Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

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“There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.”

The above quote is true, in a sense, for all children but more so in certain families. This was one of the most captivating memoirs I have ever read. Ideas can be dangerous, and children are nothing if not always at the mercy of their parents. They are our Gods, they rule the universe until we are able to fully think and decide for ourselves, but how do you do that when you’ve been conditioned? What about being kept out of school, taught to distrust everyone that doesn’t share your parents beliefs? Here is the truth, when your world is small and contained you are so much easier to control, to manipulate. Maybe all parents poison the minds of their children with their ideology, often not meaning too. We can’t be right all the time, and aren’t as progressive as we imagine. Every parent has allowed their prejudices to bleed into their children, well meaning or not- born out of fear or from horrible experience that colored our thoughts and those things can wreak havoc for life on our children, carried well into adulthood. How do we purge the rot and nurture the seeds of good our parents have placed inside of us? As with all of us, Tara Westover spent much of her life sifting through her education, life lessons, religious beliefs, etc. A child of survivalists, believing the end of times is always around the corner, forced to prep endlessly, that the rest of the world is full of sin, forbidden to be seen  or treated by doctors (because God and nature heals, not man) barred from school (because it’s brainwashing) her father is first and foremost a faithful servant of God. Early on he has episodes, everyone must fall in line to his demands, even her mother forced into midwifery and healing. Her brother is brutally abusive, and abuse is something no one really understands until they’ve lived through it. Good, Bad… how do you make that separation with nothing to compare it to? You can only dissect things with what you are aware of, what do you do when it’s been drilled into you that all you can trust is your family, forced to view the entire world as ominous and evil?

Tara, of course has an inborn feeling of right and wrong and an intelligence beyond what is ‘acceptable’ but there is a struggle with religion and the love she feels for her family. While her father has spent his life sure the rest of the world is a threat, out to brainwash godly people he himself is guilty of such. Be it an unamed illness in him or manical faith, a label changes nothing when behavior is enabled and beyond anyone’s control. Yes, any sane person would be horrified by the things she and her siblings were forced to do, things even strong grown men would be hardpressed to take on, and why does she see it through? Because parents are in control, there is no other option, and later to protect others. It does dawn on her that her life is hardscrabble and brutal, and as quoted above, when one of her brothers seeks a different way of life and escapes (which is a mean feat) she finds her own way out.

Being out is a loaded thing too. Chosing anything other than the life her father has mapped out for his children is to be excommunicated! It’s siblings having to chose sides, it’s relying solely on oneself. Tara is one hell of a strong woman, and the madness of it is her parents, in all their outrageous expectations and teachings still are a part of the reason she turned out the way she did. What a thing to chew on! We become, either in spite of or because of, don’t we. We discard what’s been forced upon us, embrace it, or ulter it until the fit is right. Even the most horrific of things we have survived are a part of our evolution, so to speak.

Tara loves her parents, there is no doubt but that doesn’t mean she can’t see their flaws. It’s a miracle anyone survived her father and his ideas, and her mother- because she allowed it, she took part in it. The dizzying moments come when things do turn out, when her parents have success or share a scrap of tenderness, that’s the confusion for her. Surely, if they are right about this than maybe she is the bad one?

I can’t even begin to do justice to this memoir, it’s so hard to review them anyway as you feel like you have someone’s life in your hands, such an over-exaggeration I know, but really, this is a raw account of Tara Westover’s heartbreaking and inspiring struggle to free herself. Do not be fooled by the cover, it isn’t just about education nor off the grid survivalists and religion. I couldn’t put it down, and spent so much time collecting flies with my mouth gaping open in shock. There is a lingering sadness inside of me, even for her brother whom wronged Tara in so many ways, and that is how it is for her.I could write paragraphs about everything I felt and thought along the journey of this memoir, but the best I can do is tell others to read it!  I hope there is another book one day, she is someone you long to check in on, that you’re rooting for. I don’t think I could have found my way as she found hers, it takes courage and something more that so many of us are missing. It’s so much easier to play possum and just accept the devil you know, but I kept hearing ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ and ‘rely on yourself’. She sure did!

Yes, a must read for 2018!

Publication Date: February 20, 2018

Random House

 

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I’m The One Who Got Away: A Memoir by Andrea Jarrell

 

 

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“The first time I saw him on television, I was seven. My mother and I were living in a little apartment near UCLA. During a commercial on Marcus Welby, M.D., she whispered, “It’s Nick.”

