I am not a huge fan of the confessional genre - I find them largely forgettable and self-indulgent. Every once in a while, though, a memoir comes along that I have to read. This was one of those.
Tara Westover was born on a mountain in Idaho, to an abusive, mentally ill father with a fundamentalist religious mania and a mother who may have had mental health issues of her own, but who at a minimum enabled gross abuses in her home. The author's father is another Randy Weaver type person who, fortunately for him, certainly, did not come to the attention of the authorities. Because there is no excuse for what happened to her and her siblings.
I have little patience with child abuse, even when it is driven by mental illness. Reading this book I was left with two overwhelming feelings - one positive and one negative. I'll start with the negative first. This book exemplifies why children who are homeschooled are so tremendously at risk, and why their communities and yes, the government, must do a better job ensuring that they do not fall through the cracks in our community. It is abominable that a young girl suffered the kind of abuse that this child suffered. She was physically abused by her older brother in truly abhorrent ways - abuse that was enabled by her parents who consistently privileged boys over girls, given their religious beliefs. In addition to that physical abuse, though, she also suffered the emotional abuse of being stripped of her agency, her autonomy and her right to grow as a person.
Her father decided that government schools were indoctrinating children against the Lord. Therefore, she didn't go to school, but nor was she educated at home. Her father decided that doctors were the work of the devil. Therefore, she didn't have access to medical treatment. Taking a course of antibiotics to treat strep throat, once she got free and went away to college, was an exercise in stress and fear. Her entire life was built upon a foundation of abuse and fear. The fact that the state of Idaho let this happen to these kids - and likely thousands of others - is a shame on them.
Now to the positive - as many of you know, I have worked in the field of child abuse prevention and prosecution for more than two decades. I have met hundreds of children who have suffered abuse by parents and other caregivers. Each child copes in his/her own way, but there are kids who, somehow, transcend their experiences. Whose spirit is so amazingly resilient that they seem to lift themselves out of sheer force of will. If, as a community, we could figure out what makes these kids so resilient, perhaps we could reproduce it for other victims. But, so far, we are unable to figure out why some kids thrive in circumstances where most kids fail.
Tara Westover is one of those kids - perhaps the ultimate expression of the power of resilience. What she did for herself, finding a way to get an education, breaking away from a lifetime of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, and leaving that mountainside, both literally and metaphorically, is astonishing. She went thousands of miles by plane, but she might as well have gone to a different planet, and on her journey she lost her family, but found herself.
After finishing it, I found some youtube clips of interviews with her. In one of them she says that to her, education isn't about building a resume, it's about building a person. She built herself.