He was also radically anti-medical establishment and a fundamentalist Mormon.
For most of her youth, she sorted scrap metal in the junkyard that was part of her family’s home base below a remote mountain in Idaho.
As a child, she was impaled by metal, abused physically and emotionally by both her father and an older brother. The latter held her head in a toilet to demonstrate his power, and once threatened her life, handing her a bloodied knife with which he had just dismembered a family dog as if to confirm his threat.
Her siblings and both parents experienced life-threatening injuries including disfiguring burns, head trauma and broken bones, all of which were treated with home remedies concocted by her herbalist mother.
Her mother was also an unlicensed midwife who yielded to the patriarchal authority of her husband, even when that meant acquiescing to, or denying outright, the violence and abuse that ran through the family’s relationships.
Westover details her father’s emotional extremes which she speculates could result from bipolar disorder and perhaps schizophrenia.
But she writes that he will never be diagnosed because he refuses medical treatment.
Education as a Way Out
Three of her brothers, among seven siblings, found their way out of the family dysfunction to go on to higher education. All achieving PhDs.
With encouragement from a brother, Tara eventually educated herself sufficiently to pass the ACT and achieve admission into Brigham Young University at age 17 as home-schooled.
It was not an easy transition. She held fast to the values imparted from her parents who regarded even “mainstream” Mormons as gentiles and considered her desire for education as “whoring after man’s knowledge.”
Her story is remarkable; a feral child from a family enmeshed in radical ideology and obvious dangerous dysfunction; a young woman who did not know about the Holocaust when it was raised in a lecture about Western art in her freshman year in college.
She was successful at BYU, so successful she received a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge, then Harvard, and ultimately earned her PhD as well.
It’s a wonder she survived, much less achieved academic distinction.
Narrating Her Own Life
She writes of the interior struggle to resolve the conflict between the reality taught by her father and the reality was learning through her education.
“My life was narrated for me by others,” she writes. “It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Here is the crux of her interior struggle—to discover her right to narrate her own story and develop the courage to find her voice.
At Cambridge she discovered the writings of Mary Wollenstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, and her intellectual world and her emotional world both began to open in ways she had never imagined possible.
A friend sent her Redemption Song by Bob Marley with the lyrics
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.”
She scratched the lines in notebooks, on margins, and lost herself contemplating what they meant.
But the more educated she became, the more estranged she felt from her family back home. Despite the violence and rigid ideology, there was also a bond that she felt was sealed by love, as distorted and confusing as it was.
The pressures built. Her desire for connection, her love of family, her life narrated by others conflicted with the lectures and reading at Cambridge.
This struggle led to a nervous breakdown for which she sought counseling.
If all of this seems too horrific to bear, it isn’t.
Woven throughout her gripping, sometimes shocking narrative, is hope. It resonates like a mountain flower breaking through the winter snow and ever-so-gently bringing color to the landscape.
With the help of friends, counseling and her educated siblings, she regained her balance.
She writes of the empowering value of education, power that allowed her to claim her life, to transition from a frightened sixteen-year-old girl whose reflection in the mirror called her to be her father’s daughter on his terms, or to leave the girl in the mirror behind and create a new self.
Education done well can enable us to claim a more authentic and aware self, and more.
For some of us it isn’t enough to lay claim to a new life, the old life must be deconstructed, to step away from the mirror.
And in Tara’s metamorphosis, it meant negotiating the difficult path to resist the hold of those who narrated the old life.
In the rigid family structure she was reared in, it also meant estrangement from values and beloved parents and siblings.
I thought of her story as I also read of the debate about the value of education in our country today.
The value of those majors in higher education that are not focused on skills for careers in new technologies are being called into question.
To Gain a Life
Tara Westover’s gripping story is testament that education is about more than learning a skill to find a job. That’s an important part of the process, to be sure.
But more importantly, it’s about gaining wisdom, the ability see more clearly.
It’s a door to something deeper, more enduring and life-changing—the development of a person aware of his or her place in the universe, and affected by wisdom inherited from those who have gone before us, and responsible to those who will come after us.
Finding a voice and developing the confidence to use it.