For me, as I am in the planning stages of writing a story (fiction) based on my experience in a religious, cult-like group during college, I found this book riveting.
On a craft level, Westover makes two very interesting choices. First, she structures each chapter as a short story with its own narrative arc and a strong fermata. In interviews, she describes doing this intentionally—knowing nothing about constructing narrative and having read very little fiction, she gave herself a crash course in it by reading short stories. It was a pragmatic move because she knew she could read many of them in the same time it would take to read only a few novels. But the result is rather too many fermatas that left the ending a little anticlimactic. However, that’s a minor quibble with a book I otherwise devoured.
Second, she is completely unafraid of herself and her past. To write with this level of honesty and awareness about my own past, even fictionalized, would require a lot of self-comfort. I’d have to put my hand over my heart a hundred times every day and say “You did the best you could with how you understood the world,” and I still don’t know if I’d make it through. But Westover is fearless, systematically interrogating herself, her motives, her worldview. The Atlantic review described her as “ tenaciously patient with her ignorance,” and I both agree with that assessment and am in awe of it.
Finally, as a memoirist and a professional historian, Westover chose to use her own memories as well as those of other people. Several times in the course of her book, she relates her own story and then says, “Tyler remembers it differently…” or “My brothers say it happened another way…” and includes their accounts. Time and time again, she interrogates her memories with precision, while still honoring the story she lived, a life she’s learned to understand through years of counseling.
Interestingly, it’s as if her family didn’t read the same book that I did; their reviews of this book mystify me. They say she’s made it all up. They say it’s wildly exaggerated and she’s wrong about most things. Given the narrative we do have from Westover, the denial isn’t the surprising part; the denial is more like the proof in the pudding. What is surprising is this:
(1)On the one hand, they skip over her explanations about variances in family stories and memories. The inclusion of that careful work, along with emails and diaries, all described in-depth, makes their denials sound kind of silly.
(2) But on the other hand, they also relate alternate narratives that would be easy to corroborate with other evidence, and they do not provide that evidence. For example, Westover’s assertion that her father’s burns are a major disfigurement is at odds with her mother’s online (and commercial) account of his recovery with just some normal scarring, yet there are no clear “after” pictures of the man available anywhere.
If my essential oil concoctions had worked that level of miracle, I’d plaster the internet with before and after photos. And these are not people with no media savvy! They run a business that employs nearly everyone in their family and lots of people in their community, a business worth millions of dollars with an extensive online presence.
Something does not add up, and it’s not Tara Westover’s account.
Personal footnote: The story she tells is believable to me as a former evangelical. The physical mangling of bodies isn’t something I’ve ever known—I was never that poor, never worked manual labor, and I’ve never been in a physically abusive situation. But I’ve known these people, eaten at their dining room tables, considered them a little fringe, but good people who love God.
What is recognizable to me is the way her family talks about what’s happening, how they interpret the events around them. For example, when her dad comes to confront her and call her back to the fold, he says “Remember when Luke burned his leg?…That was the Lord’s plan. It was a curriculum. For your mother. So she would be ready for what would happen to me” (303). The notion of suffering as a curriculum to prepare us for the future is painfully familiar and widespread in devout evangelical communities. Flashes of recognition like this example happen throughout the novel so that as I listened to the audio book, I thought, “I’ve heard this before” again and again.