Educated by Tara Westover had been on my reading list for quite some time. Now with my second semester of graduate school finishing up I read the memoir within a week. Besides being on both Bill Gates’s and Barack Obama’s night stands it was one of New York Times’s ten best books of 2018.
While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling.
Tara Westover is the youngest of seven children growing up Mormon in a survivalist Idaho family. By the time Tara comes around her mother has almost given up on the notion of homeschooling as the kids are needed in the junkyard by Tara’s dad.
This memoir is about Westover’s journey obtaining an education, going from thinking Europe is a country to receiving a PhD from Cambridge. While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling. For Westover to achieve her educational success is not just to get up to speed with her peers but to face family resistance, abuse and rigorous beliefs. While reading this book I felt Westover was walking a tightrope. She could fall off on either side at any moment.
Scrapping and handling iron and steel, the children find themselves seriously injured on a regular basis. Since the family doesn’t believe in conventional medicine, mother treats the wounds with herbal remedies.
“I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
Tara’s older brother Shawn emotionally and physically abuses her. His manipulative abuse looking similar to that of an abusive partner. Hours later he would apologize, give her a gift or convince her she was the one that had it all wrong. For years Tara convinces herself there was nothing wrong in the way he treats her. She would laugh it off; it was all innocent play. She writes: “I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
I read a short review of this memoir from a reader that said they were a bit frustrated with Westover’s naivete and belief in her parents after she left her family home to study. I didn’t feel the same way. I know how hard it is to rid yourself of childhood beliefs. Even when confronted with new rationale and contradictory evidence it can take a long time for thought patterns to change. Westover was raised in a family that was taught to be self-reliant in an us-vs-them world. The loyalty towards her family must’ve been enormous.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Westover writes: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” Coming myself from a black-and-white background I understand what she means. Westover doesn’t dwell on her Mormon or religious background. Although her father’s survivalist end-of-times beliefs stem from religious fundamentalism, Westover doesn’t blame religion in her memoir but speaks of mental illness. It’s her dad’s strong voice and conviction that silences others. There is no room for growth, no searching of other’s truths.
When Tara finally does see that how her family lived was not congruent with how she wanted to live her life she writes: “although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.” She hadn’t been vaccinated, for example. Fear instilled in us by our parents is nothing to laugh about. Knowing something and living something are two different things.
Westover’s discovery of feminism is one example. In the UK she learns of the theory of feminism. Returning home to Idaho she’s witness to a domestic issue between her brother Shawn and his wife. She isn’t able to apply her newly acquired theory quite yet. She doesn’t advise the wife about women’s rights and standing up for herself. Tara falls back into familiar patriarchal ways. Because that feels safer for her in that moment in that place.
When Westover confronts her parents with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older brother they deny. They try and turn her siblings against her. With some they succeed, with others they don’t. It’s a familiar story. Is it shame that makes the family so desperately want to alter reality for everyone else? They tell people it’s because she isn’t on the righteous path. This is an easy claim. If you’re not a church member any more, you’re an easy mark. Of course it’s you, you’re on the wrong path.
Tara Westover beats many odds to get an education. I find myself in awe of her strength to stand up for herself, questioning everything she was taught and building a successful life in a world she was told to fear.
The scenes in the memoir Joy Unspeakable are so vividly described that at times I laughed out loud while in other moments I was holding back tears.
Joy Hopper’s moving story starts with her adoption into a fundamentalist Pentecostal family. Hopper takes the reader through her childhood and awkward teenage years and into her marriage to a controlling and abusive husband.
How did Joy manage to cope with the restrictive beliefs of her childhood? Moreover, why did she stay in a loveless marriage? Joy says her positive attitude provided her with rose-colored glasses with which she could see and explain the world. In every negative experience was surely a positive lesson God was teaching her.
“As sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
Joy is an engaging writer and infuses her story with humor and a refreshing candor.
As a teenager Joy decides to be baptized and she colorfully describes the experience after being submerged: “I labored off stage, sloshing and leaking and dripping all the way to the exit door, where I had to descend a very narrow flight of wooden stairs. The next thing the congregation heard was a thump, fa-thump, fa-thump, fa-thump fa-thump, fa-thump bang…. Why couldn’t God just send a sweet dove to land on my head to show his favor?”
With her story Joy addresses how fear-inducing techniques are used within a church. In one chapter she describes attending a church camp in which the youth pastor urges the youngsters to get right with the Lord. He continues to tell the kids about a former camper who hadn’t been ready to commit to Jesus and who had died the following day on his way home. “Look around!” he [the youth pastor] continued… “as sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
“I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god"
Being fully indoctrinated Joy wants to live in the faith and avoid hell at all cost. She writes about worrying concerning sins not yet forgiven as well as the imminent rapture. One paragraph that stood out to me was also from her teenage years. She relates how she doesn’t join in regarding a dance exercise at school because of her religion. At the time she feels she needs to stand up for her belief and that separating herself from her classmates is a small price to pay for eternal happiness (rose-colored glasses). She writes “I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god who demanded I feel humiliated and alienated as a test of my allegiance. This is toxic religion at its very core.”
It wasn’t easy to read the writer’s life with her abusive husband and as a reader I wanted to scream “run away!” Joy details through honest story telling why she stayed in the relationship. The book provides a window into the minds of fundamentalist Christian thinking and the reasons why it is difficult to get away from rigid belief systems.
once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel
I highly recommend this memoir to anyone who is curious about fundamentalist Christianity or who grew up in a similar environment. What happened to Joy? Well, once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel into a heap of fibers. And then – you can make it into something else entirely.
My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
Pietje - say Peach-a!