A woman is murdered, someone on the periphery of Andrea Jarrell’s life, a woman she kept at a distance because maybe she reminded her too much of her own upbringing with a single mother. A woman ‘other than‘ the mothers she prefers to surround herself with, the ones who know the right way to raise children, who have marriages intact and a natural ease in their mothering. The safe, stable, good solid families not those who are unkempt or harried. With this tragedy and the shocking reality of the abuses she must have suffered, Jarrell’s mind returns to her childhood, raised by a single mother with a dangerously abusive father always lurking in the background of her memory.

Andrea was too young to know how her mother escaped her cruel abusive father, left to rely solely on her mother’s stories from that time. Certainly he is a beautiful man, an actor of some success, friends to celebrities like Frank Sinatra. Her mother couldn’t raise her daughter in a home where the father saw threats to his masculinity, accusing her mother of desiring other men. Abusive, controlling and yet drowning with a seductive magnetism her mother, and most everyone in his path, find irresistible. The years collect, and it’s just the two of them. There are rough times, yet good ones too as Andrea’s mother always planned trips to distant places, like Europe. Each are growing experiences, with men somehow always a threatening presence that no one senses more than women on their own.

Her mother dates, but never seems to keep a long term relationship nor allow her dating to get in the way as sometimes happens with single parents. Andrea’s mother was a hard working woman that wasn’t going to fall apart, nor wait for a man to save them. Just as Andrea is coming into her teen years her father finds his way back to them, luring Andrea into a relationship. She struggles with the confusion of longing for his affection and resenting him. Against her better judgement, knowing he truly doesn’t deserve to be the proud father, she tries to form a bond. Her memories are both her own and versions of her mothers, there are things she begins to love about her father and others she cannot stomach. Falling for her dad is much like a new ‘romance’, the highs and lows, hungry for the fatherly affection she was long denied.

Perplexed by the sudden appearance of her father, and the freedom her mother allows her in finally letting the ‘big bad man’ back into their lives, after doing everything in her power to flee him, it isn’t long before she realizes her mother has an ulterior motive, they both do. Just how much will the story have to change to allow Nick, her father, back into their lives? Can her mother really erase the past, could her father have changed?

While a murder sets off memories of her childhood and the tempest that is her mother and father’s love story, it really isn’t center stage to this memoir. This is a story about a girl who spent the formative years with a single mother, free of the abuses of a controlling husband/father only to have him upend their lives once again. It’s the confusion of how it bled into every decision she made in life, of why she kept certain people at a distance and as an adult does her best to blend in with the ‘normal’ families. It’s returning to the beast you know, against your better judgement, it’s resenting the decisions your parents make, and dreading making the same mistakes as your mother.

There is confusion in how someone who ran so far can just seem to give up and change the past to accommodate returning to your first mistake. I just keep thinking ‘better the devil you know’ maybe that should be the name of a condition. Andrea will finally come to know the real abuser her mother fled, and question whether father truly does know best!

Available today September 5, 2017

She Writes Press

 

Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

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I come from a long line of modest achievers.

This book is delicious, I mean it. It’s comprised of micro-memoirs, some a few paragraphs, others a sentence. Fennelly has so much to say in condensed form. It seems it would require pages of purging to get to the heart of your life, your stories, but this book is evidence to the contrary. I laughed, I related… whether she was telling stories from the time she and her husband were young and ‘dumb with love’ or writing one long sentence to express how tiring motherhood is using a children’s song, Beth Ann Fennelly has nailed the art of micro-memoir!

I kept reading passages to people, it just tickled my brain over and over. I was sad when it ended, I still wanted more. There are hum drum days and more memorable ones. It’s amazing how a few words can hit your heart or your funny bone. I devoured it, but savored the flavor.

Publication Date: October 10, 2017

W.W. Norton & Company

The Best of Us: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard

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“Our life together: What we had imagined. What we got.”

