I’m not sure there’s a better word for this memoir than “harrowing.” So much about Westover’s story was shocking to me, shocking because of the behaviour of her family members, but shocking because this all takes place at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century in a country that we used call “developed.” I know people like this exist but it’s one thing to know they exist and it’s another to read hundreds of pages about their lives.
The first part of the book raises all sorts of questions of where the rights of the parent end and the rights of the child begin. I was raised in a city, went to public school, and my parents never even considered a life like this. Much of what happens to Westover and her siblings would be considered child abuse where I live. Where I live, homeschooling is allowed but you also won’t get a diploma and I imagine that means you will not be accepted into most universities in this country without meeting additional requirements. Impairing your child like that could, conceivably, fit under a much broader idea, of child neglect. But parents believe they have rights to raise their children however they see fit, in what they believe is the child’s best interest, regardless of how that impacts the child and, depending on the issue, I think many people agree (especially in the US). Some of what happens here I think a lot of people would just chalk to bad luck, not neglect or abuse. Not me. But viewing this as abuse raises further questions, such as whether foster care would have been better. Knowing very little about the foster system in Idaho, I have my doubts. Anyway, this first part of the book is incredible in the sense that I have trouble believing it happened.
But Westover is an excellent writer and she does an admirable job of both making us believe this stuff and understand her conflicting emotions about all of it. Though I was very clearly on her side, she does an excellent job of conveying how she was pulled in different directions.
The parts where she is getting formally educated are often just as incredible, with Westover experiencing things I can barely conceive of, given how and where I was raised. What also comes across, at least from this telling, is how lucky she was, how much support she got once she got into the university system. I’m not sure everyone gets this support, so she’s extremely fortunate. (And, given the quality of her writing here, I suspect the world is a little fortunate, too.)
The whole thing is a hard read, regularly shocking and routinely jaw-dropping. I feel so bad for her and her family and I’m happy something like this exists. I hope that it provokes serious conversations for people who have lived liked this. (I doubt it.) We live at basically the best time to be alive in history and Westover’s parents, and others like them, want to raise children and grandchildren in a world in which it’s much harder to survive for, um, reasons. To me, religion sounds a lot like a crutch here. The bizarre luck that her family has later on also just serves to justify everything. It’s very easy to apply the historian’s fallacy to everything and say “We can’t have done anything wrong, look at how successful we are.”
The lack of support for people with mental illnesses is well known but is set in particular relief when it concerns a family like this, inaccessible to healthcare professionals. I imagine that so many of the people who are caught in weird places where they reject some or all of modernity struggle with mental illness and these beliefs are just a manifestation of failure to cope.
Though Westover is rigorous, I can’t help but wonder how much of this is exaggerated. I have no idea if any of it is, but it’s so far from my experience that I can’t help but be a little skeptical. The book has supposedly been fact-checked – though I don’t know how you do that with a memoir about growing up somewhat off the grid – and she goes to pains to explain when there is disagreement about what happened. That latter part feels honest. But still, I at least have to mention it: people lie and when something seems unbelievable it often is. Here’s hoping this is as accurate and truthful as Westover makes it seem.
Provided it is indeed faithful, this is an excellent memoir that will either shock you if you have no experience of this kind of thing – “homeschooling,” trying to raise children outside of society – or likely help you understand it better, if you do have some familiarity.