Educated by Tara Westover


by Tara Westover

I hadn’t planned on reading this book, mainly because I have a weird aversion sometimes to anything that gets a lot of hype, and this one has been sweeping best seller lists and social media for a while.  I also read enough about the book to know that it had to do with a woman who was “homeschooled,” and not in a good way, and being a homeschooling parent myself, I’m a little weary of all the stories out there about bad things that happen in homeschooling families that are misguidedly blamed on homeschooling itself.  In any case, I ended up reading it because it was chosen by my book club for this month.

So, if you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about Educated, it’s a memoir about the author’s experience growing up in rural Idaho with parents who are fundamentalist Mormons, survivalists waiting for what they believe are the End Days, and not a little off their rockers.  Westover believes that her father is bi-polar, and perhaps even paranoid schizophrenic, though, because he is utterly anti-medical establishment, he’s never been diagnosed as anything.  Either of those diagnoses seem plausible, and it’s hard to say about Westover’s mother, who seems more manipulative than anything else.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children, and she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old, when she decided she wanted to go to college despite her complete lack of even a hint of formal education.  To say that she was homeschooled is misstating the reality that she was mostly neglected (and abused, both physically and emotionally).  She did know how to read, but the only books she was exposed to growing up were the bible, the Book of Mormon, and an old history book her father had in the house that described slavery as a terrible institution – for the slave owners.

Her father owned a junkyard and made his living selling scrap from the junkyard, and doing construction.  His goal was for his family to become completely self-sufficient for when The End came; the family stockpiled home canned food, ammunition, and even had massive amounts of gasoline buried on their property.  The kids had “head for the hills bags” which were at the ready for when The End came, which would be prefaced with an attack by government officials (this vision had to do with the real life events at Ruby Ridge, which Westover’s father somehow twisted in his mind in a way that somehow had to do with them).  Westover’s mother worked as a midwife/healer.  She made her own salves, tinctures, oils, and homeopathic medicines that the family relied on for income and for their own medical needs – including terrible injuries that resulted from car accidents, junkyard accidents, fires, and explosions.  The children were expected – no, forced – to help with the junkyard and construction businesses, as well as making medicines.

Westover’s upbringing was filled with violence.  Her father repeatedly exposed the family to horribly dangerous situations which he justified with his faith in the Lord, and Westover’s older brother was especially violent and physically and emotionally abusive.

When Westover was 16, she decided she wanted to go to college so she could learn about music – perhaps be a church music director at some point.  Her desire to get a formal education created a wedge between her and her parents who were adamantly against formal education and believed school to be a favorite haunt of the devil, but Westover made up her mind to teach herself enough algebra and grammar to pass a college entrance exam and be accepted to BYU when she was 17.  From there, she ultimately won a scholarship to Cambridge and attended Harvard where she earned a Ph.D.  It was during her time at Harvard that she became estranged from her parents and most of her siblings – not because she pursued formal education (which ultimately led to her examination and rejection of the religious beliefs she had been raised with), but because she reached out to her parents about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her older brother, and her parents rejected her version of events.  In interviews, Westover has referred to it as being gaslighted by her parents.

Purely as a piece of writing, Educated is very well written.  It’s thoughtful and articulate and deep.  It’s a good book, and a good story.  At times I felt that it was a bit repetitive and long, but still, a very good book.

I relate to the author quite a bit.  While I didn’t grow up with fanatical religious parents, I did grow up in a very toxic environment that ultimately led to my estrangement from my family, which has gone on for almost 20 years now.  So I very much relate to the damage one suffers as a result of being a vulnerable child at the mercy of violent, abusive bigger people, and I very much relate to the feelings of loss one carries around because of family estrangement.

I did find myself feeling a little frustrated, and even disdainful, at Westover’s willingness to keep going back for more abuse from her family, and also her generosity towards her parents in expressing her belief that they are good people, that they loved their children and did their best.  I have a hard time seeing it that way.  Her father was reckless, abusive, and even sadistic at times, and her mother neglectful, disingenuous, and manipulative.

