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.
Last night we were talking with a group of friends on why people are drawn to religion or cults. I was born into religion and as such didn’t make a conscious and informed decision to join a church, but I do have thoughts on this.
Why do people join groups and clubs of any kind? We understand that a sense of belonging and community is a basic human need. There is the social need to share experiences. So is the need to feel special and being acknowledged. We can grasp that symbolism helps us understand difficult concepts and we hold on to relics in hopes they guide us through hard times.
I want to speak to something else though. As humans evolved through millennia we gained the capability to understand and feel our imminent death. The thought of a limited lifespan scares most of us. We want to create something, leave something behind so we can be remembered for years past our deaths. Moreover, we want to live forever. Death scares us.
Religion says we are more important than other life on this earth; it feeds into the human ego.
Religion feeds into this. Religion promises eternal life in one form or the other, it may be reincarnation, heaven, a different spiritual form. Religion says we are more important than other life on this earth; it feeds into the human ego.
When I was seven, or eight, or nine, I studied a prophetic timeline endlessly, rolling it out on the green wooden toy chest in our living room in Birdaard, The Netherlands. I looked at the past, but also at the future. I was delighted I would be part of the rapture—I had to be, I prayed daily to be saved—so I didn’t have to experience the great tribulation that would hit the earth as God would distance himself further from his creation.
My mother would explain how good it all would be afterwards. A new earth—the old one would’ve been destroyed in wars and by Jesus himself—all animals and people would get along and we wouldn’t miss loved ones. Yes, I did have questions then, many of them: “What about the kids who didn’t believe? What about the people in this and that country whose faith was in other Gods?”
for my life to matter, I needed to live right now, here in this moment on earth.
For me, one of the most difficult things of leaving religion behind was to come to terms with the notion that there just might not be anything beyond death. That dead is just dead, as we see all around us in the natural world. Dust to dust. This explains why I explored paths around spirituality and reincarnation; all fascinating views. I wanted to believe there was more. I wanted to matter. I wanted my life to matter. But for my life to matter, I needed to live right now, here in this moment on earth. I needed to stop focusing on something I had no control over; something that may or not may be, a spiritual life beyond death.
We want to see our loved ones again. That is a reason to believe there is a life beyond this one. I feel compassion around this. But maybe, this is just it. Which is why we really have to make the most out of this life and love the crap out of the ones surrounding us.
A couple of weeks ago, I stood before the Pacific Ocean at the southwest corner of Washington state. “How great Thou art,” was the line I was singing to myself as I felt pure awe for the power I was facing. If I have religion, it is this: The ocean, the birds, the nature surrounding me.
Pietje - say Peach-a!