March 2019 – Educated by Tara Westover
blog by Cindy Bushey
While we have wide-ranging discussions of the books we’ve read during our Book Club meetings, Zion’s readers rarely articulate how they come to their ratings decisions. With apologies to Justice Potter Stewart, do we simply know a good book when we see it? How do we reconcile disliking one or more characters or finding an author’s premise unbelievable with giving the book a glowing recommendation? Why are we content to abandon critical thinking when we open a memoir? What rubric is the computer in our heads using to reach our decisions of thumbs up or thumbs down? Our March selection, Educated by Tara Westover, caused those questions to come to the forefront.
Ms. Westover’s memoir was named one of the top ten books of 2018 and continues to rank high on the lists of best sellers. It is a story of strength, resilience, wonder, and personal triumph; it is a story of horrific child abuse; it is a story of survivalists and conspiracy theories; it is a story of possible psychotic and bi-polar disorders; it is both all too believable and utterly unbelievable. It is all of these and more, depending on the perspective the reader brings to his/her interaction with the book.
The author was raised on a mountain in Idaho, the youngest of seven children, born into a family heavily influenced by its fundamentalist Mormon faith. Her father strictly ruled the roost, and his word was law on their property. He believed the end times were approaching, and the family stockpiled food and weapons to be ready. Mr. Westover deeply mistrusted the government and any entity he considered governmental, and these feelings hardened after the Ruby Ridge shootout in 1992. This mistrust extended to public schools, and he would eventually forbid his last four children to attend school although the three oldest did go for a while. Mr. Westover ran a salvage business with outdated, unsafe equipment and regularly exposed his children (whom he expected to labor in the business from an early age) to situations that could cause permanent dismemberment or death. He told his children they could learn anything if they tried hard enough, but he never seemed to realize that a basic education and ability to read might be necessary for this.
His wife, a self-taught herbalist, became a midwife at her husband’s insistence by apprenticing with another woman. She continued this occupation after suffering head trauma in a car accident caused by her husband’s inability to listen to common sense. He expected her to cure any illness and treat any wounds with her homemade remedies including head wounds open to the brain and third degree burns, all of which happened to his children due to his actions. It is difficult to read Ms. Westover’s evenhanded descriptions of these gory accidents and injuries. Yet it was a normal part of her very abnormal childhood. Her father’s arrogance, hypocrisy, and absence of parental feelings of protection offended our readers as did her mother’s abdication of her protective and nurturing role.
As the author reached her teens, she determined to educate herself and reached out to an older brother who had managed to escape the mountain and further his education. With his tutelage and her drive, she managed to pass an ACT test and gain admission to Brigham Young University. And here is where our readers’ skepticism kicked into overdrive. If we had not already wondered about the lack of interest from the local school district as to whether the Westover children were being home schooled, if we hadn’t marveled at their grandparents’ decision to not report the lack of schooling to say nothing of suspicions of abuse, we certainly had our antennae raised at someone with no formal schooling making it into a top college with no transcript! Ms. Westover’s absence of social skills, lack of good hygiene practices, and abysmal ignorance of well-known historical happenings (Holocaust, Civil Rights Movement) and common knowledge (not all tests are multiple choice) made her first year hellish. She did manage to find guardian angels to help her with funding her education, getting a scholarship to attend Cambridge and eventually making it into Harvard. As one reader remarked, Ms. Westover was the one in a billion who achieved her goal.
However, our credulity again was challenged when the author, having gotten off the mountain, felt compelled to return! Again and again! Even though every visit to her childhood home resulted in more physical abuse from her one brother to the point of broken ribs, purple bruises, and loss of consciousness! What is wrong with this picture, we asked? Ms. Westover has now seen and experienced the outside world and formed her own opinions. How could anyone in their right mind deliberately open themselves to more abuse? Yet, is this not the classic response of an abused child? This is the one family she knew, and so she returned seeking a different ending. She wanted her parents to love her; unfortunately, her parents refused to believe her assertions. They tried to convince her she was mentally ill and imagining the abuse. Eventually, she severed ties with them, becoming close to an aunt and uncle and maintaining relationships with her older siblings who no longer live on the mountain.
This story is incredible on many levels. Our readers wondered: How can a family that interacts with a town through relatives, church, and dance lessons escape the notice of school authorities? How can grandparents refuse to involve themselves to rescue grandchildren from an abusive situation? How can a mother deliberately turn a blind eye to abuse of her children (indeed, our readers felt angriest with the mother)? Why doesn’t Ms. Westover’s acceptance into BYU ring true? How likely is it that a woman with traumatic brain damage and a finger-clicking method of determining injuries could turn a kitchen herbal potion business into a million dollar company (yes, the Westover herbal oils are still sold)? How does an illiterate young girl manage to learn to read and write and then pen journals? How does she find the courage to defy her father, a man with a Manson-like control over his family, and go directly into college, and then incredibly reach the top of her class? We had no answers and yet. . . our attention was riveted to the story.
The author writes a captivating book replete with suspense and atmosphere. While we were disappointed that her reprehensible father avoided a nasty end and, like the devil in other books, kept coming back, the account was gripping. Parts were repetitive and too long, other parts were intriguing. Reading Ms. Westover’s judgmental assessments of her college roommates (judgments based on her father’s distorted views) and watching her navigate the choppy seas of social intercourse was like seeing a human being set down in the midst of a new civilization and try to find a way to communicate. Certainly, her descriptions of abuse made clear the reasons why society has laws to protect children. Although she took great pains to insist her book was not an indictment of the Mormon faith, details of that religious belief system instigated much discussion among our members. Faith of any kind often demands belief without proof, and we smiled as a reader reminded us of the White Queen from Alice in Wonderland who often believed at least six impossible things before breakfast.
Still, even as we voted, we returned to the question of the believability of this book. Some of our readers remained unconvinced of the truth of the entire story and mentioned other books that have been revealed as hoaxes. The author admits that some details of her recollections do not match those of her siblings. Again, it is a matter of perspective. And, as one reader remarked, if any part or parts were fake, then what was the point? A memoir brings readers into intimate contact with a person’s life. It is our view that Ms. Westover was lucky to survive her upbringing with her sanity and feel that writing this memoir was a catharsis for her. Some of our readers also felt a poignant sadness for her – not just to endure such a journey but for the damage it caused her psyche. We suspect that anyone with her experiences may need expert counseling in order to grow and maintain loving relationships. We sincerely hope she has availed herself of that aid. Educated earned 4 votes of a knuckle and 10 votes of one thumb up from our group. Conflicted though we were, it was a very interesting read.