I also felt frustrated at the portrayal – intentional or not – of both homeschooling and homebirth/midwifery as “fringe” institutions.  As someone who has engaged in both, it bothers me that both of those things are still widely seen as “crazy,” dangerous, etc.  They’re both valid and safe options when approached with knowledge and care, but no doubt many people will read this book and have their worst suspicions about homeschooling and homebirth confirmed.

I went with a friend to a literary lecture last night and Tara Westover was the speaker.  It was fascinating seeing her in the flesh and listening to her talk about some of her experiences and about the writing of her book.  For everything she has experienced and accomplished, she’s actually very young: 32.  One thing she talked about that struck me was that she doesn’t want her story to be seen as one of triumph over adversity, that she’s averse to narratives of people overcoming and achieving through pure grit, because the reality is that it always takes help in one form or another in order for anyone to accomplish goals and overcome hurdles.  So true.

Something else she talked about that resonated with me was how the first version of ourselves given to us by our families does not have to be the final version of ourselves.  This may seem simplistic on its face, but there is a deep truth to this, and isn’t it liberating to know that we can always continue to learn and grow and evolve?

Westover poses a profound question, which really is at the heart of her memoir: What is one to do when one’s obligations to family come into conflict with one’s obligations to oneself?

Educated is an extremely thought-provoking book.

Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams

UnknownRabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat

by Patricia Williams (with Jeannine Amber)

I did not read as many books in 2017 as I aimed for, but I did read more books than I wrote about here.  Life is so full and busy these days, both reading and blogging have fallen somewhat by the wayside.  I’m hoping to give both a bit more attention in 2018.

The first book I’ve finished in this new year is Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams.  I’ll be honest and confess that I am completely unfamiliar with Patricia Williams – never heard of her before this book was chosen by my book club – although she is apparently a well-known comedian.  Truth be told, I’m not exactly up on the whole comedian circuit in any case.

In some ways, Rabbit tells a familiar story of a deprived, dysfunctional childhood full of abuse, neglect, and downright shocking circumstances and incidents (there’s a whole subgenre of these memoirs; see The Glass Castle, The Liar’s Club, All Over But the Shoutin’, Running With Scissors, and even Fun Home).  What sets Williams’s story apart, though, is that while most (all?) of the other such memoirs out there are the stories of white people, hers is the story of being black and female growing up in the ‘hood.  And being black and female is a whole other ball of wax.

One of five children of a down-and-out, alcoholic, single mother who spent the first several years of her life living in her grandfather’s “liquor house,” Patricia, dubbed “Rabbit” by one of her mother’s boyfriends, was instructed by her mother in the vocation of pickpocketing the drunks who passed out in the house daily by the time she was eight.  Always without money, love, or guidance, and often without enough to eat or gas, electricity, or hot running water, she was pregnant by age 13 (I have 13-year-old twin daughters, and being faced with the reality that 13-year-old girls in the world get pregnant and have babies elicits a visceral response in me) by a 20-year-old married man, and had two babies by age 15.   With virtually no frame of reference as to how to navigate her life other than the criminals and addicts she had always been surrounded by, she turned to dealing crack to support herself and her children – and was very successful at it.  Over the years, she was shot twice, arrested, and beaten – just to list a few things.

And yet, she tells her story with an immense wise-cracking humor.  This isn’t a book that asks its readers to feel sorry for its subject.  Ms. Williams does not seem to have a victim mentality, despite the horrific things she’s lived through.  She lays it all out in a matter-of-fact way, without portraying herself as saintly, or even sinless, and tells it all with a wit that obviously comes naturally to her.

The fact that she ends up becoming a successful comedian and getting her memoir published tells you that she turns her life around and gets out of the ‘hood, but it’s worth reading how her resilience and unfailing sense of humor get her there.  It’s also an eye-opening look into what it means to grow up black, female, and poor in America.

