Friday, March 23, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub Feb 20th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780399590504

It is of endless relief to me that this woman managed an escape from her family, though of course I know how the pain of leaving has scarred her. We all have scars at the end, I want to tell her. It is the ones gotten from life-threatening, abusive behaviors we do not have to accept as normal.

As a memoir, this is simply a brilliant one. Whether or not it is true in all its details is beside the point. Tara herself says there are many different remembrances of conversations and events. She kept a journal that faithfully recorded how she heard things that happened during stressful times in her life. Her version has an internal consistency that is hard to ignore, and since she is the one “coming clean,” as it were, we are inclined to believe her version of events above others. It is also possible to see how a religious mindset could blind one to what actually happened.

Tara Westover lived in a family of anti-government survivalists in northern Idaho. What happened to the children in her family was truly terrible, and exemplifies the definition of delusional in today’s secular society. At a time when our nation has grown to encompass many different religions, races, and ethnicities, Westover’s family, from their perch on a piece of land in northern Idaho, believed in self-reliance and in a single truth, even if it meant sacrifice of the clan. Delusional people sometimes forget that creating a life presents a challenge to one’s set of beliefs, in that each individual comes with free will and a right to life.

Tara recounts instances when her father’s investments in his scrapyard turned out badly, and incomes were strained to the point of breaking but for the ingenuity and generosity of family members determined to help out. But I will have to admit Tara’s descriptions of what her brother and father subjected her to while they were working in the scrapyard nearly blew out my blood pressure. With each sentence she stoked my indignation. At an early age I knew stupidity and exploitation when I saw it, but this could have been because of my own physical and mental weaknesses. Tara lasted longer in that environment because she was so able and strong.

We get very little background on the family before Tara is born. That seems fair: Tara must understand her parents’ story is theirs to tell. Suffice it to say the father may have been an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar. It appears he didn’t believe in public governance, or people coming together with good intent to solve societal wrongs. He believed in his own modified Mormon version of god and gospel and self-reliance. By itself this could almost be ignored except when he subjected his children to his mad imaginings, many of which were dangerous to their health and wellbeing.

Tara never went to school as a youngster, and she was not home-schooled. Like two of her brothers before her, she read enough to pass the state ACT, after which she attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her professors there were very impressed with her ability to think, and did what they could to advance her education by recommending her to attend Cambridge University in England. It must also be said that a bishop in the church there seemed to understand the obstacles Tara’s family presented by being so resistant to the larger world, and tried to help.

Tara’s professors at Cambridge were likewise impressed with her ability to reason and recommended her for a scholarship to Harvard. There she worked toward her Cambridge degree, looking at the constraints and obligations family ties present when considered in the context of the larger society in which we live, but she could only look at nineteenth-century philosophers. The advancements in thinking in twentieth and twenty-first centuries were too diverse and modern for someone of her religious upbringing to consider.

Nowhere do we get a sense of her understanding of race in our country and around the world. Her father may have been isolated out there in Idaho, but in his isolation he developed attitudes dangerously close to fascism. How has Tara developed her attitudes towards people of color after her upbringing would be interesting. But we don't get to that. She has plenty of other things to share, being something like a stranger in a stranger land, and now able to speak the language.

She is an interesting case study. Perhaps her professors thought so, too. Without a doubt she has a fascinating story and is able to tell it well. I listened to the Random House audio of this book, very beautifully read by Julia Whelan. It was involving, but infuriating that any child would have to withstand that kind of thoughtlessness and carelessness on their own behalf. It undoubtedly gave her some kind of strengths, but angst and self-doubt also. I wish her good luck. It is quite a story.

Below please find an interview of Tara Westover with her colleagues at Cambridge where she earned her doctorate.

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