6/10/19

(I Am Too) Educated (to Believe This Book)

Educated: A Memoir  (2018)
By Tara Westover
Random House, 334 pages.
★★

This review will make me unpopular in some circles. High schools and colleges across America have assigned Tara Westover's blockbuster Educated, which has been touted as proof that the mind can overcome any obstacle. Westover (b. 1986) has become the Jill Ker-Conway (1934-2018) for a new generation. This should stop. Educated is, depending on your slant, either a deeply misunderstood or a distressingly deceptive book.

First let's look at three other books. The Road from Coorain (1989) is Ker-Conway's autobiography of how education took her from an isolated Australian sheep station to Harvard. Kristin Hannah's The Great Alone (2018) is a novel about a girl who grows up in an abusive survivalist home in Alaska. Finally, there is Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried (1990), a semi-autobiographical account of his Vietnam War experiences in which he alters so many details that he too calls his account a work of fiction.

The skinny on Westover's book is that she grew up in isolation like Ker-Conway and endured an abusive survivalist family like that in Hannah's novel. Although Westover had almost no formal education, she studied on the sly, matriculated at Brigham Young University (2008), got a Masters degree from Cambridge University (2009), became a fellow at Harvard (2010), and returned to England for a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge (2014). Remarkable story, yes? If only she had the wisdom to follow O'Brien's lead and admit that hers is more novel than memoir.

To be sure, memoirs differ from autobiographies. The first tend to be linear, meticulously researched, and assume a you-can-look-it-up factual tone. By contrast, memoirs are, as the term suggests, memory pieces that are often episodic and impressionistic. I cannot pretend to know what Ms Westover's experiences were like and how they shaped her memories. I can, however, critique a work that violates physical laws and is deeply flawed within its own logic system.

Westover issued a disclaimer that hers is not a book about Mormonism. Oh, but it is. It's about a sectarian branch toward which mainstream officials turned a blind eye. It's about an institution that aided Westover financially, but whose spiritual counseling failed her physical and emotional needs. It's also a collection of seriously weird beliefs, such as plural marriage in heaven. (Is a Muslim jihadist's dream that 72 virgins await martyrs any more loony than a Mormon man's belief he will rule 10 wives after death?) Patriarchy is a pillar of Mormonism and you cannot read this book critically without admitting this.      

There are similarities between Hannah's novel and Westover's memoir. In both, an iron-willed patriarch rules the roost through psychological terror. Both fathers think the government is out to get them, both convert their homes into compounds, and both prepare their families for an impending black helicopter apocalypse. In each case, minimal contact with the outside world is the stimulus for a change in the narrator's life. But what does it tell us when Hannah’s "novel" is more believable than Westover’s “memoir?”

By any measure Westover's childhood was awful. She was the youngest of 7 and came of age in the shadow of the Bannock Mountains near Clifton, Idaho (population 259). Her parents–whose names are changed to Gene and Faye–divided reality into angels, saints, and sinners. Women were put on earth to bear children, help their husbands, and subordinate desires to male commands. Tara, though theoretically being home schooled, spent most days listening to her father’s apocalyptic sermons, working in his salvage yard, and assisting her midwife mother–a role Gene chose for Faye–concoct homeopathic recipes whose preparations border on the cabalistic.  

Gene is a survivalist obsessed by the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff. He views “the government” as an evil entity in cahoots with the Illuminati. Consequently, children are home-birthed, which is why Tara has no birth certificate, and why Westovers don't go to public school or hospitals. Gene readies his family for the “End Days.” Tara grew up packing survival kits, watching her father bury fuel tanks on the property, and believing the abuse she suffers at the hands of her sadistic brother Shawn is normal.

What is "normal" in such a world? Tara's life was an endless cycle of hard work, violence, denial, unhinged fanaticism, and a dress code the Amish would find excessive. Tara often thought that maybe she deserved to have Shawn choke her and plunge her head into the toilet.

It would be wise to assert that "reality" is elusive in such a context. Those who have grown up with trauma–including this reviewer–would be the first to agree with O'Brien that the lines between what really happened and what it felt like are blurry. Westover describes as factual numerous things that simply could not happen as she tells it. A person (Shawn) does not fall from a platform suspended 12 feet in the air onto rebar and concrete, punch a hole in his skull, and live to tell the tale. Nor does someone accidentally set themselves on fire (Gene), endure the liquefaction of an ear, lips, and upper torso, and get wrapped in salve bandages then live a (semi) functional life. There are numerous incidents in which machines tear out chunks of flesh and car wrecks that leave "brains oozing out," and just get patched up. (Note to Westover: The brain is an organ, not a gelatinous mass. Blood and fluid ooze, but not brains.)

These exaggerations could be forgiven as a small girl's trauma, but they are not labeled as such. Much of the book reads like a histrionic adventure tale in which characters cheat death at every turn, not as metaphors or a child's POV. We quickly surmise that Gene is a bat-shit crazy tyrant, that Faye is a religiously unbalanced enabler, Shawn a sadistic thug, and other family members poisoned by drinking sectarian Kool-aid. Westover changes the names of the book's bad actors, including that of Shawn, her older sister, and various in-laws. She also paraphrases emails, letters, journal entries, and conversations for which she has the actual words. An asterisk directs us to a footnote claiming that she preserved the essence of what was said. Was she being coy, or were these things suggested by the publisher to insulate her from potential lawsuits? Disclosures are warranted. *    

How do you keep them down on the junkyard once they've seen the spires of Cambridge? To my mind, the last parts of the book are among the book's saddest. Despite her academic achievement, Westover repeatedly returns to Idaho, where she tortures herself by falling back into old routines. We recognize early on that the entire community is toxic, yet Tara returns like a moth to the flame. If half of what she says is factually true, the government ought to investigate this malicious Idaho cult.

Westover claims that the disconnect between family and schooling left her with a DuBois-like duality: "At best I was two people, a fractured mind…. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it education." Nice words, but we learn surprisingly little about how she transformed herself. Given that Westover passes off various improbable things as factual, it's a bit late in the game to ask readers to muse upon various meanings of "education."

This book should not be used in classrooms. It is too easy to fall into an uncritical lull and take things at face value. More importantly, Educated has been hailed as triumphant. It's not. Westover left Idaho, but she's still there mentally. It is remarkable that a person with Westover's background made it to Cambridge. But another reading of the book is that Westover needs an intervention–even if a lot of the stuff in the book was as imaginary as Kristin Hannah's novel, or as metaphorical as Tim O'Brien's.

Rob Weir

* None of this worked. Family names have been published and Tara has been sued.




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