Not Always Happy by Kari Wagner-Peck

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by Kari Wagner-Peck

I stopped reading memoirs about raising a child with Down syndrome awhile back mainly, I think, because they all started seeming the same. Most follow a fairly predictable trajectory: a child is born with Down syndrome, there is much grief, then acceptance, and finally celebration. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this storyline (which, if I’m honest, fits my own storyline with regard to having my own child with Down syndrome), it’s just that after a time, I had read enough of them. So when I saw mention of Not Always Happy – probably on Facebook, I can’t really remember for sure – and that it was funny, my interest was piqued.

Continue reading here.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

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by Cece Bell

I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels, and I didn’t realize that this book is a graphic novel – well, actually, memoir – until after I bought it and cracked it open, at which time I groaned a little because it’s just not a format that generally appeals to me.  However, I couldn’t help but scan the first couple of pages, and I was quickly taken in.

Read my review in its entirety here.

From My Mother by Darcy Leech

3d-book-coverFrom My Mother

by Darcy Leech

When Darcy Leech was three years old, her baby brother was born, and the course of her life and that of her family was changed forever. Dustin was diagnosed with congenital myotonic muscular dystrophy – or MMD – inherited from his and Darcy’s mother, who didn’t know that she had the adult onset kind of MMD until then. MMD is terminal – it causes progressive weakening of the muscles and the body until it can no longer support life, and there is no cure.

Read more, including an interview with the author, here.

Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs

2c9fd47333a51211950f6a70670045abLust & Wonder

by Augusten Burroughs

Have I mentioned that Augusten Burroughs was the first author to whom I wrote an actual fan letter?  It’s true.  This was years ago, I think after I read Running With Scissors (or maybe it was Dry; I can’t remember which), and I was so enamored of his writing that I tracked down his email address (which isn’t hard to do, given that most authors have a website with a “Contact” link) and wrote a gushing email to him.  And he actually responded!  So we’re besties now.

Okay, not really.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while, and am always excited to see another book with his name on it hit the shelves.

Lust & Wonder is another memoir; this one covers a certain period of time in Burroughs’s life after Dry, which recounts his time in rehab for alcoholism.  Lust & Wonder opens with Burroughs falling off the wagon after a prolonged period of sobriety.  What this memoir is mostly about, though, is Burroughs’s misadventures in coupledom.  If you’re at all familiar with Burroughs’s work, then I don’t need to tell you that it is absolutely not sappy or sentimental.  Told with his trademark scorching wit and naked honesty, it does manage to be tender at moments, however.  Burroughs doesn’t pull any punches – he can be mean, but he knows and acknowledges it – and doesn’t defend it.

I really enjoyed this one; it’s not among the best of his work, but it holds its own and is definitely worth reading if you’re a Burroughs fan.  If you’re not yet a fan, I would recommend reading Running With Scissors and Dry first; Lust & Wonder will then make more sense.  The only caveat I would offer is that – like Burroughs’s other work – it contains some pretty graphic stuff and is intended for mature audiences.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

twelve-years-a-slave-book-cover-0112 Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup

I was not aware of this book until it was mentioned in a section about slavery in a book I’m reading with my kids about U.S. History.  I knew there had been an Academy Award winning  movie by the same name a couple of years ago, which I have not seen, but I wasn’t aware that the movie was based on a slaves narrative about the years he spent in bondage.  I’m not sure what compelled me to read this, except that as an American, and especially as a white American, I do feel a deep sense of responsibility to try to know and understand the brutal reality of slavery in America, and how that ugly past continues to influence and shape the present.

