, 2020
There is a difference between history and truth. There is a difference between being a woman and being a good daughter. There's a difference between mental health and being right and even doing right. Most painfully the decisions we make for ourselves for growth, and exploration, and purpose can hurt and ostracize the people and place that used to matter a lot to us.
Tara grows up in a Mormon family distrustful of the government and all institutions. Living in a stockpile-filled house near the top of a mount known as Buck's Peak (the "Princess"): both a treacherous swath of nature and a sign of home
"On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping"
Both in terms of seasons and education, "Our lives were a cycle—the cycle of day, the cycle of seasons—circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all." (xii) This is echoed shortly after: "What was happening now had happened before. This was the second serving of mother and daughter. The tape was playing in a loop." (30)
Tara Westover has an incredible way with words. This is even more incredible given her lack of ability to even string sentences together in writing until she's about 16.
"All of my father's stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I'd know when it was time to come home."
The story of her childhood is largely a story of her father. "Dad and his mother...were tethered by their devotion to the mountain...Grandma's daughters had married and moved away, but my father stayed, building a shabby yellow house, which he would never quite finish." (4)
"Dad said public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God." (5)
A theme throughout the book is questioning what it means to be a women. There are hints at this struggle even very early on, "Mother did her makeup every morning, but if she didn't have time she'd apologize all day, as if by not doing it , she had inconvenienced everyone." (14) She becomes a Midwife. "Midwifery had been Dad's idea, on of his schemes for self-reliance. There was nothing he hated more than our being dependent on the Government" (15). She became exceedingly successful in this capacity. "This was the first time in her life that she was, without question or caveat, the one in charge...She stopped wearing makeup, then she stopped apologizing for not wearing it." (17)
In spite of her mother's lack of education and extremist beliefs, she's powerful, manipulative, and loving
"Alone with just me, she put aside the persona she displayed for others. She was her old self again, fragile, breathy." (21)
After midwifing another child, "I realize now that that night I was seeing her for the first time, the secret strength of her." (22)
And a direct quote from her, after successfully hiding her status from doctors when they probed, "Men like to think they're saving some brain-dead woman who's got herself into a scrape. All I had to do was step aside and let him play hero!" (22)
She's a boss woman, but there's also this caring, powerful connection to her daughter and to the community she serves
We learn that she actually came from a more traditional Mormon life, but was swept up by Tara's father. "Thinking how lucky Mother is to have escaped a world where there was an important difference between white and cream, and where such questions might consume a perfectly good morning, a morning that might otherwise be spent plundering Dad's junkyard with Luke's goat." (26)
Juxtaposition of absurdities
"We understood that the dissolution of Mother's family was the inauguration of ours. The two could not exist together. Only one could have her." (28)
As Tara ages, "I thought about my body, all the ways it had changed. I hardly knew what I felt toward it: sometimes I did want it to be noticed, to be admired, but then afterward I'd think of Jeanette Barney, and I'd feel disgusted." (118)
Changes in her body causing thoughts in conflict with her modest Mormon upbringing
We start to uncover more of the strange ways in which this family operates. "Until Mother decided to get my birth certificate, not knowing my birthday had never seemed strange...It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required." (20)
We then are thrown through stories of how the family's tendencies are utterly destructive. The small decisions and thoughts form something far more dangerous and far more differentiated.
"The choices people make, together and on their own, that combine to produce any single event. Grains of sand incalculable, pressing into sediment, then rock." (40)
Powerful metaphor in light of the large rocks that stand up above their house to form Buck's Peak
A car accident gives Mother severe brain injury.
Her brother Shawn is abusive and takes advantage of his sisters and various girlfriends. He turns violent and on many occasions severely hurts Tara. "Even then I understood the truth of it" that Shawn hated himself more than I ever could." (121)
He later falls off a palette from about 20ft in the air and strikes his head. He is, in the short term, severely injured. "Then I understood why I hadn't come sooner. I'd been afraid of how I would feel, afraid that if he died, I might be glad." (130). As the details emerged, the other men (Father included) just had Shawn sit down after this instead of going home. They later get into a tussle and Shawn is thrown in his head, again. Tara later hints her Father was in the blame, "It was the reason Shawn would never quite be Shawn again. If the first fall was God's will, whose was the second?"
Slowly, Tara plays around with self-education. It presents prospects of growth and stability which she lacked in her current life.
