By Tara Westover, published in 2018
This is the third memoir I’ve read this year, and the second about an abusive parent/child relationship. As I’m sure many others have already said, this reminded me a lot of The Glass Castle: A child raised by mentally ill and/or abusive parents who fail to provide a loving and safe environment achieves the impossible. In this case, Tara Westover describes growing up in the shadow of a beautiful mountain with countless siblings, a submissive mother, and a bipolar father, all of which is complicated by his extreme interpretation of Mormonism. Tara and her siblings don’t go to school and live almost entirely off the grid. Her parents aren’t even sure of her actual birthday since they never requested a birth certificate. Her father is impulsive and dangerous; her mother is wise but an enabler.
I found the first half of the book a struggle. The book jacket tells us that Westover succeeded: she studied at Brigham Young and Cambridge, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard. Also, she wrote a wildly successful memoir. Still, the constant cycle of abuse and neglect was difficult to read. I found myself holding my breath in almost every scene, certain that it would end disastrously. And it often did. But then she reached her teenage years and, inspired by her older brother, decided to reach beyond the scrap yard she worked in for her father. She studied, performed, talked to boys, wore makeup. In short, she rebelled, and she paid a price for it. But she persisted.
It is astounding to read about college life, Cambridge, and Rome through the eyes of an extremely sheltered young woman. Personally, I found my first visit to all of these places to be as beautiful and mystifying as Westover describes, but it is difficult to imagine how these feelings were compounded for her. The second half of the book, in which she begins to build her own life, travel, and learn about the world, were a thrill to read.
Westover describes the painful events that led to her estrangement from most of her family, but unlike Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle) and Stephanie Thornton Plymale (American Daughter), she tells us precisely how she overcame the guilt. She realized finally that cutting her father out of her life was something she had to do for her own well-being, and that in spite of his wrongs, it was not a punishment. “Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”
Westover’s wisdom and self-awareness shine in this portion of the book, and we can see how far she has come, albeit through much grief and therapy. I found this description of parental estrangement to be the most compelling I have ever read. While it is a tragic story, it is uplifting in its own way. Four stars.