Some things are missing from this book. Important things. And they make the things that are not missing very strange.
Of course, there is a lot in this book, stuff I have not read anywhere else. Ever. About Mormons. Fringe Mormons living in Idaho, rejecting mainstream teaching and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—that’s what church authorities want us to call them now, but until they get a shorter name, like Saints, or L.D. Saints, or something comparable, I’ll have to stick with Mormons.
These are Mormons who did not go to school or visit doctors, never called the police or applied for licenses to drive. They eschewed all such government-run operations. They carved out an existence on their own, storing food, water, and ammunition for the inevitable gun-battle at the end of the age, in the meantime running a junk yard and a home-remedy healing business, the latter of which turned out very, very profitable.
One child out of seven—Tara—tells this story: of isolation that repudiated both American and Mormon culture, of indoctrination into radical end-of-the-world survivalism. The key player is a half-crazy father who dominated the whole family with an explosive mixture of ignorance and enterprise, with irrational devotion to isolation and utter disregard of safety, and with a sure-fire case of mental illness.
But in the mix, somewhere, lots of intelligence and plenty of ingenuity. In the end, this one daughter—Tara—and two brothers got out, left, escaped, and entered mainstream society. And here is the first thing that is missing: an explanation of how these three children (out of seven), raised on utter disdain for secular knowledge, managed to excel at the university and—are you ready—secure PhD degrees! All three of them!
Tara got hers from Cambridge University, for God’s sake, in history!! Does this not reflect, in some direct measure, on the intelligence of mother and father, on some home practices that cultivated in Tara a love of learning and a capacity for curiosity and achievement? But all we get are parents who are peculiar, emotionally paralyzed, and overwhelmingly paranoid.
Here is the second thing missing: sex. There is no sex in the entire book, yet this narrative covers the stretch of life experience during which Tara and her siblings came of age as sexual creatures. O yes, there are sexual overtones to the episodes of sibling violence that punctuate the story, and these are unnerving, even disgusting. But this long and detailed account of how Tara outgrew the limitations of her harrowing childhood under the mountain in Idaho to become a globe-trotting, award-winning scholar of American and Mormon history, living with her boyfriend in all the places of her scholarship, contains not one hint of her own sexual discovery, let alone a description of any—not one—sexual encounter. This is a strange omission.
And third, there is no account of Tara Westover and her religious life. Here and there are almost incidental anecdotes of Tara attending worship or singing in a choir. But no reflection on her own embrace of the faith or her own rejection of the faith. Nothing. And at the end of the book we have no idea of her relationship to the faith of her father and mother or of her efforts to understand her own devotion to God, or Jesus, or Joseph Smith. It is weird, to say the least, given the role that religion played in the dysfunction of her family.
Yet, through it all I was spellbound, turning page after page as quickly as I could, wondering how this tale of wacky survivalists would end. Even with these things—important things—omitted, the book is gripping; the story is unbelievable, and the ending is, yes, incredible (which is another word for unbelievable). I’m not saying I don’t believe what is written; but I am saying I wish she had told the whole story. Perhaps there is another book even now at the printers!
copyright@2019 Dwight A. Moody