Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Highly Recommended: Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover's Educated (affiliate link) is an extraordinary book. Immediately upon finishing it late one night last week, I was absolutely desperate to talk about it and the larger conversation surrounding it, including certain public responses from some of her family members. I was determined to convince as many of my friends as possible to read it so that they could discuss and dissect it with me and share in the emotionally harrowing experience of reading it.

Looking at the timeline, Westover must have started writing shortly (certainly within a year or so at most) after the last of some difficult and traumatizing events, only the latest in a long string of highly dysfunctional things that happened in her family. She has a talent for vivid, visceral writing, taking us back to what she felt as a child and then a young adult who'd spent her entire life believing certain things, only to discover, much later on and through great effort, that many of them were not true. She witnesses so many dangerous situations and injuries, both her own and suffered by several people in her family. There were so many times when I was scared that someone was going to die because of her parents' negligence and recurring refusal to involve medical professionals, though that never turned out to be the case. Quite frankly, that may be a near miracle, as her father had a habit of encouraging his children to do construction work or operate heavy machinery without training or observing safety requirements.

In part because of how little time appears to have elapsed since many of the events in the book, Westover's story sometimes feels like one that is very much "still in progress", one in which many of the people involved (Westover herself included) may still be in the process of trying to understand and deal with things. (This long-form essay is a fairly good take on this issue, I thought.) Reading Educated was a frustrating experience sometimes, both Westover and certain people in her family make decisions that seem so likely to turn out badly.

It's the first time I've ever been so desperate to talk about a book right away. It's also the first time that, though the text itself was not too dense for me to read as an ebook, I still wanted to eventually buy a hard copy, so that I could go back to it and potentially get more out of it that way. 

To me, this book contains multitudes. On the one hand, it is what it first appears to be marketed as, a story about growing up with a father who identified as a "Mormon survivalist". (Some skeptics on Goodreads and Amazon say, essentially, that her family wasn't fundamentalist Mormon enough or off-the-grid survivalist enough for them to believe her story, or to think it "special". I think that's generally a wrongheaded view.) Yet, as Tara herself takes pains to note, both in the book itself and in any interview where the topic comes up, any critiques in the book are not about the church. Neither the church, nor even her father's anti-government (she didn't have a birth certificate until she was nine), anti-medical establishment, and survivalist tendencies (and there was a lot of all of those things going on in ways that could and did cause harm to his children) fully account for all that happens. President Obama's brief but glowing recommendation of Educated captures something important and remarkable about all this, Westover writes with an almost impossible empathy and love for a complicated (to say the least) father and family, and their complicated world.

The primary theme, and how Westover characterizes the book in interviews, is that it is about how an education, broadly defined (and including aspects of an informal education that she credits her parents with), made her who she is and helped her ultimately break free of what was abusive and dysfunctional in her upbringing. It also allowed her to accomplish some truly extraordinary things: She had no formal schooling (nor any kind of regular homeschooling with any kind of  consistent schedule) until, at around age 17, she was able to score a 28 on the ACT and matriculate at Brigham Young University. (As she recalls, she initially didn't know how to go to school, what reading assignments in a syllabus meant, how to take exams, what the Holocaust was, and what the Civil Rights Movement was.) It was a long and hard-fought process, to eventually win a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge and earn a history PhD. 

Inevitably, Educated does, like any memoir about something both controversial and quite recent (and involving people who are very much alive, who use computers and the internet, and have their own fresh memories of the events depicted), implicate questions about memory and the sometimes different perceptions of past trauma by other people who were there to witness it, or who participated in it.* To that extent, I find it to be an extremely timely book.

Please follow the link below if you're interested in reading the rest of my many, many thoughts on this book.

Her parents' response, made through their attorney, is pretty easy to reject. It huffs and puffs with a general protest at being "malign[ed]" for, among other things, the quality of their "homeschooling", but doesn't offer any kind of concrete detail that could clearly and directly refute what is described in Educated. They reject being labeled as Mormon fundamentalists, which apparently requires a belief in polygamy, but Westover's book doesn't really allege that. The full letter or statement at issue does not appear to be in the public record. I take it the same way as certain representations by a now-SCOTUS Justice. It's a lot of bluster, but contains no facts directly refuting what it purports to refute. 

"Tyler"**, a brother that Westover is not estranged from, who was ultimately one of the "good guys" (to the extent that there are any) and who was also able to "escape" some of the family influences by, like Westover, getting a PhD, once posted an Amazon review that some interpreted as rejecting things in the book as untrue. "Tyler" deleted the review, but it was reproduced in a Goodreads discussion. On a reading of his review that takes into account the entirety of Westover's book, I don't think any of the details that "Tyler" presented require us to doubt her story in any real way.

Many of his details are, in fact, quite consistent with her account. For instance, he questions whether the odds against Westover's getting a university education were "insurmountable", but I don't think she characterizes it that way. (Her publishers or people reviewing her book may have.) She says herself that her parents emphasized self-sufficiency and self-driven learning, and even the idea that anyone can learn to do anything without formal schooling (including treat serious burns and injuries at home with essential oils or herbal salves, or do construction work without full compliance with legally mandated safety standards). I think she gives them too much credit, but maybe that's harsh of me. Their father sometimes tried to obstruct her pursuit of formal schooling, yet also paid some of her  undergraduate tuition at one point. People and families are complicated and sometimes do seemingly contradictory things. It's not some radical notion that parents can treat each of their children differently, or that different children can interpret the same lessons or treatment from their parents differently.

Westover and "Tyler" do present contradictory interpretations about whether their father encouraged or discouraged "Tyler" in his college and graduate school studies, but "Tyler" was also not physically present in the household for long periods of time (sometimes because he was at school). This also does not appear to be a family where Westover would generally have been privy to any conversations between "Tyler" and their father, or learned about such conversations later. Frankly, a deep and virulent sexism appears to have been one of the worst features of their upbringing, possibly in a way that only Westover or her sister would have seen directly, so it wouldn't actually be a surprise that their parents treated "Tyler's" education very differently from Westover's.

I have so, so many thoughts on this book. Among other things, it appeals to the same part of my brain that is secretly a bit obsessed with people like the Duggars, or the kinds of people who appear to believe, er, that essential oils can cure cancer***, or things like that. Among the many other "truth is stranger than fiction" aspects of this story is that, while Westover was studying at Brigham Young, her mother's work with essential oils and herbal salves seemed to quite suddenly (as far as Westover was concerned, given that she was living in another state) take the shape of what may be a million dollar a year (or more) business with as many as thirty or more employees. A simple Google Earth search reveals that the company has a massive building. 

*Another recent work that touches on this question, in a far more direct way, is the Laura Dern movie The Tale, available on HBO. That film is more about how a person's perceptions of their own memory change over time - the movie is fictional, but based on the director's childhood experiences - as opposed to the different perceptions that different people can have of the same events, but both kinds of different or changing perspectives are at issue in Educated. The types of abuse that are depicted in these two works are, however, very different. 

**I refer to him as "Tyler" because I'm not sure there is direct proof that "Tyler" is the actual Tyler Westover, it was only ever an Amazon user that purported to be Tyler, and I don't think he's made another statement on the public record to corroborate that it was, in fact, him. Nor has anyone else come out to corroborate that it was actually him in any source that's currently easy to find. 

*** It should be noted that her mother and family do generally appear to be the type that are willing to go to the hospital when necessary, though their standard of what is "necessary" is also not a common one.

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