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.
In "Deconstructing My Religion" CBS tells the stories of Ex-Evangelicals: a diverse group of people who left the Evangelical faith of their youth.
Before I watched the special, I had read about it. Mostly positive feedback; people in my community of ex-fundamentalist Christians are happy to see more recognition about the issues we are experiencing in and out of the church when leaving.
I’d read one negative article written by Julia Duin. She called the CBS special a “tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals.” Her main criticism of the show was that the special appeared to be one-sided: only people who’d left the evangelical background were interviewed. I thought she had a point and decided to watch the show with an open mind. After all, I believe in fair and objective journalism.
Watching the special it occurred to me that this show was purely about people leaving the Evangelical church, the why of it and the trauma involved. This didn’t require the views of people still in the Evangelical church, as it wasn’t about the people who stayed. The topic was about deconstruction of religion.
Julia Duin comes across as defensive of Evangelicals. She says she didn’t encounter the purity culture (a movement to pledge in sustaining from sex until marriage) in the ’90s even though she covered religion. That makes one wonder. I lived in The Netherlands, even though purity rings were not a thing in my religious community, the purity mentality was preached in evangelical circles across the nation. Ten years ago, my daughter’s friend in Texas was given a purity ring by her brother.
Duin speaks of the movie “A Thief in the Night,” the ’72 movie about the Rapture that terrified young children. She finds it hard to believe that this movie is still being shown in churches today. Well, you better believe it. If it’s not this movie, there are a whole series of new "Left Behind" movies to show to youth groups.
Duin expresses her judgment when she says of Linda Kay Klein, writer of the memoir ‘Pure’: “More than one-third of the show was her complaining about how her rigid upbringing constrained her ability to sleep around later in life.”
Well, I saw the show, and I can tell everyone that Klein was not speaking of “sleeping around,” but even if she did, that would be her prerogative and it sounds like Duin missed the message here.
Duin has a case of plain envy, which she freely admits to: “Of course I am very envious of how Klein got a free 26-minute book trailer on prime time. Guess it’s who you know (and who you want to attack).”
“As I watched, I kept on wondering: What is the purpose of this show?” Duin asks.
Well, since you’re asking…
Chris Stroop, creator of the Twitter hashtag #EmptyThePews said it well: “Making it easier for others to leave and find community.”
Broadcasts such as these bring to the forefront issues that are still very much present in fundamentalist Christian and Evangelical religious communities. People who leave, do so with difficulty and pain. They pick up their lives, find new communities, but still carry the weight of traumatic messages.
As Julie Ingersoll, PhD. says in the special: “Voices critical of the movement deserve to be heard.”
Stroop, Ingersoll and Blake Chastain, host of the Exvangelical podcast, agree that people who left can be seen as stakeholders as they know the Evangelical movement from the inside out.
Ingersoll points out that we are in a critical point in our nation. Ex-Evangelicals are calling our attention to authoritarian threats and outdated concepts that are problematic to democracy.
What hurts me about Duin’s article is her lack of recognizing the trauma people have experienced in churches and the long-lasting effects thereof.
Linda Kay Klein speaks of PTSD symptoms when she talks about shame and the recovery from purity culture. Duin hears “sleeping around.”
Stroop and Chastain speak of watching Rapture movies. They recall stories of kids coming home from school thinking they were “left behind” when their parents weren’t there.
Duin dismisses this “I find it hard to believe churches were still showing that film two decades later, much less that there were huge swaths of evangelical youth who were harmed by it.”
I get it, Julia Duin, you choose not to see the weekly or daily indoctrination that youth across the nation and world are subjected to. You choose to dismiss the psychological effects this has on developing brains. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
In Fact, a new documentary is in the make. Former Evangelical Pastor Andy Herndon is telling the story of the Exvangelical community in “The eXvangelicals.”
More and more of our stories are coming out. They are stories of how we overcame feelings of shame and guilt. They are stories of how we are finding new communities and are redefining ourselves. They are stories of abuse, trauma and anxiety. They are stories of rejection, of loosing faith and finding faith.
There was a time in my life in which I thought I was alone. I thought no-one could possibly understand my fears. I hardly understood them myself. In the last couple of years, I have come to know a community of people who came from different religious backgrounds. As I opened up to them I noticed the similar fears and traumas we had in common. I can’t express how valuable it’s been to me to have gained an understanding of myself through the greater Exvangelical community.
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.
