It feels strange to write a book review of such a personal memoir. Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist parents and a paranoid father who kept them out of school and away from doctors is compelling and very readable. It also feels incomplete.
Westover grew up in rural Idaho, the youngest of seven children, in a fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father is a strong and stubborn personality. (Westover later posits that he is likely bipolar and/or schizophrenic.) He prepares frantically for the end of days, stockpiling food, weapons, and fuel. He believes in vast conspiracies surrounding the government and modern medicine and attempts to live as off-grid as possible. (This varies throughout Westover’s life. At one point they don’t even have a phone; later they have internet in their home.) Westover, born at home, doesn’t have a birth certificate until she is nine years old. When her mother applies for one, no one can remember her exact date of birth.
Eventually, Westover begins to push back against her family’s life style and, in particular, the increasing abuse of one of her older brothers. She wants to leave the junkyard that her father runs behind and do something different with her life. Without ever attending school or gaining a high school diploma, she is accepted into Brigham Young University. There she is exposed to other Mormons who drink Diet Coke, wear fitted jeans, and go shopping on Sundays. She learns about the Holocaust for the first time. Eventually, she becomes a student at Cambridge and today she holds a PhD.
Westover is a year younger than I am and in a very real sense her memoir is incomplete in that she is (probably) barely halfway through her life. It also feels incomplete because her parents and siblings are living and as the book draws to a close, the reader doesn’t entirely find the conclusion you might be hoping for. It felt like that conclusion hasn’t yet occurred for Westover in her real life. It was my impression that she wanted the focus of the book to be on the education she strove for and accomplished. And while that accomplishment is huge and interesting to follow, the real drama of the book comes from the interpersonal relationships.
I don’t blame Westover for not laying bare all the inner workings of her family. She puts plenty to the page that I imagine family members are not happy about. If this were a novel it would feel unfinished. Since it is a real person’s life, it is unfinished.
I would be interested to read a sequel to Educated in, say, twenty years. I got the impression that Westover is still processing many of the things that happened to her and the way she was raised; she is still figuring out what her relation is to her family now and who she is. It will be fascinating to see where she ends up.