Truer words were never written. It never plays out as we imagine, does it? Joyce Maynard shares with us her own love story, a sort of second life that she didn’t expect nor necessarily think she wanted. In her late fifties Joyce found love in Jim, at an age when people treat women like their ‘off the shelf, finished, done, a husk’ her true love entered. There is a memory she shares from her first marriage, when she was surprised by the many people that showed up to hear her speak  and called home that night only to have her husband tell her “Just don’t come back with a swelled head”, the reader can’t help but feel the crush of it. To be witness to Jim’s arrival in Joyce’s life, submerged in the memories of Jim and the love they shared before his illness reached in like a thief, is a painful journey the author has bravely shared and a gift for any reader. The fight to ‘beat this thing’, to be the special one that can eat the right things, find the perfect treatment… well how can one not hope?

This is one of the most vulnerable memoirs I’ve read. The willingness to share the ‘earthquakes’ in her life, to expose all her wounds for our judgement- I’ve always felt there is a certain bravery in memoir. Maynard shares too the painful decisions she made with her adoptive daughters, and it had me thinking about the knee jerk reactions so many of us (myself included) have about others, famous or not, and their life choices. We have a habit of not thinking about the everyday struggles other’s face, that sometimes what may seem like a ‘Cruella De Vil ‘ move may have been the hardest step someone took and a selfless one at that.

I wonder, as I arrive each year with more disasters behind me, because we are nothing if not imperfect creatures, how we know love so much better in the second half of our lives. Here we are with our war wounds, grounded, maybe a bit defeated by our earlier idealism not just about love but family too that maybe the second half of our lives is the meat. Yes, it’s a given Jim dies at the end, but that isn’t the story. The story is their love, the fragility of time, the pain of hope and the crushing weight of loss. It’s not over for Joyce, and Jim is still with her, he was her guard dog- that sort of love remains forever.

I read that Joyce Maynard, selling her lover JD Salinger’s (yes that Salinger) letters was quoted as saying ‘I’d rather put my children through college than own a box of Salinger’s letters.”  Is that terrible? I have two kids in college at the same time, my lord if only I had a box of letters of my own! Writers are loud mouths, famous or not, we cannot shut up- scribbling furiously, story tellers, observers that must share their experience,  some of us in journals no one ever sees, others publishing their truth, there is something very interesting about this woman! He truth is biting, she doesn’t hide and I admire that.

I sometimes think about those in the spotlight and feel relief I am nobody, free to live my life without the entire world’s opinions about a life they haven’t spent one day in. Memoir is a strip tease, and those of us who are honest know we aren’t all beautiful underneath our clothes, we are flawed and Joyce admit this- even in her love with Jim she shares the ugly truth. There were times she resented the illness, anyone who has ever seen a loved one through sickness knows it’s not beautiful, it’s exhausting for the caretaker too- why is that such a shameful thing to admit?

It’s hard to read, because suffering is so unfair- as if the universe is picking on you and most especially your loved one. Is their final breath relief? Yes and God No! This is such a painful death and love story.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

Mikey and Me: Life with my exceptional sister by Teresa Sullivan

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“As I look back, I realize that I never saw other children like Mikey in public places. Many were in institutions, and perhaps the families who kept them chose not to venture into the outside world.”

Times were different when Teresa was growing up. Inclusion was nothing like it is today, and let’s face it, it could be better now too. This is an intimately painful revelation into what it was like growing up with an exceptional sister, one with severe disabilities. The family was admirable in their efforts to keep their beloved daughter Mikey in the family home as long as they could, but it wasn’t without hardship on each family member. The hardest parts of the book to read involved the abuses that happened to Mikey while she was institutionalized, despite her family’s fight- the reality is the person who can’t speak for what occurs suffers the most and is blamed for the disturbing sickness inside others. We don’t often speak of the difficulty on siblings, because in a sense, Teresa and other children like her are born into care-taking. It’s a grown up responsibility that many adults shirk. The struggle of loving your sibling and resenting them is incredibly heartbreaking. Teresa didn’t have the attention so many children need, and as much as she understood why on a mature level, it absolutely had damaging effects. It’s no one’s fault, the parents certainly tried their hardest, but caring for someone such as Mikey is a never ending job, it requires the family to be constantly on alert, more than two steps ahead. You cannot doubt their love, but it was obviously mentally and physically exhausting. I cannot imagine how much harder in times with less compassion. Back then, it was still somewhat hidden, treated like a shameful issue, families treated to freak show mentality.

