Thursday, April 05, 2018

Educated, by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (2018) is one of the few memoirs by a writer younger than 30 that I’ve found worth reading.  Her story of growing up as the daughter of an extremist rightwing survivalist Mormon and his subservient wife in the isolated mountains of Idaho is impressive. She writes well and maintains an objectivity that under the circumstances of her life must have been difficult to achieve.  She describes the many cruelties imposed on her and her siblings by her authoritarian father, his coldness and frequent hostility, yet she is also able to acknowledge the fact that he loves her.  She comes to see his behavior as the product of manic depression or of schizophrenia. She accomplishes a similar feat with her brother Shane, whose violence towards her, his wife, and others in her family worsens as she grows older.  She sees him as manic depressive too, but also as a product of brain injury and trauma suffered while working in their father’s junkyard. At times her mother resists her husband’s authority, but almost always in the end she submits to him, even when that means disowning her daughter.  When the mother becomes wealthy and respected as a self-styled midwife and manufacturer of herbal remedies, she becomes her own version of her husband. And even while Westover continues to feel her father’s pull, she asserts her independence and refuses in the end to be subdued.
The attitude with which Westover writes about her family and herself is one of the main attributes of this narrative.  This is not a victim narrative.  Westover remains objective even as she describes her own depressive episodes, her loneliness and confusion. She doesn’t succumb to sentimentality or self-pity.  She’s as able to be clinical about her own experience as she is about her family.  Occasionally, her objectivity and clinical removal might not serve her best purposes.
The main focus of Westover’s memoir is her development as an independent young woman who goes from hardly ever having attended school (her father thinks schools are government brainwashing) to gaining admission to Brigham Young University and then to winning a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she earns a PhD in History. Encouraged and assisted by an older brother, helped along the way with the advice of a maternal grandmother, sometimes assisted by her mother, she becomes interested in the arts, begins to read deeply in philosophy and history, and ultimately emerges as a fully formed intellect.  She does not cast off her family history, but she manages a way of living with it, though when her parents and other family members refuse to acknowledge her brother Shane’s physical abuse, she breaks with them completely.
As the book progresses, especially when she begins her studies at Brigham Young and then at Cambridge, one feels a certain hollowness to her narrative.  We recognize in the quality of her thought and writing, in the books she reports that she is reading, the papers that she writes, the classes she takes, finally in the dissertation she completes, the development of her intellectual self.  But that self, that advanced intellect, isn’t always evident. It’s difficult to connect the dots, to understand and trace the details of her development.  It’s as if she is holding something back, and maybe in a later book she will be more forthcoming. Even as she declares in this book her intellectual independence from her family, one senses that her emotional development is moving more slowly, and that her emotional self is still constrained by her family. Though she might like to reconcile with her family, she will not make the concessions her parents demand.  She will not move backwards. Therein lies the strength of her character.

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