Doomsday in her own lifetime: a woman turns her back on her paranoid, survivalist family one book at a time, writes Jennifer Platt
Published in the Sunday Times
Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover, Hutchinson, R320
The cover looks like it’s set somewhere in South Africa. A derelict classroom table and chair are the only signs of life in the middle of golden veld overlooked by a blue-tipped mountain. But this is Idaho – a state in the good ol’ USA whose governor CL “Butch” Otter looks like he may have walked straight out of a Dallas episode with a cowboy hat and an aw shucks ma’am smarm. This is also the state that recently rejected a bill to confiscate guns from convicted domestic felons. So your husband, who has been found guilty of abusing you, still has the means to shoot you.
This is the state where, remarkably, Tara Westover, the last child of seven kids, grew up – in a small, mountainous part of it called Buck Peak. Her dad is a full-on anti-government survivalist, her mom a midwife so that they would “be completely off-grid … and she would be able to deliver the grandchildren”.
In the intro, this is what Westover writes: “On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.”
Nor do they go to the doctor or the hospital, even when seriously injured, even when her mother is so badly concussed after a car accident that she has to stay in the darkness of their basement for years, even after her brother Luke suffers third-degree burns so horrific that his flesh melts off. “Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from cheap candles,” writes Westover.
Westover dedicates this book to another brother, Tyler. “Tyler influenced me,” says Westover in a phone interview from what is now her home in Cambridge, England, near the university where she received her PhD. “If it wasn’t for him, I would be still living that life. I can’t even contemplate it.”
Tyler got out. He taught himself and got a high-school diploma. Then he went to college. This was not celebrated in the family. His father says: “A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies.” Their father preaches about the big bad world out there and how the government is waiting to come get them. “I think my father is bipolar and this feeds his paranoia,” says Westover. They each have a go bag – in case the police or FBI comes for them, and they can escape to the mountains. Her father invests in silver coins and keeps them in the basement with his cache of guns.
Now that Tyler has gone off to college, Westover at the age of seven has to step into his place as one of her father’s crew, hauling scrap metal in a junkyard.
Like Tyler, she wants something different for herself. “I wanted to learn. I don’t know when it became something I needed to do, but I just felt it.” Her gateway into the world started with her singing – surprisingly something that her father was proud of and supported.
Then another of her elder brothers comes back into her life after having disappeared for six years. She gives him the pseudonym Shawn in the book. At first he seems like her saviour: he helps her with a neck injury, saves her from falling off a horse, and drives her to her theatre rehearsals in Worm Creek as she prepares to sing in musicals.
But one night, at the age of 15, Westover refuses to fetch a glass of water for Shawn – he loves to give orders, a power play he revels in. He drags her by her hair to the bathroom, forces her head into the toilet and twists her arm until she nearly faints. This is the beginning of many years of abuse.
The memoir takes on a frenzied thriller-like tone. You want nothing more than for Westover to get away. She gratefully does escape for bits of time. Like Tyler, she teaches herself, gets her high-school diploma and for the first time steps into a classroom, at Brigham Young University. In one instance she asks the lecturer for the definition of a word she has never heard before. Surly, the teacher answers, “Thanks for that.” The word is “holocaust”.
She goes back home in the holidays, changed. “I don’t think that education is so much about making a living, it’s about making a person,” she says.
She asks her parents to intervene to get Shawn to stop abusing her, but they deny it ever took place and tell her that she has “false memories of what happened”.
“I had a mental breakdown but with therapy I finally accepted that I was telling the truth,” she writes. And she had her journals, proof that her memories were real. These are largely what she bases her memoir on. Westover and her parents are now estranged.
Asked if she would give her own 15-year-old any advice, Westover is firm that she wouldn’t change anything. “You have to come to a point where you ask yourself tough questions … My book is about how to remain loyal to yourself when you fundamentally change. I hope that it can help other people. That there is no shame of where you come from.” @Jenniferdplatt
- Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
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