I found Tara Westover's searing memoir, Educated, easier to put down than to forget. Some moments in the story of her childhood years are so horrifying that if the book were a novel, I would have simply thrown in the towel and said "I can't believe this."
Her father is not only unbelievable, he's almost unimaginable--and remember I'm a Calvinist, someone convinced of the actuality of Original Sin. Her father is a Mormon, but his daughter lets that aspect of his faith alone, in part because he could be a believer of any stripe, as long as he was so totally convinced of the imminence of the Day of Judgment. The only surprise, to Mr. Westover, is that the Armageddon didn't happen yesterday, so evident, to him, is the omniscience of evil. His faith pits the entire world against him. He is the only one faithful.
He's a survivalist. Just about everything he does is created by the war he wages against the spirits of the age. What keeps his soul hot is a violent conviction that soon and very soon the Evil One will come after him and his family, the remnant righteous hiding away in the mountains of Idaho. He's a madman with a propensity for violence. Even though he doesn't hit her, what he does to his daughter is abuse.
And she loves him. Or respects him. Or fears him. Or can't escape him. There lies the riveting myster of the story. Buckets of blood are shed in this memoir--Mom, Dad, kids all suffer horrifying injuries from the work Mr. Westover believes is at the core of righteousness, preparation for tomorrow's End Times.
I kept thinking there was going to be a reckoning in this story--there had to be. But there really isn't. Despite her incredible scholarship, Tara Westover could go back home to Idaho any weekend and fall into the same junkyard madness that kept her prisoner for most of her childhood years.
Oddly enough, there's a fairy tale quality to the story too, because who can really believe that a young woman who never spent a day in school (she was home-schooled--sort of, but not really), could pass college entrance exams thinking, for instance, that Europe was a nation? Who could believe she could get into Oxford and to Harvard when she hadn't sat in a classroom until she was 17? She did.
Maybe, just maybe, she did because she was raised the way she was. She may have sworn off her father's violence, his paranoia, even his apocalyptic faith, but kept his ferocity in her fists in a fashion that keeps her, even today, strangely enthralled.
By my reckoning, the old man doesn't get what he's got coming in his daughter's memoir; and neither does his enabling wife, who faithfully and lovingly washes the blood from her children's scars but buckles under to her husband's mad determination that doctors are poison. Life-and-death accidents happen every other chapter in this story, but time and time again the family refuses to call an ambulance.
There are those who claim Tara Westover's father carries the a species of faith/madness that arises more frequently in the LDS mind. After all, ever since Joseph Smith, the idea of a real live messenger from God, someone with a direct line to the Creator of the Universe, has been central to the Mormon faith. The Prophet speaking God's Truth is a fundamental of Mormonism.
I'm no expert. But I do know some things about faith, and what I see in Tara Westover's family is sheer madness, not faith.
I found the book terrifying. There were moments I simply quit reading. But I've not forgotten it.
Some claim that the memoir has deposed the novel as the premiere book-length narrative, in great part because the memoir doesn't allow or expect you to suspend your disbelief. The story is real--that's what she wants you to believe. It's not made up. Tara Westover still has the same father and mother, and they haven't changed. Whatever horrors were hers as a child continue to be hers as an educated adult. The book strongly suggests that even today she's not truly emancipated. “Part of me will always believe that my father’s words ought to be my own,” she writes.
That's more scary than anything else in this very trying story of a young woman's violent life.