Ali Millar (2022) The Last Days. A memoir of faith, desire and freedom.

Memoirs are made-up stories based on a subjective version of truth. But if you are a Jehovah Witness the only truth worth knowing comes from the Bible. The literal words of God. Ali Millar’s mum was a Jehovah Witness in the same way I was brought up a Roman Catholic. She was brought up in the truth, but she couldn’t keep up the lie.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit coming-of-age drama shone brightly. It illuminated the truth of what it is to be neither one thing, nor another, but to be fully human. Tara Westover’s Educated did for the Mormons what Winterson did for a form of Christianity. I can’t think of  Sikh or Muslim versions of these stories. The Roman Catholic version follows a similar pattern of elderly men gorging themselves on power and money. Women and girls subservient to their male leaders. We’re well-schooled in where that leads. Women’s rights being overturned. Taliban refusing to educate girls. The rejection of Roe v Wade shows the upswing of another right-wing patriarchy under the guise of religious freedom.

The Last Days reminds us that those buried under male ideology real people struggle and suffer. It’s also a reminder that Jehovah Witnesses’ leaders got the date of The Last Days wrong publicly twice. They have their martyrs and not just from the refusal of blood transfusions. Jehovah Witnesses were in Hitler’s Death Camps. They quietly refused to fight and follow.

 Ali Miller didn’t ask to be born into Jehovah Witnesses, in the same way I didn’t ask to be born Catholic. Family and friends indoctrinated us. Crin is an interesting word. A shortened form of crinoline.  Those big gowns women used to wear. A cloth ball gown or force field that set them apart. Crin is also short for endocrine. Feedback loops. Force field that make us who we are. Endocrinology is about emotions. We can’t just shuck off our beliefs especially if they’re ties into a sense of self. Our North Star, all of which we know and love coming from our mum.  

  What that mean for me was Mass on Sunday and some other Holy Days of Obligation and supporting Celtic. We went to a different school from Proddies. We were going to heaven. They were going to get relegated and go to hell. Fuck them.

For Jehovah Witnesses it isn’t that simple. They use the analogy of a burning building. It’s not them or us with a wall running all the way through heaven. They need to try to save us. Even if we don’t want to be saved. Jehovah Witnesses try and save us from ourselves. They need to show their Elders that they tried either by selling the Watchtower magazine, or chapping doors. Even though they shun higher education, choosing jobs were they can devote more time to their real work, they are on the clock for Jehovah. They need to tally up any door they have chapped and how they were received and report back to their Elders. Follow up in potential recruits. Proselytising is part of the package. What they’re selling is certainty in uncertain times.

As a child Ali was scared of the dark but not scared of spiders or creepy crawlies. She had a recurring dream:

‘of war, of Great Tribulations, of clearing the dead from the streets or being one of the dead cleared from the street. I should not be scared of any of these things, but I am scared of them because I don’t have enough faith’.

The structure of her book mirrors her world. Book One: Genesis; Book Two: Exodus; Book Three: Revelations.

The certainty of a child breeds the uncertainty of adolescence. Millar finds certainty in not eating. She wants to disappear. She wants control. She wants to gorge on her newfound sense of self.

Millar matches Janice Galloway in her writing and discovery of boys. Your parents might fuck you up. Boys and later men are happy to help finish the job. She recognises the twisted duplicity of the church and its Elders towards boys’ and girls’ sexuality. She is judged wanting, even after she is married to a fellow Witness and rising star of the Fellowship. The pettiness of wives happy to twist the knife and call her out. Her own judgement of herself is, of course, harshest.

Revelations, of course, uncover feet of clay. The Fellowship is always a test of faith. Ali Millar’s mother can choose to be its church and keep attending meetings at Kingdom Hall. She can choose to visit her daughter and grandchildren. But she cannot do both. Ali Millar is deemed one of the worldly. Outside the Church. Outside of God’s coming Kingdom. Her body will lie on the streets when the great reckoning happens. Her mum chooses the certainty of Kingdom Hall. Ali Millar chooses the uncertainty of real life. That’s one reading of it. What’s yours? Read on.

Tara Westover (2018) Educated.


Tara Westover’s Educated has a tag-line from Barack Obama on the cover, ‘a remarkable memoir’ and in terms of sales I doubt there was a bigger selling book in 2018.  I’m a voracious reader but it’s been a long time since a book kept me up to the wee small hours. I’d nibbled at Educated online, reading the first few pages, before getting the paperback and devouring almost 400 pages in one large gulp.

It’s the kind of book I like, because it’s about people like us. Dirt poor people. That never really had a chance.

