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.
My grandma died on Christmas day. Lunch time. A choir sang Christmas carols in the hospital cafe downstairs as her last breath escaped her tired body.
I wasn’t there: I was only six years old. That night in the dark, my mother knelt at my bed. She told me my grandma had gone home to be with grandpa who’d preceded her only four months prior. For two weeks my mom had sat and slept at her mother’s side in the decorated hospital. She’d prayed for her mom to stay and finally let her go.
“I’m an orphan now,” my mom would often say. It was something I’d never really understood until much later. How could my mom, a strong grown-up, be an orphan?
She dreaded the month of December, every year. Hearing Christmas songs made her tear up.
But still, a Christmas tree would appear. We’d have candles, a meal, a celebration with church and school, a book to read.
I tried to fool myself, but that only works for so long.
I think about this now. A season, an anniversary date, a song can cause such a sudden and overwhelming emotion that it can halt your breath. Losing someone during the holidays and then being reminded of it every year as you watch stores being decorated, hear songs played on the radio, must be especially gut wrenching. No wonder my mom dreaded Christmas season.
I didn’t think I was sentimental about dates nor the holidays, until recently. I tried to fool myself, but that only works for so long.
Years of having celebrated Christmas with the kids as a family produced warm fuzzy memories for me. As a mom I shaped a family tradition. Arriving as an immigrant to America without any family nor support, I felt it important to create traditions; you become dependent upon one another. I knew this would change as my kids grew into adulthood, went to college and moved away, yet I didn’t anticipate the effects this would have on me internally. I have always shrugged emotions off: I’m down to earth, I’m not bound to traditions, I’m an atheist.
I didn’t want to buy in to it: the commercialization, the designated date of family celebration.
Watching TV this Christmas Day and overhearing my girlfriend say her sister was spending time with her ex-husband’s family and their children I suddenly started crying. Just a comment. That was all it took. I had been feeling it of course - the absence of my children, the laughter, playing games together, the silliness. Yet, I didn’t want to buy in to it: the commercialization, the designated date of family celebration. Easier said than done when scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, watching TV commercials and all you see are “happy” family get-togethers.
Holidays are hard for different people for different reasons. These last weeks I’ve heard from people who can’t go home as their families don’t accept their sexuality, their partner, their religion or other life choices. Some can’t afford to visit family. Others lost family.
The Hallmark movies aren’t real life. The Instagram photos showcase the best sides of families. Facebook pictures let you see what people want you to see. This much I know.
Just - reach out to others, especially now.
Pietje - say Peach-a!