In the category Genres I Like to Read, memoir and horror tie for dead last. (Elizabeth Gilbert is a shameless exhibitionist. Fight me.) However, when a book makes all the “Best of the Year” lists, I feel obligated to give it the old Amazon 1-Click.
In the mountains of Idaho, Tara is the last child of a devout Mormon couple—so devout that their youngest children have no birth certificates, have never been to school, and do not go to the doctor, not even for grievous injury. Righteous Dad works with his hands while loudly spouting conspiracy theories; naturally, he believes the end is nigh. Mom submits to his leadership, mastering the arts of midwifery, homeopathy, and herbalism to keep their family alive in the Days of Abomination. (Neither set of estranged grandparents approve.) The violent and paranoid men in Tara’s family control and abuse their women, even children, in an effort to keep them in God’s good graces.
Her father’s cruel, unbreakable certainty would grind down most anybody:
My father spoke for two hours. He testified that he had beheld angels and demons. He had seen physical manifestations of evil, and had been visited by prophets of old, like Joseph Smith had been in this very grove. His faith was no longer a faith but perfect knowledge.
“You have been taken by Lucifer,” he whispered, his hand on my shoulder. “I could feel it the moment I entered your room.”
There is much manual labor, harsh sexism, disregard for bodily safety, and mockery of all other ways of life. If you are, as I am, from a rural area where good ol’ religion and faith and sweat-of-one’s brow have commingled with the swamp of Fox News, InfoWars, and Trump, much will be familiar. That Tara is isolated and ignorant is not surprising. What shocks is the degree of her deprivation, in this century. In part, it is glorious American freedom that allowed her parents to deny their children basic knowledge and to obligate them to work for the family for the rest of their lives because they literally know nothing else.
The reason that Tara can tell us her story is obvious: Tara left the mountains, multiple times, in multiple ways. Her efforts to educate herself—and the loving support she received—pay splendid dividends. Her not-at-all inevitable success delighted me yet worried me, as each movement toward her own future threatened to amputate her from her family. However, this is not Hillbilly Elegy. Tara does not imagine herself to be smarter or different than her family members. She does them the favor of using pseudonyms. She leaves open the possibility that maybe there can be reconciliation, just not on the terms of her childhood. She acknowledges that her inimitable upbringing gives her a perspective unlike any in academia.
Her writing is so piercing and insightful that I sincerely hope she can pivot away from her origin story (no sequel!) to her next chapter. She fought hard for the chance to fulfill her professional and personal desires, and I want to see what she does with it.
Recommended if you like stories of personal transformation…and can withstand vivid accounts of physical and emotional abuse, horrific accidents, warped ideologies, and secondhand embarrassment.