Sunday, 19 August 2018

Challenging Intellectual Deprivation and Fundamentalist Ideology in Tara Westover's Educated

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because this memoir clearly shows that a father and a brother unequivocally crossed a line.

Author Tara Westover at her alma mater, Brigham Young University. (Photo: Tes / Russell Sach)

Even before reading Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2018), I guessed from its enthusiastic critical and popular reception that it would be a good book. But I was not prepared for how riveting, insightful and well-written it would turn out to be. Westover's multi-layered memoir narrates an astonishing story that begins with her childhood years on an isolated mountain in Idaho, as the seventh child of fundamentalist parents who subscribed to a set of beliefs that she makes clear are far outside the mainstream of the Mormon religion. Home-schooled in the loosest definition of the term, she received no academic education for the first seventeen years of her life and knew little about the outside world. Her learning consisted of reading the Bible, The Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Yet she did well enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University. That begins the second layer of her memoir, which charts her extraordinary progress in acquiring a formal education that resulted in her achieving a Ph.D. in history. But it is the third layer, which explores the tensions between family and outside life, her sensitivity to the unreliable power of memory, and her difficulty in challenging the patriarchal worldview of her father, that lifts her memoir from a remarkable coming-of-age account to a landmark contribution to that genre. It truly astounds.


Westover's account of her harsh childhood is both harrowing and disturbing. Her father, Gene (a pseudonym), was a survivalist who believed that the apocalypse would inevitably occur and the family had to prepare for the End of Days. He became increasingly paranoid and pathologically distrustful of the state, which he associated with the Illuminati. Tara did not even have a birth certificate until she was eight. Gene terrified his children by frequently recalling the Ruby Ridge incident, misinforming them that a family had been murdered because it refused to send their children to a state school. (Years later Westover learned that the conflict was between the state and a family of white supremacists, and that her father's account of the siege, firefight and aftermath was crudely distorted and had nothing to do with home-schooling.)

Gene owned a scrap yard where his children labored without the benefit of protective safety equipment. Grisly accidents abounded – fingers lost, legs gashed, bodies badly burned and at least one serious concussion – yet he refused to allow any of his injured family members to be sent to the hospital or even visit a doctor because he regarded mainstream medicine as an agent of socialism. An accident, he maintained, was part of the Lord's plan, and it provided "curriculum " for his wife, Faye (also a pseudonym), who worked as both a unlicensed midwife and a herbal healer. Perhaps Gene had legitimate fears about state intrusion because, given his indifference to his family's safety – two serious car accidents also occurred as a result of his truculence – he would not have passed muster on the most minimum legal standard required by the duty of care to ensure the well-being of his family. Nor did her parents protect Tara from the sadistic physical and psychological attacks by Shawn (another pseudonym), one of her brothers, whose already damaged psyche was worsened by a horrific fall in one of the family's countless workplace accidents. Her determination to leave home to get a formal education amounted to a rebellion against her parents’ world, one that was both liberating and accelerated the abuse as the family made every effort to return her to the family fold and her father's control over her.

Tara Westover. (Photo: HarperCollins)

Reviewers have often seized upon Tara's revelation that she had never heard, among other countless examples, of the Holocaust, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. But what I found more valuable was her ability to connect these educational omissions to what she did hear from her family growing up on the mountain. Her father would reveal his own ignorance by claiming that the Jews were responsible for starting World War II, a canard that no one questioned. When she worked in the junkyard and her face got covered with oil, Shawn would laughingly refer to her as "looking like a n****r"; Tara at that time had no awareness that the comment was a deeply pejorative epithet. As she becomes educated about America's racial history, she realizes that, as a result of her family's ignorance and misinformation, "we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others."

While Tara's academic education proceeds with graduate work in history at Cambridge and Harvard, the voices from her past both at university and on vacation visits to her family threaten her psychological and physical well-being. At one point she says that the farther away she was from her father, the louder his voice appeared in her head, telling her that she had sinned by allying herself with the Illuminati and that she must return home and submit herself to her father's control. And Shawn's manipulation and violence against her only got worse both in person and on the phone. When she confronted her parents about his mind games and abusive behaviour, they either denied what she was saying, minimized it as a misunderstanding, or claimed that Shawn had been washed clean of his sins and should be forgiven. I suspect that the parents were able to overlook or condone Shawn's behaviour because he remained in the family fold and that he was a male; whereas Tara, being a woman, must obey God's words and surrender herself to the authority of a man, a gender discrimination that she also encountered beyond her family. Even some of the educated men she met in university would say that women should not be too ambitious. As a result of her parents' unwillingness to take her feelings seriously, her response was to erect defenses denying her feelings and not allow herself to become vulnerable.

The parents' attempt at gaslighting her and their rewriting of family history, and particularly the lack of support given to her by her mother, had for a time the desired effect. Perhaps, Tara mused, she was the problem, her memory of events had deceived her, although she had maintained a journal of her earlier years that confirmed it. It would have been easier for her if she could have accepted her parents' version of events. Even the support of one of her brothers did not completely reassure her as she searched for others to corroborate her memories. (Tara is careful to note the discrepancies between her own recollections and those of supportive relatives.) No wonder that, during this fraught period in her life, her defenses collapsed and she suffered a breakdown, waking from nightmares in the street, screaming, a warning that she should seek professional help.

The Westover family, 1980. (Photo: Getty Images)

During this time, as she attempts to deconstruct her own past, it is worth noting that her academic interest in history led her to do graduate work in historiography, and the nineteenth-century proto-feminists Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, and his classic Subjection of Women, powerfully affected her. Her formal studies were helping to increase her own understanding about the indoctrination she had received. She was further assisted by the support and wisdom she received from scholars she encountered in her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Her emotional and professional progress could not have occurred without it and certainly this memoir would not have been written.

Educated reminds us that education means learning to think for oneself, and in Tara's case it meant "how to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use these truths to create my own mind." This passage sounds encouragingly upbeat but in another sentence she says, "Part of me will always believe my father's words ought to be my own." This ambivalence and the power of her father's voice might explain the reticence in her language when she describes her family. When the Mormon Bishop attempted to counsel her before she made the decision to enroll in university, he referred to the manipulation and violence of her family, but Tara assures us that these were his words, not hers. At this stage of her development, her inability to fully grasp what he is saying is understandable. But later on, after she has gained greater awareness, she never employs stark language when recounting her family's actions. She describes what happened but is careful not to interpret the words and behaviour of members of her family in prose that might be perceived as harshly judgmental. Her brother, Tyler, who escaped from the family control to receive a higher education, did support her with a strongly worded email that challenged his parents. It is significant that he was never ostracized from the family as Tara was. She alludes to her father's bipolar disorder but never his narcissism, grandiosity, and gross negligence.

From what I have written, it might appear that part of her still hoped to be accepted into the family fold or that there would be some form of rapprochement. Yet even before the book's publication, it is clear that she has become irretrievably estranged from some members of her family, and that the parting was deeply painful for her. Even though her language is muted at times, the disclosures about her family in this memoir can only deepen the divide. What is most hopeful is that she contends that she cannot slip back into her old self and deny her feelings and experiences. We can only admire the courage it took to write this testimonial because her trauma is not over.

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