And I like books about religion that gives the reader an insider account of what it’s like to be saved or damned. Here we have Jeanette Winterson’s sombre yet joyous debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and middle-class snobbery and sense of entitlement in the vicarage and in the village where her grandparents lived.  Here we have another force of nature with a very simple rule.

‘The whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.’

Tara’s dad ‘Gene’ was Mormon, patriarch of his family of five sons and two daughters of whom Tara was the youngest. Audrey, her sister, was older and most of her brothers seemed like adults to her.

Where the family lives is important for a number of reasons. For the reader it hankers back to a simpler life of living off the land and her mother a herbalist and self-taught midwife adds to that impression of living in the promised land.

Westover’s lyrical prose describes the farmstead with a nostalgic longing.

The range had other mountains, taller more imposing, but Buck’s Peak was the most finely crafted…My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley…All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged piece of Idaho.

For her father seasons are short and long. Before the coming of the snow he’s got to make enough  money to feed his family, keep the homestead running and put enough aside for the End of Days, or the Days of Abomination in Mormon text. It’s a frantic race Gene intends to win.

Tara is nine, or thereabouts, when the memoir begins. She was home-birthed and home-schooled, never seen a doctor or nurse and, until they are issued with a Delayed Certificate of Birth, the state of Idaho and the federal government don’t know she, or her younger siblings, exist.

Home-schooled Tara shows is an exaggeration. The boys worked in the scrapyard outside their window, sorting, cutting and welding scrap metal into sellable chunks and helping their dad in construction. And although Gene was a firm believer in  patriarchy and the division of the sexes, men’ s work and women’s work, Tara, around the age of ten, also found herself in the scrapyard, scrapping, like the boys. Her dad taught her that wearing a hat against the stifling sun slowed her down and gloves made her hands soft. She’d grow callouses and be better off. Metal whizzed by her head and hit her in the stomach. An employee lost a finger and the boys had their scrapes. At an age when parents are running their children to school and sitting parked outside the school gates, Gene is telling Tara to get into a skip of metal and sort it while he tips it, she can jump out. She gets away with a busted and bleeding leg, but she’s alive.

Close calls don’t count. After the Feds raided Waco there is enough military firepower buried around the hills to bring down a helicopter and start a war. A thousand gallon tank of petrol is buried to fuel the vehicles when the End of Days come.

God tested them, of course. When the winter snow came and Gene became almost comatose, her mother said ‘he was like a sunflower’ they piled into the car and across snowy states to visit his mother in the desert and in the sunshine for him to heal. When Gene said they were ‘hitting the road’, he didn’t mean it literally.  But in the snow they hit a utility pole. Nobody, apart from Gene seemed to emerge unhurt from the wreck. Her mother, for example, suffered ‘raccoon eyes’ associated with brain damage, but hospitals were the work of the devil, so she suffered and self-medicated with herbs.

They hit the road again the following year in a snow storm. Gene’s argument that the angels protecting them could fly quicker than the sixty miles per kilometer they were doing on unmarked road flipped to a different story in the end.

Sara escapes, as we know she will, through education –it’s there in the title.  But at what price? She tries to prove to herself her father is bipolar.

In a Virginia Woolf essay she argued that women were constrained by the dominant ideology of womanhood, of being a wife and mother. Par, for the course, here, where Westover recognises in her extensive reading the Mormon practice of polygamy was god’s way of rewarding men by handing out new wives to the righteous like sweeties.

More taboo for Woolf was constraint on women’s bodies, woman having passion. For Woolf this ‘constrained her from telling the truth about [her] own experiences as a body’.

Educated is also a love story to herself, her body, a coming-of-age story. The wolf here is her brother Shawn. When she is a little girl, she is sweet. But when she hits adolescence and thinks about boys and wearing lipstick Shawn treats her like a slut and re-educates her. In a word, he’s a manipulative psychopath and even a Mormon bishop classifies him as such.

There’s a kind of naivety here of the truly desperate. If I do this…If I didn’t do that…I shouldn’t have done this. Shawn knows how that narrative goes. You read about the Shawns of this world in court reports that outline how they beat and murdered their partners for making the wrong kind of stew. For being out late. For talking to another man.

Here Westover hopes her family will take her into the fold if they find out how evil Shawn really is, how he played the same games with Tara’s sister, Audrey and if her father Gene, the great white patriarch, knew, really knew, he would shun Shawn, cast him out of the family and into everlasting damnation. The lies we tell ourselves are often the cruellest. That’s the moral of this epic narrative.

Best seller for good reasons. Beautifully written. Beautifully told and bold, but really, like father, like son. The foolishness of man is here in all its glory.