How can the reader not be touched by Mikey? What sort of life is it, unable to truly communicate your needs, suffering?  Trying to navigate a world you can’t understand, abused by other patients, and lashing out against those who love you for reasons you truly cannot help. The marriage between Teresa’s parents was beyond strain, the demands of their life didn’t leave time for romance, intimacy any relationship beyond worrying and caring for their daughter. A poignant moment was the fantasy young Teresa had, watching the Helen Keller movie, the hope that maybe she could just teach her in the same way, breach the communication barrier and then the plummeting depression of reality, too much to bear. It’s no wonder that later in life Teresa plummeted herself. Drugs as escape, running away from the calm of home, where no one seemed much invested. A best friend like a sister she wished Mikey could have been later souring, bringing out the worst in her and later- an injury that terrifies her, that brings her  own brain closer to Mikey’s. The terror of losing her own function! This isn’t pretty friends but it is unflinchingly raw!

I think of the courage it takes for such a family, and the horrific reality of how it feels to have to give your child over, a parent’s true nightmare. Mikey kept them bonded and the calm is almost louder than the noise when she is no longer home. How do people keep faith? Where do you find hope when doctors have nothing to offer, when you know more about your child/siblings needs than any facility? For some people, the happy ending never comes, there aren’t any trail blazing medical breakthroughs that save them. This was the truth for Mikey and Teresa. Take heart, Teresa did glimpse happiness in her sister, be it the spinning, or moments of laughter. Never doubt Mikey’s family loved her, but this is a real look into what the family went through, Mikey included, back when no one bothered to understand only stared and judged. You didn’t have the internet to connect easily with other families like yours, nor support. Society just put them away, out of sight, out of mind but this is a family that handled what they were given in life with much grace. Such a sad story.

Publication Date: August 29, 2017

She Writes Press

 

 

We Are All Shipwrecks: A Memoir by Kelly Grey Carlisle

 

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“Who killed her? No one really knew. My grandfather had explained this to me. How had she been killed? I knew that too. She’d been strangled. Why she’d been killed didn’t seem as important, and who could answer that question anyway? Why did people die? They just did. People died all the time. Other questions seemed excessive, nosy- like the people that slowed down to stare at crashes on the 405.”

This memoir is not just simply about the tragic murder of Kelly’s mother Michele Ann Grey, when Kelly was a baby, left behind in a drawer. It is the background noise of a complicated, unique upbringing. Today, it’s not that unusual to encounter children being raised by their grandparents, but decades ago it wasn’t so much the norm. When her grandmother passes away, Kelly ends up under the roof of her grandfather Richard and his much younger wife Marilyn. “Sir Richard, that is.”  Much of the survival funded through a porn store the couple owns, that mustn’t ever be mentioned to others, Kelly was surrounded by content she wasn’t ready for. If early exposure to sexual images aren’t enough to confuse a young girl, moving into a houseboat surrounded by misfits, prostitutes and drug addicts certainly is. With a grandfather that loves his ‘Little Toad’, there is more hidden about her family history than she feels free to uncover. Told for years her mother died in a car crash, she discovers that just isn’t so. Who was her father? Nobody worth mentioning, if you ask her grandfather, just some jailhouse trash, if he even was her father. Her grandfather was a character, some people just are, but those who live with them aren’t always delighted and charmed- sometimes swallowed up in shadow instead.

Her family history is scattered to the winds, half truths- half lies. Why does her grandpa have few pictures of her mother? Why is he so bitter and hateful about her deceased grandmother, Spence? The things he tells are brutal to little ears, from sexual stories and jokes to hateful comments. Bitter with disgust for his ex-wife and her ‘friend’, trying to stain the fond memories she has of both, Kelly is thrown into confusion about love. Seesawing between giving her the best, such as making sure she attends top schools, to exposing her to the worst. Forcing his way of life on his wife and child, his nature wasn’t one to ask for approval before making life changing decisions for everyone. Some call it willfulness, others controlling. Did Spence’s secrets drive her mother to her brutal ending? Could her life choices really have caused her mother Michele to run, or was it Richard’s absence? Is Richard to blame for the way her mother turned out? Just where can Kelly point her finger? Just who did murder her mother, could she have been an early victim of the Hillside Stranglers? Or was she a victim of terrible parents?

