This book fairly burst onto the scene recently. And I have to be honest and say that I was not originally that interested in reading it. I had seen comparisons to The Glass Castle, which I had read and enjoyed years ago, but just was not in the mood for. I figured I’d hold onto it in the back of my mind and wait til I was ready…and not be too worried if I never got there. But it seriously kept popping up. It seemed like literally everyone was reading it and loving it and every single review talked about how mid-blowing the story was, how no one could put it down. I confess, my curiosity got the better of me. I added myself to the library waitlist for the audiobook (my preferred method of “reading” nonfiction) and had it in my hands a couple weeks later. And seriously, holy mouth hanging open, Batman, this book was everything everyone was saying and more. Even if you are like me, if you aren’t sure you want to read it now (or ever), ignore all that and give it a go.
“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
I finished this over a week ago, but it’s taken me that long to work up the gumption to write this review. It’s never taken me that long before. I don’t even think I’ve really pulled it together enough yet, internally, but I’m starting to be nervous that I’ll leave something out if I don’t get my feelings down soon. This is nonfiction. It’s the author’s true story about her life and upbringing. But wow, is it the type of nonfiction that makes you say out loud “that cannot possibly be real” (and proves that sometimes reality is crazier than anything one can make up). Basically, Tara’s parents are Mormons, strict ones. Her father is (we learn as the story unfolds) probably bipolar, causing him to be paranoid, have delusions of conspiracy, and be a sort of doomsday-prepper. Her family lived (lives) on a mountaintop in rural Idaho, fairly removed from community and modernity, and she never attended any sort of organized school. That is, not until an older brother (of which there are many) convinces her to study for the ACT and she gets into BYU. That’s right, college classes at BYU as a 17-year-old are her first time in classroom schooling, and really her first experience with any sort of broad range worldview awareness. As she moves through her education, from BYU to Cambridge to Harvard and beyond, we readers watch both her journey of personal growth and discovery and her struggle to compromise her new knowledge/self with her family and old life. The stress of that separation is visceral as Tara recounts her tale…and the conflict of education versus tradition, in her own life and in a larger sense, becomes the focal point of her development.
I’m not really sure that I have the words to tell you how jaw-droppingly shocking the majority of this book it. Seriously, I must have gasped and clapped my hand over my mouth probably 15 different times, for 15 different reasons, while listening. The story of Tara’s life is, in the literal sense, unbelievable. And, though at times I felt almost guilty about this reaction (because this is seriously her life, her family’s life, this is not a fictional story!), it had that “I cannot look away from this train wreck” page-turning quality. From her family’s insistence on not visiting doctors/using modern medicine (even in some of the most horrifying circumstances) to some of the insanely unsafe junkyard/construction practices her father used to the world events Tara had no idea about when starting college (things like The Holocaust) it was, truly, incredible. Then there were other things, like how big her mother got in the essential oil/chakra healing industry or Tara’s singing/acting “career” as a child or the small things she wasn’t prepared for in the “real world” (like needing a blue book for college exams – though honestly, I didn’t know about that either before my first exam, when do they actually tell you about those?), that were fascinating in completely different ways. Perhaps not as horrible or shocking, but still bordering on the unreal.
And then there is the biggest, most difficult storyline, the one running through the entire memoir, of Tara’s struggle to become who she is today. She dealt with so much shaming, physical and emotional trauma, and more at the hands of her family (primarily her father and one brother in particular) that caused her to completely shut down, to disassociate, to remove herself, a number of times. The psychological strain she was under from these abuses was immense, but she had no choice but to find ways to deal with all that alone…and even after she “left” her family, these claws were still in her and she still felt that she was on her own in dealing with it. Her lack of trust and general embarrassment about her past and her experiences was heartbreaking, but easily understandable and empathize-able. And, though many of her specific situations are individual to her, in this particular sense her story is not unique (and to that end, I do want to include a trigger warning for physical and emotional abuse to anyone reading this).
However, through it all, Tara continues to push at the boundaries of the life she was born and raised in. With support first from a brother, intermittently (and inconsistently) from other family members, and later from various professors and mentors, she takes step after step to become what she calls, in the end, “educated.” Her objectiveness in writing this story, her own story, is amazing. Although she tells things like they were, pulling no punches about either the situations (as she sees it looking back – these evaluations of her own behavior/actions were one of my favorite parts) or her reactions to them, she does it all with a lens of clarity that is beyond admirable. It is so clear from her writing how much her family means to her, how much she loves them, and how much she wants more than anything to give them the benefit of the doubt and portray them in as positive a light as she can (and her guilt when she cannot). And you can clearly see how much harder that gets as her story progresses and she learns more, both as far as general knowledge and self-actualization, but she never stops trying. It’s possibly one of the most real and heartrending aspects of this book.
I know, looking back, that my feelings and reactions while reading are not even close to fully captured in this review. This is just one of those improbable tales of courage, persistence, support that is as inspiring as it is unlikely. But it’s also completely authentic – there were no rose-tinted glasses or preposterous accusations here – this is just a plain old “telling it like it was” story of an anything but plain old story. Seriously, this went beyond my expectations in so many ways and I absolutely recommend it.
This was a book that had SO many quotes I wanted to share. Thankfully, since I listened to it, I couldn’t just highlight every time I wanted to. I had to pick the moments to stop the audio and make a voice note on my phone (I listen to audiobooks exclusively while driving…). Anyways, here’s my “limited” list of notable quotes:
“I would never again allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I didn’t understand.”
“Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
“First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”
“Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.”
“The past was a ghost, insubstantial, unaffecting. Only the future had weight.”
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”
“But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”
“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.”