Advanced Studies in the School of Hard Knocks
|Writer/Family Survivor Tara Westover|
Truth, in this memoir, is definitely stranger than fiction. If this had been written as a novel, you might accuse the author of vast exaggeration. Sometimes, totally beyond belief. And yet, true.
Poignant, fascinating, shocking, and sometimes overwrought, for good reason, this is a story of a young Mormon girl’s coming of age. Not what you expect – oh yes, there is the revisionist ideology, the isolation, the close-knit family of many children. And yes, we see the powerful grip of the patriarchal culture.
However this patriarchy also suffers from the father’s deep psychological disturbance, likely bi-polar disorder, which has been passed on to at least one of the sons, and also suffers from profoundly powerless women, even those who wish to rise above who are inevitably and frequently dragged back down. Few, like Westover, are driven sufficiently to rise again.
However she also appreciates the blessings of rural Idaho. There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.
The family is so off the grid, so paranoid about medicine or institutions of all types, and so removed from community life other than a few co-workers in the family junkyard business, no one seems to care about the seven children, even when horrible accidents threaten their lives. This family is more concerned about preparing for the coming apocalypse and Tara’s mom, a self-taught mid-wife and herbalist, is focuses on canning food and ultimately protecting their hard-won wealth.
…my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there are Lies.
Although taught to read only by the bible, the elder brother finds his way to college, inspiring sister Tara to do the same, but she has to teach herself enough math, writing and basic grammar, and science, to take the ACT, twice, before she is accepted to Brigham Young University. From here, she is blessed with interventions and mentors who help her learn and grow and eventually land at Cambridge University and subsequently earn a PhD in history at Harvard. To do all this, she must detach from her family, the hardest lesson of all.
For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.
You will find yourself cheering for Tara Westover, also cringing at many of her experiences, and reminded once again of the sheer power of knowledge. And storytelling.