Monday, May 7, 2018


I've been participating off and on in the PBS and New York Times Book Club, "Now Read This" for 2018, so this weekend I read the selection for May, Tara Westover's memoir, Educated (2018).

Obviously, the title alone appealed to a thinker like me, especially when you add in the fact that Westover came from very humble, working-class roots but went on to attend Harvard and earn at Ph.D. from Cambridge.

That said, Westover's family, which included her parents and six siblings (five brothers and a sister), are very much unlike mine: they are Mormon survivalists.

As a result, Westover did not attend school. In fact, for years, four of the Westover children, including Tara herself, did not have birth certificates.

They were not born in a hospital; they were born at home. Describing her memory of watching the school bus pass without stopping, Westover writes, "When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist" (xiii).

Instead of attending school, Westover describes how she "had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood":
I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected. (xiii-xiv)
Her father taught his children about Ruby Ridge and made them pack army bags (their "head for the hills" bags) with military Ready-to-Eat meals, guns, knives, herbal medicines, and water purifiers,  that always stood nearby, ready in case the family needed to flee at a moment's notice.

Westover's father "bought a machine to manufacture bullets from spent cartridges" (9). He stockpiled military-surplus rifles, "mostly SKSs, their thin silver bayonets folded neatly under their barrels" (9). He insisted that Westover's mother, who was a skilled herbalist, learn to be a midwife.

For most of their lives, Westover and her family refused any form of medical care or hospitalization. This, despite the fact that the family was involved in--not one, but TWO car crashes--numerous on-the-job injuries (Westover, her father, and her siblings hauled scrap metal and worked in the family junkyard and on dangerous construction jobs with only makeshift equipment), and a violent family dynamic.

Westover's memoir is in many ways in keeping with other chronicles of Fundamentalist Mormon life that I've read, including Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven (which I blogged about here) and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (which I blogged about here, while discussing Mikal Gilmore's memoir, Shot Through the Heart).

If you read my December 2013 post, "Heavens," about Krakauer's book, you'll know that I really have serious issues with Fundamentalist Mormons (N.B. Fundamentalist Mormons are distinct from members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The former, unlike the latter, think of everyone--including fellow-Mormons--as sinners doomed to perdition if they do not adhere to strict Fundamentalist beliefs and behaviors.)

So I picked up Educated hoping that Westover's memoir would be about leaving that world behind. And, in many ways, it is.

And yet, in many ways, it is not--and this was the portion of the text that began to get a little tedious for me.

Westover's memoir is interesting and makes for a very good read, and I definitely recommend it.

But it's also challenging to read the story of a young woman who is abused both emotionally and physically, and constantly brainwashed to believe that any act of self-assertion or self-definition or curiosity about the world outside of her family's home marks her as a "whore" and an "instrument of Satan."

The psychological manipulation that Westover endured--both in the form of her father's aggressive indoctrination, her brother's abusive behavior and her mother's passive aggressive denial--made me angry. 

Westover leaves, obviously, but she is also tied to her family in ways that are hard for those of us who did not grow up in such a situation to fathom. I kept wanting her to "just GO."

For much of her memoir, she describes how she continues to return to an environment that she knows is unsafe and to believe in people who prove themselves (time and time again) to be untrustworthy and abusive, simply because they're "family."

The irony, of course, is that she does this precisely because she's "schooled" from birth to believe that only family can really be trusted, and that asking outsiders for help is always wrong and potentially "dangerous."

In short, Westover is young and she struggles to make sense of the world around her--both in her parents home and outside of it-- and there's much to be gained from reading about that.

That said, I also found myself wishing that the process that she openly identifies as becoming "educated" had enabled her to gain more emotional distance from her situation.

As she openly acknowledges, attending a psychology class in college made her aware that her father's behavior seemed indicative of either bipolar disorder or possibly schizophrenia (a diagnosis that she never seems to consider might also apply to her older brother's equally erratic, delusional, and manipulative behavior). Whatever it is about Fundamentalist Mormon faith--the paranoia, the male-domination, the overwrought imagery and belief system, the fundamental premise of spiritual superiority and racial inequality--it seems to attract individuals with mental health issues.

But again, this is easy for someone like me--who stands outside of all of it--to say. As Westover makes clear, it's a very different experience for someone who is raised in this environment and knows no other: who thinks of it as a "normal" or an "expected" aspect of day-to-day life.

I think the ending of Westover's memoir hints at a measure of self-acceptance and this ultimately led me to wonder if perhaps Westover might have waited a bit before writing it. She will be thirty-two this year, and I can't help but wonder whether time will bring her a greater sense of peace and acceptance of the fact that her family's way of life is simply not hers.

And that, unfortunately, that difference is not the kind that allows someone to come and go as she pleases within that world.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."