Her family is abnormal compared to fellow students. Where they have calm adoring homes, beautiful clothes, popular perky friends, Kelly is stuck feeling frumpy, alien to the youth she should understand. She doesn’t listen to the right music, she is a throwback more invested in old shows and movies than in what’s the hot current trends. Other girls don’t have to care for elderly fathers, nor carry the dark mystery of death deep in their hungry hearts. They are sheltered from the filthy things men do to women, at least for now. They don’t yet have to navigate the world full of deviant acts.

Growing up with missing pieces makes for much struggle. As her grandfather ages, he becomes less the adoring, fun-loving grandpa he once was. Marilyn is the only mother Kelly has ever known, and the pain of watching the once beautiful younger woman become a worn out, faded shadow of her former self because of her grandpa’s demanding, often cruel nature is a difficult reality to stomach. Through the years, becoming more of a caretaker for her grandfather she finds solace in swimming, but must fight the jealousy he feels when anything takes attention away from his needs. Much of Kelly’s existence is wrought with conflicting emotions. Sir Richard is the only father she has known, and he has done the best he could. There was love, there are fond memories that peek out much like the sun in a storm.

Will she make it out of this seedy place, living along the water with unfortunate people, on a boat that is falling into disrepair? Could she rise above the bleak existence her mother knew in her final years? Will she ever know the truth about anything in her life? How can she become a strong woman with her grandfather and Marilyn as the sole examples of love? Can she see beauty with a grandfather that immediately colors the world ugly, suspect of every situation, always thinking with his mind in a gutter? Will she sail off into the unknown and finally find a life for herself? Will the thickness of blood keep her moored where she doesn’t want to be?

This memoir is a painful peeling of many layers. None of us are ‘normal’, we all carry the  weight of unmentionable tragedies. Kelly’s just happens float inside a fog of mystery. A heart-breaking, sometimes funny, fascinating memoir.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

Sourcebooks

 

 

 

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

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“Some deaths, on the other hand were just head-scratches, so strange that they almost defied belief.” 

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read about a coroner. Handled with delicacy and respect for both the living and dead rather than being ‘sensationalism’, Bateson tells the real story of what such a career entails. Without a question, much skill and intelligence is required in solving such mysteries, working in reverse to uncover the truth. But also, a lot of humanity. Ken Holmes worked as both death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California. With a three term career elected as coroner, Holmes had seen everything about death. From murders, suicides, drugs, and auto-eroticism each case had it’s own unique challenges. Controlling scenes are a little thought of task, not just the gawkers, but the dangerous neighborhoods where anyone in ‘authority’ are not welcome. The terrible reality of suicides off the infamous golden gate bridge and why where a body ends up can change the entire direction of solving what happened, a sometimes sad fact. Suicide is not romanticized anymore than any other death in this work, unlike what we read in our fiction or see on television.

Not having all the clues come together can cause years of heartache for family and friends, particularly when someone disappears and their body ends up elsewhere, unidentified as happens in a case, found in the chapter titled The German Tourist. Ken Holmes’ dedication is evident in each case he handled, and his humanity too as the deceased and their survivors have remained in his heart and mind. It is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking career, and thank God for people that are able to put aside their natural reactions (such as fear, repulsion) and uncover clues creating a semblance of order in finding the truth of what happened.

It takes courage and strength to go against authority, and just as much to speak to family members weighted down by not just grief but suspicion, distrust and anger. Going with your gut isn’t always popular but vital!  Sometimes the answers are years in coming, but always remained fresh in Holmes’ mind. This is an engaging book dissecting Ken Homes’ fascinating long career. For a brief time the reader feels the weight of sorrow that follows Holmes but too the hope that he can at least provide answers for those left behind, as well as shed light birthing truth for victims that can no longer speak for themselves. Is there ever really closure? Of course not, but we need to know why death came and what is to blame, be it natural causes or death at another’s hand. We need to know the identity of the dead, because there is someone somewhere wondering what has happened to their loved one.

This is an engaging work, and I didn’t feel like I was reading something tawdry nor gory. Do horrific things happen? Absolutely, but it’s not about the carnage, there is a lot to understand and learn. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t and won’t go into a detailed account of any of the true stories within, because this book won’t be out until August and also they need to be handled with delicacy and author John Bateson does a fine job all on his own.

Yes, read it! Fascinating, heart-breaking, moving and beautifully written.

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Scribner