Rightfully appearing in a number of ‘best of the year’ books, Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Not only is it an excellent memoir in terms of its plot (which reads a bit like Dickens), it’s also a manual for starting afresh and healing when your past is full of horrors. I’ll focus, first on the plot arc element as that frames the more important “how to survive the trauma of severed ties” discussion that comes second.
Life Off the Grid
Growing up in rural isolation in Idaho on the property of a religiously devout Mormon extremist father, Westover’s father runs his family with an iron fist under the blessing and commandment of the Bible. Medicine and government interference are eschewed so the children rarely had education, sufficient clothing, or documentation. Their illnesses are cured by faith or the faith-healing tinctures and remedies prepared by their mother. While, at first, this “lifestyle” seems quirky and strange, set among the beautifully described mountains and valleys of Idaho, we adults feel a dangerous dread in the child’s narration of her life there. We feel her tap dancing in a mine-field as her exposure to guns, rusty wires, unbroken horses and the unforgiving terrain taunt and tickle the high-wire act of her life.
The casual horrors proceed as a parade of negligence. Children ignite themselves, the homestead is menaced by a raging forest fire, Y2K preparedness drills close out 1999, two near-fatal car accidents toss children into frozen snow, security from socialists is guaranteed by 50 calibre weapons.
Amidst a fatalism and looming death-cult aura, I was wincing with every sentence for fear of the children’s safety. Tara’s father, whom she refuses to diagnose but whom she suggests might suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, takes each near-miss as proof that living aligned to his interpretation of the Mormon way will be rewarded. In his persistent post hoc reasoning: his child’s flesh-melting burns are preparation for handling his own seared flesh.
Against odds, Tara survives even as her father’s fervor and conviction deepens. But in this moment of her blossoming womanhood, and increasing ability to get away from her father’s casual negligence, her elder brother turns violent and does so with a detachment that is truly nightmarish.
His justification finds its language in their family’s shared religious context, but suggests a love of violence, pain, power, humiliation, and manipulation. Through a series of toxic vignettes we see this brother hurt and humiliate women. He calls his sister “whore” and “immodest” and couches his violent acts upon her as “for her own good.” Having stood next to domestic violence, I watched every interaction between them wondering whether this one is the one that puts her in the hospital…or the grave.
Amazingly, she manages to set a foot into BYU. She learns to study, learns to socialize, and starts to learn how to exist within the “Gentile” world. As her distance from home grows vaster and vaster, she starts dealing with the trauma of recognizing what in her history was real. Was she a whore? Was she immodest? Did she hate her family? Her meditations are thick with the tropes of the battered and brainwashed and even as she hates living under fear of immanent death, she’s also loath to give up the only world she’s ever known, her family.
Obviously, Westover survives and manages to write this book. But, for me, I saw in this book a lesson on how to survive and how to live with the shame and humiliation that comes with having been held in thrall to powerful bullies.
I’ve met several individuals who’ve been force to sever ties with their family. They often share a belief that if they get better, they can help get everyone “back there” better too. But that’s not the case. Stockholm Syndrome is catching and it is communicable. Ultimately Westover manages to achieve the height of academic achievements (a PhD.!), but at that zenith she’s also called upon to give up her immoral ways and return to the previous life, the parallel universe.
Having seen the terror of her native environment, we realize how she must have invented mental gymnastics to endure it. Having realized its malignancy, she shares with us the surprise skin rashes, the nightmares, etc. of unwinding those contortions. She experiences profound depression, almost torpedoes her academic career, questions her very sanity as reality versus reality-as-I-need-to-remember-it do battle. She feels shame, horror, hope, and despair in a thoroughly honest account. For anyone surviving the trauma of disownment / dissociation, I think this might be a helpful book.
This is the story of a survivor. She has my utmost respect.