Solomon Northup was born a free black man in the early part of the nineteenth century.  His parents were a freed slave and a black woman who was born free.  Solomon, a carpenter and talented violinist, married Anne, a free black woman, and together they had three children and went about living as hardworking, respectable citizens in Saratoga Springs, New York.  One day, Solomon was approached by two white men and offered temporary work as a fiddler for a circus in Washington D.C.  Believing it would be a short trip, he didn’t bother sending word to his wife, who was away working as a cook in a hotel.  Once in Washington D.C. – the capital of the country that lauded freedom and liberty, which did not escape Solomon – he was drugged, shackled, and sold into slavery, his papers evidencing his status as a free man, stolen.  When he insisted he was a free man, he was beaten almost to death for his efforts.

Sold into the deep south, Solomon Northup spent twelve years as a slave, under three different masters, one benevolent (as much as a person who believes in the institution of slavery can be benevolent), and the other two brutal.  For twelve years, he existed under the mental and physical torture of slavery, always pining for a way back to his wife, children, and his freedom.

That he was eventually rescued is a miracle, as many, many free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery, and very, very few of them ever saw freedom again.

This is another raw look at the heinous things human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings, and the twisted beliefs that make those acts possible.  A must read.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

F0039_LifeMotion_D Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina

by Misty Copeland

I had never heard of Misty Copeland until just a few months ago.  As my eleven-year old daughter is becoming more serious about her ballet studies, a friend of mine sent me an article about Misty Copeland, which intrigued me most of all because she’s a local girl, having grown up and discovered ballet in a town not far from us.  I printed the article for my daughter, and she’s been enthralled with Misty Copeland ever since, watching YouTube videos of her dancing and being interviewed, Googling images of her, and reading whatever she can get her hands on, including Copeland’s children’s book, Firebird.  So when I came across Copeland’s memoir, I had to get it.

Life in Motion chronicles Copeland’s chaotic childhood in and around San Pedro, California.  One of six children, Copeland’s mother moved the children often, usually to run from or to different husbands and boyfriends.  (I could relate very much to this, as my own upbringing was very similar.)  Copeland was a people-pleaser and perfectionist by nature, painfully shy and self-conscious.

From early childhood, she found solace in dance, but was not introduced to formal dance until she was thirteen, when her middle school drill team instructor saw something special in her and suggested she check out the ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club Copeland attended after school each day.  Grudgingly, Copeland did check it out, and felt very much a fish out of water.  After that first class, feeling that ballet was not her cup of tea, she avoided the class for a while, until she was coaxed back by the ballet instructor, who also saw something special in Misty.

Long story short, Copeland was in pointe shoes within a matter of months after first being introduced to ballet, and deemed a prodigy.  Not only is it almost unheard of to go en pointe in such a short amount of time, it’s also almost unheard of to get such a late start in ballet.  Most accomplished dancers begin classes when they’re barely out of diapers.

Despite her initial disinterest in ballet, Copeland finds that ballet is, indeed, her passion and destiny.  Over the next few years, ballet consumes her life, and she is sucked into a lot of family drama, including a bitter custody battle between her mother and Cynthia Bradley, her ballet instructor who believes that Misty has a future as a professional ballerina.

At the age of eighteen, within weeks after graduating from high school, Copeland moved to New York to participate in the American Ballet Theater’s summer intensive program, which would launch her on her professional career as a ballerina.  Eventually, Copeland would become the first black soloist with ABT, the most prestigious ballet company in the United States, in twenty years.  At the closing of Life in Motion, Copeland was still dreaming of one day being a principal ballerina with ABT, the highest level that can be reached.  Copeland did achieve that title after the book was published, making history as the first black principal ballerina with ABT.

This is a Cinderella story at its finest.  Having so many obstacles – near poverty, an itinerant and unstable childhood, a late introduction to ballet, and not least of all, being black – and achieving what Copeland has achieved is awe-inspiring.  And hey, if you haven’t seen her dance, go look up some YouTube videos.  She is jaw-droppingly talented.

