Tara Westover’s one-of-a-kind memoir is about the shaping of a mind, yet page after page describes the maiming of bodies—not just hers, but the heads, limbs, and torsos of her parents and six siblings, too. The youngest child in a fundamentalist Mormon family living in the foothills of Buck’s Peak, in Idaho, she grew up with a father fanatically determined to protect his family against the “brainwashing” world. Defending his isolated tribe against the physical dangers—literally brain-crushing in some cases—of the survivalist life he imposed was another matter.
Westover, who didn’t set foot in school until she left home in adolescence, toiled at salvaging scrap in his junkyard, awaiting the end days and/or the invading feds her father constantly warned of. Neither came. Nor, amazingly, did death or defeat, despite grisly accidents. Terrified, impaled, set on fire, smashed—the members of this clan learned that pain was the rule, not the exception. But succumbing was not an option, a lesson that ultimately proved liberating for Westover.
In briskly paced prose, she evokes a childhood that completely defined her. Yet it was also, she gradually sensed, deforming her. Baffled, inspired, tenaciously patient with her ignorance, she taught herself enough to take the ACT and enter Brigham Young University at 17. She went on to Cambridge University for a doctorate in history.
For Westover, now turning 32, the mind-opening odyssey is still fresh. So is the soul-wrenching ordeal—she hasn’t seen her parents in years—that isn’t over.