One of 2018’s most talked about books is Educated by Tara Westover. Westover was raised in an isolated, survivalist family in rural Idaho and did not set foot in a classroom until she was 17. Although nominally homeschooled, as the youngest of a large family, she mostly spent her childhood roaming the mountains. In part to escape an abusive older brother, she crams for the ACT and gets into Brigham Young University. From there, she embarks on a brilliant academic career, eventually getting a PhD. From Cambridge. The power of the story lies in her grappling not only with her past, but with her present: how can she be a part of a family that is so different than who she is now? How can she belong to people who interpret the world and the abuse she suffered so differently?
Educated is often compared to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Indeed, if you enjoyed Educated but have not read The Glass Castle, it’s a good choice. Walls’ family, like Westover’s, is dominated by a larger-than-life father with unconventional ideas. Unlike Westover’s, Walls’ upbringing was not religious, but free spirited, and she was not abused so much as neglected. The latter half of the book, like Educated, is about her finding her place as an adult with such an eccentric family. The movie version, starring Woody Harrelson as the father and Brie Larson as Jeannette, is excellent and very true to the spirit of the book.
For a similarly nuanced story of growing up in religious isolation, I would recommend The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner. Wariner’s beautiful writing belies the horror of the neglect and abuse she suffered growing up in a polygamist community. Like the other two authors, Wariner finds the good in her circumstances and ultimately triumphs. She has a great deal of compassion for her mother, even as she recounts the suffering she experienced. This book is powerful and riveting—you won’t be able to put it down.
Liz Murray’s Breaking Night is also about overcoming a traumatic childhood to triumph academically. Murray grew up in the Bronx with loving but drug-addicted parents. Her story focuses on her survival skills when she was forced to live on the streets of New York at 15. Breaking Night lacks some of the emotional examination of the others, as it emphasizes her will to survive over her angst. If you are looking for a story of the triumph of the human spirit, however, this is a great one.
Many of us are still getting over our childhoods, in one way or another and I think that is the appeal of these memoirs.