I love, too, that my (white, privileged) daughter has chosen such a hero and role model.  I gave her Life in Motion after I finished it, and she devoured it in a day and a half.

And she and I are going to see Misty Copeland in ABT’s production of The Nutcracker this week!

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

51WkgRRm22L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

by Alison Bechdel

I think I waited way too long after reading this book to try to write a review.  I finished it several weeks ago, and honestly a lot of the details have slipped my memory.  And that probably says something right there: this wasn’t a super memorable book for me.

Also, I discovered that I’m not a big fan of graphic novels.  Reading it, I kept feeling like the author was cheating, because there is far less actual writing in a graphic novel than a conventional novel (or memoir, as the case may be).  I realize, however, that that’s not only my own bias (I just prefer words over pictures, I guess), but that it’s totally unfair because it undoubtedly takes an incredible amount of time and effort to create the hundreds of pictures that comprise the book.

So.  Touted by the author as a “family tragicomic,” Fun Home is a memoir spanning Bechdel’s childhood and young adulthood in a very unconventional family.  Her father is a manic-depressive closeted homosexual (and it would seem, possibly a pedophile), who is at times abusive to Alison and her brothers.  Her mother is a distracted and disappointed woman.  Bechdel’s father is the town undertaker and runs the family mortuary – affectionately known within the family as “the fun home” (hence the title of the book).  Through her recounting of her young life, Bechdel explores her very complicated relationship with her father, and her own discovery of being a lesbian.

I don’t know … I know the book has gotten rave reviews, and has even been turned into a Broadway musical, but it didn’t grab me.  While I very much felt the “tragic” part – it’s rather dark and morbid and depressing – I didn’t much get the “comic” part.  I don’t think I laughed or even chuckled once.

It’s an easy enough read, but … eh.  Not really my cup of tea.

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susanah Cahalan

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by Susannah Cahalan

I had seen this book numerous times at Barnes & Noble, and despite that I’m a fan of memoirs, I doubt I would have read this one, except that it was chosen for my book club.

In a nutshell, it’s the author’s harrowing account of “losing her mind” when she descends into a bizarre neurological illness that baffles her family, friends, and even doctors.  Twenty-four years old, happily involved with a newish boyfriend, professionally successful as a tabloid journalist, Cahalan begins developing strange symptoms, and over time exhibits more alarming and strange behavior – from paranoia, to numbness in her limbs, to chronic insomnia, to hallucinations, and finally, seizures.  After months of spiraling more and more out of control, her family knows that her doctor’s pronouncement that Cahalan has just been partying too hard is not what’s at the bottom of her symptoms.  Finally, she is admitted to the epilepsy ward at NYU Medical Center where she ends up strapped to her bed because she repeatedly becomes violent and tries to flee.  After several more weeks, a brilliant and innovative neurologist finally correctly diagnoses her with a brain inflammation caused by a severe autoimmune response.  Once she is correctly diagnosed, she begins a months-long, grueling treatment.  In the end, she recovers, but continues to live with the unsettling knowledge that the condition could recur.

In all honesty, although the story is well-written, and certainly suspenseful, I had trouble connecting with the author.  I probably had some prejudices playing into my perceptions, because as soon as I learned that Cahalan is a tabloid journalist, I kept wondering how much of her own story is embellished and sensationalized.  I was also put off by a sense of  … I don’t know … elitism?  Her family came across like they were above this sort of awful trial, that their daughter was too good to have something like this befall her – and their reaction to any suggestion that Cahalan was impacted by her illness cognitively – I don’t know, it was off-putting to me.  I felt a lack of humility, I guess.  But that very well could have been my own biases.

In any case, it really wasn’t until the last portion of the book that I felt Cahalan came across as a compassionate person concerned about anyone outside of herself.

It’s a good story if medical mysteries intrigue you, and it certainly makes one wonder how many people are misdiagnosed with different forms of mental illness when their illness may actually be pathogen-based.