What does it mean to be no longer ‘One of Us?’ Three people from the strict Hasidic community find out in the new Netflix documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The two directors are also known for the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp.
One of Us was a heart wrenching watch as it follows Luzer, Ari and Etty over a span of three years.
Luzer says that in his new life he has not lost anyone. This leaves me with a sad feeling as he has just related how he left his family behind and comes from a childhood of abuse. Purposely he does not engage in new relationships. He has built a solid wall of protection around him.
Adolescent Ari struggles with addiction and has discovered Wikipedia as a stand-in for a lack of education. His hand rises hesitantly in an evangelical meeting as he searches for a place to belong.
Etty fights for custody for her seven children. It is a losing battle in a world where men rule and where money buys the lawyers who know all the loopholes in the law. Still she finds comfort in faith and the support of other women.
The feeling of belonging and the need for community to hold us up is so strong that leaving can be paralyzing. In the case of the Hasidic community the percentage of people leaving is only two percent. After watching the documentary, it is not hard to understand why.
Ex-Hasidic members gather around a table for a Jewish celebration. Glasses are filled with wine and voices rise in a mournful but beautiful song. I can’t help but be reminded of my own roots and the a cappella singing of the brothers and sisters in the Brethren church. There is beauty and there is sadness. You can never belong again; for you don’t want to – and yet there is an ache.
One of Us - Trailer
Revelations is one of the most studied books within the Open Brethren community (Vergadering v. Gelovigen in The Netherlands). As a child I found it fascinating. It was as intriguing as one could be captivated by psychics and astrology. The last book in the Bible provided a glimpse into the unknown future. Disciple John sounded like he might have eaten magic mushrooms when he spoke of a dragon with 7 heads and a lamb with 7 eyes. However, the Brethren had enthralling explanations regarding these visions.
Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
My dad provided me with a detailed printout of a Biblical timeline from the beginning until the end of times. This included the rapture, the tribulation, judgement day - when all the graves would open and all of humanity would be judged – and the restoration of a new earth. I still see my seven-year-old girl kneeling at the green toy chest, earnestly studying the map. “He will come like a thief in the night,” my mom would say “in the blink of an eye.” One could not rest; I could not afford to miss it. Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
“They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
When you grow up hearing weekly that the world will end in flames, you tend to look for signs. If I were a believer still, I would say the signs are here, mostly thanks to our own doing. The earth is heating up rapidly, methane gas is a ticking time bomb under melting ice caps, people obtain kidney diseases as they work the land in rising temperatures. Now there is a standoff between two power hungry men who have seemingly no regard for the cost of human lives. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth.
I can’t recall the exact year I left religion behind. It was a process, which took years. I’ve called myself spiritual, agnostic and finally, an atheist. The fear remains hidden in parts of my body. I still recall the bible studies and the timeline my father gave me. Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth. This earth, this life, this is the only one we've got. Fire and fury, power and money - these will be the destruction of it. I can only hope that enough people will band together to stop the madness.
Rummaging through twenty-plus years of stuff – trinkets, toys, baby clothes, letters, boxes of photographs, Dutch children's books, heirlooms, diaries – I experience a lifetime of emotions in just a couple of hours; melancholy, joy, sadness, love, relief, shame, silliness and so on.
After years in Seattle my fiancée and I have decided to trade in the green of the Pacific Northwest for the red of the desert of New Mexico. Now we purge. It is an appropriate time to rid myself of all the baggage I’ve been, quite literally, dragging around. Having moved from this continent to that and back again, from house to house; I have unopened boxes from two moves ago.
Then there is the other baggage. We all have some of that. In the past couple of years there have been some life changes. Both my kids left for college, my 20-year marriage ended and I fell in love with a woman. Each of these events are significantly life changing on their own.
Through all of this, or because of it, I discovered something else. While adjusting to my new life and struggling to find my place, I came to realize that the damage done by my Christian upbringing was more far reaching than I had dared to admit. This discovery was a slow process. It was with the help of friends, experts and conferences that I learned how my thinking and processing had been formed early on in my childhood by fundamentalist Christian messages. While I had left religion more than 15 years ago my brain hadn’t changed with it; I still lived and walked through my life with the same fears and judgments.
Why now? I have always loved writing and I have written in the past. Now, while preparing for another garage sale and a huge geographical move I’d like to explore and share my story. It is one of many stories. But no less important. Read with me, learn with me, share with me. If not now, when?
Pietje - say Peach-a!