Sunday, September 30, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Random House     2018
335 pages     Memoir

I finished Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated, completely stunned—encouraged and heartbroken all at the same time. This morning the NY Times bestseller list has it listed at #2, and it has been on the bestseller list for 30 weeks. Obviously, it has struck a chord with the book-reading parts of the country. Perhaps it is the writing; perhaps the narrative; perhaps it is because of the controversy it has engendered. I waited to post my feelings about the book until after I had the conversation with my book group on Thursday evening. I wanted to hear what they had to say—women whose opinions I trust implicitly.

Much has been written about this memoir. It is, in brief, the story of a young woman’s understanding of her upbringing in a survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Her mother is a midwife and herbalist; her father runs a scrap yard and builds barns and sheds in the community. Other than church, the seven children in the family had little access or understanding of the outside world, because they were homeschooled. Yet, Tara and two of her brothers were so intellectually motivated that they went on to higher education. Tara, herself, gained a PhD from Cambridge University.
In part, the memoir is a horror story of a child’s memories of all the terrible things that happened—car accidents and work accidents, all of which were treated by herbal therapies and home remedies, and never with a trip to the doctor. Chief among the memories are those of a mentally unstable older brother who physically abused Tara and the other younger siblings.

Yet, Tara persisted. She had (and has) a beautiful singing voice, and had the opportunity to work with the local community theater, something that made her father really proud. She taught herself enough math to pass the college admissions exam, and graduated from Brigham Young University. After time at Cambridge and Harvard, she finished a PhD in history in 2014.

One of my book club members pointed out that Tara continued to return home to her family—over and over—until she realized that the relationship was so very toxic with her parents and her siblings that she could no longer survive if she continued. So, other than keeping in contact with her two PhD brothers and their families, she remains estranged from her family.

Here are some takeaways from the book. One is that a person can be so cloistered within a family and community that she thinks this is what the world is. As an example, it wasn’t until Tara went to college that she had any notion of the holocaust, or basic geography. Additionally, her father’s authoritarianism was so all-consuming and narcissistic, it took a basic class in psychology for Tara to realize that her father might be suffering from schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. When all you read is the Bible or the Book of Mormon, your view of the world is so very limited.

Then, it is apparent that each family member has a selective version of what actually happened within their family dynamic. The fact that Tara’s parents were not able to see her brother’s mental illness and the earnestness by which they defended him and how they couldn’t see how debilitating it was for Tara just made the reader want to scream, “Please help him! Please help her!” Yet, when the book came out, Tara’s other siblings expressed views about their childhood that were quite different from hers. Of course, this is quite common—certainly my siblings have totally different memories about our childhood than I do. The editors very wisely did a great deal of fact checking before the book was released.

A great blog posting on the Sylvan Sanctuary blog summarizes Educated in great depth, but the author also has found the other sibling’s negative comments about the book, and the family’s lawyer has even gotten into the act disputing the way she remembers her life on the mountain. Nothing, however, can take away from the riveting narration and the very skilled writing. It is a book you just can’t put down.

Earlier this summer, I read and wrote about The Gospel of Trees, the memoir of a girl who grew up in a missionary family in Haiti. The two books make great companion pieces about the psychological damage that too much religious fervor can make on a young woman’s soul.

Educated was the PBS book club book for the month of May. Here Tara is singing a favorite hymn on the PBS Newshour. Also the review in New York Times.

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