"I was drawn to the Pythagorean theorem and it's promise of the universal...What I knew of physics I had learned in the junkyard, where the physical world often seemed unstable, capricious. But here was a principle through which the dimensions of life could be defined, captured." (125)
"The misery began when I moved beyond the Pythagorean theorem to sine, cosine, and tangent. I couldn't grasp such abstractions, I could feel the logic in them, could sense their power to bestow order and symmetry, but I couldn't unlock it." (125)
I don't know if I've ever read such a strong encapsulation of what early education feels like. Not to mention, so has effectively no teacher or support structure. It's a long, arduous grind to understand these concepts. Tara has grit.
Her brother, Tyler, provides some aid from afar. "The gate opened a little, and I peeked through it." (127) What an innocent way of phrasing this. Passing through the gate will change everything. At this point, I think she knows it.
"The truth is this: that I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me and that difference is not good" (147-8)
She begins grinding hard, every day, for the ACT while still working in the scrapyard under her Father. The first attempt, she feels alien watching these practiced test takers do the ACT. She'd never taken a test before. "That was their world. I Stepped into overalls and returned to mine." (135) Her next attempt, she gets a very good score. She no longer is sure which side God lies on.
"Home had changed the moment I'd taken Shawn to that hospital instead of to Mother. I had rejected some part of it; not it was rejecting me." (149) It was time for her to go to school.
From BYU "white massifs jutted mightily out of the earth. They were beautiful, but to me their beauty seemed aggressive, menacing" (153). She is woefully underprepared and extremely different from the other (primarily Mormon) students. "I might have resented my upbringing but I didn't. My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me." (156)
"I'd always known that my father believed in a different God...they believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God's power to heal; we left our injuries in God's hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared." (159)
There are signs of support from her family in spite of her going against their wishes. From her dad: "We'll figure it out. Just be happy, okay?" (165)
"I continued to study until two or three A.M. each night, believing it was the price I had to pay to earn God's support." (166)
Education leads to a few painful realizations. She learns of the holocaust and of slavery and racism. She learns further that her family perpetuates these biases. In response to Emmett Till, "My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew. The calculation was not made with reference to vast historical or geological shifts—the fall of civilizations, the erosion of mountains. It was measured in the wrinkling of human flesh. In the lines on my mother's face." (179)
"I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant...because retaining power always feels like the way forward." (180)
Being involved with other people (classmates, professors, boyfriends) bring in much needed perspectives which shed light on her tendencies. "Charles said my behavior was self-destructive, that I had an almost pathological inability to ask for help." (185) "If someone had asked me, I'd have said Charles was the most important thing in the world to me. But he wasn't. And I would prove it to him. What was important to me wasn't love or friendship, but my ability to lie convincingly to myself: to believe I was strong." (189)
She distances herself from opportunities, people, and a better life to give preference for what is the path of least resistance in the short term but painful and limiting in the longterm
"I could not see a counselor. To see one would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible...if I could best this exam, win that impossible perfect score, even with my broken toe and without Charles to help me, it would prove that I was above it all. Untouchable." (191)
Incredible how similar this mentality is to Penn students all around me. She comes from a different place and mindset though takes up similarly self destructive and evaluation-driven objectives. This is not about learning or growing, it's about forcing and doing.
She internalizes damage across the family and community, and casts it onto herself.
As she continues to learn about white supremacy and history of the US, many of the things her dad told her growing up which she took to be truths were turned on their heads. "Dad always put faith before safety...Why did you terrify us like that? Why did you fight so hard against made-up monsters, but do nothing about the monsters in your own house?" (211) She's starting to see some of the pain is not her own doing.
Her father is severely burned by an explosion while scrapping cars. "This was the Lord's pain, he said, and he would feel every part of it." (222)
Ironically, this explosion becomes a claim to fame. Here on out Father and Mother begin making swaths of money from their essential oils business riding on this survival.
Tara still struggles to share her past with the people around her. She sees Shawn's wife falling into the same trap of abuse that she did.
Goes to Cambridge via a BYU program. "It seemed that Dr. Kerry saw in me the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged in a crane." (237) Imposter syndrome.
Tara decides to study historiography. "What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others...Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality." (238)
As she starts to taste academic success: "I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it. I wanted the professor to shout at me, wanted it so deeply I felt dizzy from the deprivation." (240) Persistent uphill battle against anything she's ever known. "I didn't know why I couldn't tell them. I just couldn't stand the thought of people patting me on the back, telling me how impressive I was I didn't want to be Horatio Alger in someone's tear-filled homage to the American dream. I wanted my life to make sense, and nothing in that narrative made sense to me." (249)
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