Setting: mostly Idaho, some in Cambridge, UK
I read it as a(n): hardback
Source: my own collection
Length: 334 pp
Published by: (pub date)
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Also known as Holy Imposter Syndrome, Batman! This is the memoir of a woman who was raised in Idaho by Mormon extremists who are prepping for the end of the world. She was homeschooled – a term used only in the loosest possible sense because her mother gave up and figured it was good enough if she could read. Westover eventually managed to take her ACT test and get into BYU and from there went on to get her master’s and PhD.
Westover writes a brilliant narrative that sweeps readers along with her. I think most rational people are horrified when they realize just how crazy her childhood was. Her father, super bipolar and generally violent, is on a tear about the government and socialism and conspiracies and God All. The. Time. He was up in arms, literally, when their “neighbors” were invaded by US Marshals. The horror smacks you when you realized he is talking about the people at Ruby Ridge and you think, “Holy fucking shit, THOSE are the kind of people they think are good and normal?” So yeah, an entirely fucked up childhood.
Their father’s, and to an extent their mother’s, paranoia and religious zealotry leads them to refuse to take rational action when people get hurt. I’m not talking scrapes and bruises that they treat at home like any normal parent would. I’m talking “my leg is literally on fire and my skin is melting” or “this piece of farm equipment just cut my arm to the bone and I’m spraying blood everywhere” kind of hurt. Both of these events were depicted in the memoir. Even if you have strong beliefs against the government or whatever, no sane parent would stand by and try to fix these kinds of injuries themselves. But they do. With homeopathic cures. What the fuck? Homeopathy is basically just diluted water and doesn’t do shit. What parent doesn’t have an instinct to protect their children at all costs? I cannot believe they genuinely felt it was better to treat these at home rather than go to a hospital. There was enough uncertainty in others that it must have been something they’d considered doing in the past. So for a mother not to take her seriously injured child to the hospital is simply unforgivable. I don’t care what your religious beliefs are. There is no belief that should carry more weight than taking actual care of your kids.
Somehow, despite this utterly fucked upbringing, Westover figures out she needs an actual education. One of her brothers, Tyler, was always bookish and he left to go to college. She followed in his footsteps, studying for and taking the ACT. She has to take it twice but manages to score high enough to get into BYU. While there, she offends basically everyone when she asks what the Holocaust was in a history class. Everyone thinks she is just being a dick but she is so ignorant thanks to her parents’ “homeschooling” that she had never even heard of it. She makes it a point to learn about it, and many other things, although she starts failing many of her classes because she literally doesn’t know how to study. In an art history class, she looks at the pictures in the text but doesn’t know that “This week’s materials are pages 1-50” means she has to read the words. She manages to turn it around and does well, eventually getting to go on an exchange trip to Cambridge, England. She eventually wins the Cambridge version of the Rhodes Scholarship and gets to do her master’s at Trinity College, Cambridge, for free. The whole time she is in college, whether at BYU or Cambridge, she feels like a fake because she never went to actual school.
Eventually, Westover finally seems to kick her imposter syndrome. I can understand why she would feel that way. By most standards, when she first started attending college, and for quite some time afterward, she was an ignorant hick. She learned and assimilated into normal society and got an awesome education overseas that I am incredibly jealous of. She should be proud of her accomplishments, and she seems to be by the end of the book. Her journey also kind of confirmed for me that ignorance and stupidity are choices and if she can overcome that revolting sort of upbringing and do something awesome with her life, then others in similar situations should be able to do the same. I don’t know if she was able to approach any of her education from a position of privilege considering how poor and uneducated she really was. She had the personal motivation to get where she wanted, which I think is not the same as privilege no matter how it might look at times.
I realize that I do not think of things the same way many others do. For example, I cannot fathom why anyone with a good education like Westover got, who can go and do many things, would continue to make an effort with a family that is so fundamentally opposed to everything she has learned and who has treated her so badly. I’ve always said you get to choose your friends because you can’t choose your family. If I had that kind of family, I genuinely think I would bail the fuck out and never worry about them again. Life is too short to be trapped with family members who hate you or who are diametrically opposed to what you have learned and believe in. I just don’t see the point of trying anymore with people who don’t approve of you or who are violent towards you. Just no.
I typically don’t read memoirs; they just aren’t my cup of tea. I read this one to check off a task on the 2020 Read Harder challenge – to read a memoir by a person from a religious tradition that is different from your own. Considering that I’m atheist, every religion is different from my own. I did enjoy this one quite a lot, though, and think it is great that Westover had the gumption to act on her own behalf and take charge of her own life. I am glad I read it.