Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This is a memoir of what I call the “my childhood was worse than your childhood” sub-genre. In fact, I would say that it’s a standout in this sub-genre, although “worst childhood” is not a contest anyone really wants to enter, much less win. It’s a good book, well-written and entertaining, and should make most people grateful that their parents were not as negligent and abusive as Westover’s parents are depicted in this memoir.
There are two aspects to this: the titular one is about Westover’s self-made education at the age of 16 when she decides to take the ACT and enroll in BYU. It’s a very popular and very common trope in fiction: supremely talented individual, through hard work and natural ability, applies herself and in a short time, soars over people who have been studying their entire lives. It’s not a trope I’m fond of, as I think it happens far more often in fiction than real life. Either the ACT doesn’t accurately measure scholastic aptitude (possible), BYU is not as good a school as it thinks it is (possible), public schooling is not valuable (distressing, but possible), she’s fudging the truth and had actually quite a bit more education than she implies, or Westover is some kind of savant genius. The author points us towards the latter option. She wasn’t really homeschooled, she insists. She knew how to read but that’s it, and everything else she learned in the summer before she took the test. There’s something missing in this part of the story. But for the sake of argument, we’ll just go with “she’s a genius.” Everyone loves a prodigy story, why not? She also implied that she was a miraculously good singer the first time she ever sang, so why not have her a brainiac as well? Maybe she’s just remarkable. It happens. And two of her brothers also went on to get PhDs, so it could be that they were just that desperate to find an escape from their life and had enough OCD to study their way through.
The second aspect of the story, and in my opinion the far more compelling one, is the story of familial abuse. Her culture is a deeply patriarchal one. Her father rules the family, and while her brothers can get away with some growling and snarling at the alpha wolf, it’s not tolerated in women. This is a common situation in a lot of families, especially traditional, religious and/or Mormon ones. A man’s role is to provide for his family, a woman’s place is to be a wife and mother. It’s a call and response almost as familiar as “peace be upon you … and also on you.” Some women manage to reconcile their flavor of Christianity’s notion that a woman is never more than a servant to others with no ambition of her own. Some flavors of Christianity (and Mormonism) lighten up on this, as they lightened up on the polygamy thing (which I’m sure had nothing to do with Utah’s application for statehood.) Her version of Mormonism doesn’t seem to lighten up much on the patriarchy/misogyny thing. Westover touches on her struggles with this concept, that it was hard for her to see herself as an independent and autonomous human being who was also “in the arithmetic of heaven” equal to less than a man. I can imagine how it must have felt to have been raised to believe that you are nothing more than a man’s property/servant (one of many) and then to read Betty Friedan for the first time.
This patriarchy explains partially, but not completely, her parents’ reaction to Westover accusing her brother of abuse. The memoir implies that this is the thing that tore her family apart. Westover’s sister confirmed that their brother Sean was abusive, so Westover, emboldened, asked her parents to address it. Her parents seemed to do the calculus like this: do we side with the violent psychopath, or do we ask the obedient and harmless one to pretend this didn’t happen so that we can all go on as we have been and no one is obligated to change anything? I’ve seen this happen in my own life (not so much in my family, who are extremely kind and wonderful people). If you are the reasonable one, and you are having a conflict with an abrasive asshole, they ask you to be accommodating. Why? Because the other choice is to ask the asshole to stop being an asshole, and no one wants to confront that guy, because he’s powerful and he hurts people. This is like the crux of the #MeToo issue. Someone hurts a woman, and the woman kicks up a fuss, wanting justice (or at least the abuse to stop.) In this sub-cultures’s belief that “a woman is less than a man” a lot of people decide that the solution is to just press on her and punish her until she stops kicking up a fuss, because it’s too hard to get the abuse to stop and justice is messy and involves conflict with a powerful person. They didn’t want to believe that Sean was an abuser, (because then they’d have to admit that they did nothing to stop it) so they tried to force the messenger to be quiet so they could keep pretending everything was fine.
Only Westover didn’t keep quiet. She was unwilling to go back on her word and pretend that lies were truth. She implies that this is the only conflict she had with her family, but I suspect that her going far away to become educated was probably a lot more of an issue than the memoir implies. This was probably the final straw in a lifetime of issues. The childhood Westover depicts involves parents who are so negligent that they crossed back and forth between “we don’t care if our children are killed or seriously injured” to “we are actively trying to seriously injure or kill our children.” Even without the “we don’t believe in doctors” nonsense, they don’t sound like good parents. A father who would force his daughter to use dangerous machinery without any safety precautions even after his son was seriously injured is not a father who would protect his daughter even if it were easy for him to do so. A mother who wouldn’t buck her family’s dislike of hospitals to to treat her daughter’s concussion (even after she knew how she herself had suffered gravely from a brain injury) is not a mother who would do anything to keep her daughter safe. Like anything, not even if it were easy. Really, it’s a miracle that all these kids survived to adulthood, if Westover’s depiction is at all accurate.
So if you like the “my childhood was awful and I overcame it” kind of memoir, this is a very good one. It wasn’t quite as good as The Glass Castle, but it’s better than some others I’ve read but don’t remember as well. I wouldn’t call it uplifting or inspirational. It’s really full of sadness, that she lost her family because she wasn’t willing to be gaslit and abused anymore. It’s sad that she’s been not just estranged, but ostracized by all the people in her family and town who are financially dependent on her parents and who can’t pay the rent unless they agree to whatever lies they’re asked to believe. I do think that there are large pieces of the story missing. Certain things don’t quite piece together in my mind, like how she was able to save money and live in Idaho off of the money she was earning bagging groceries, or how she was able to learn 12 years of education in three months while also holding down an exhausting full-time job. But whatever. It’s an entertaining story and it makes me extra grateful that my parents weren’t religious fundamentalist abusive weirdos.