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.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

I heard about this book when it was first released last year, but put off buying it because I knew that the premise was a tragedy.  I’ve recently started a new book club in my new neighborhood, though, and decided to choose this book as our first book.

The premise of Did You Ever Have a Family is indeed a tragedy: a catastrophic house fire kills four people the night before a wedding.  The victims are the bride-to-be and her fiance, her father, and her mother’s boyfriend.  June, the bride’s mother, is the only survivor.  After the funerals, June flees without a word to anyone, setting out on a cross-country trip in an effort to outrun her grief.  She ends up on the opposite coast, holed up in a little seaside motel that her deceased daughter once stayed at.

In the wake of the horrors of the house fire, the stories of numerous other people emerge – June’s boyfriend’s mother, the florist who was supposed to provide the wedding flowers, Silas, a local teen who can only be described as a hoodlum, the couple who own the motel at which June takes refuge, and various other people whose lives intersect in various ways.

Ultimately, this is a story about family, but also about profound loss and grief, and the formidable effort of surviving all of those things.

I appreciated this story, but it wasn’t the tear-jerker I thought it would be.  I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters.  I wanted to feel sympathy for June, the main character, but she’s somewhat of an enigma, a little cold and a little distant, which made it hard for me to feel much for her.

Still, it’s a well-written, nuanced story that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading.

The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild

419CK8RJPZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home

by Arlie Hochschild

I read this book at the urging of my oldest son, a college freshman, who read it for his current favorite class in gender studies.  I believe his urging came on a morning that my husband and I were having it out over, stripped down, housework, childcare, and appreciation.  I’ve had a lot of thoughts stewing about that since I read the book, which I will hopefully find some time to write about on my other blog before too long.

As for The Second Shift, it was a groundbreaking book originally published in 1988, while the influx of women into jobs and careers previously held almost exclusively by men was still, if not in its infancy, in its adolescence.  Dual income families were becoming more and more the norm, and Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at Berkeley, wanted to understand the impact this seismic shift was having on marriages and families.  So she spend several years repeatedly interviewing more than fifty couples, often just spending time in their homes observing, like a fly on the wall (or as she says, “like the family dog”).  The Second Shift highlights just a fraction of those couples, who represent a good cross-section of all of the couples Hochschild spent time with.

What Hochschild found – and this will surely come as no surprise – is that even when both the husband and the wife work at jobs outside the home (or in the case of a daycare worker who earns money by working at home), even when they both work roughly the same number of hours each week, and even when (though at the time the book was written this was more rare than it is now) they earn roughly the same amount of money or the wife outearns the husband, the bulk of housekeeping and childcare still falls squarely on the shoulders of wives.  Hochschild estimated that wives generally work what adds up to an entire month more of “work” per year than men when we look at household and child rearing tasks and responsibilities.

There is a strange dance that goes on between working husbands and wives (and I would posit, just as much between many one-income couples, as well).  We go into marriage with certain ideals about equity and sharing of responsibilities, and those ideals often erode or evaporate in the face of reality.  What often results is a constant tug-of-war, with each partner trying to stand their ground, or a sort of delusional rationalization of the situation sets in when (usually the wife) resigns herself to the fact that the sharing will never be equitable.  In either case, resentment builds, on the part of the wife who feels that she is not getting the “partnership” she bargained for, and on the part of the husband who doesn’t want to be nagged.

Of course there are exceptions – there are couples who DO share the household and child rearing responsibilities equitably, but even almost thirty years after The Second Shift was published, those partnerships are still the exception and not the rule.

Hochschild, through her extensive research into these issues, has determined that the underlying reason for the inequity and imbalance not only in responsibilities, but also power, between dual income couples is what she refers to as a “stalled revolution,” explained this way: there has been a revolution for women in that we have entered the workforce in droves; however the revolution has “stalled” because (a) men, as a whole, have changed a lot more slowly than women have, and (b) the workplace itself has also not changed; it is still mainly suited to men who have wives at home to take care of all of their household and childcare responsibilities.  In other words, the workplace is still not family friendly.  And everyone pays the price for this: women, men, children, and marriages and families as a whole.

Rather than being a feminist rant, I found this book to be sensitive, engaging, and really pretty fascinating.  The ideas set forth are a lot more complex than what I’ve described here.

So much of it rang true for me personally.  Even though I am a stay-at-home-mother, the imbalance exists in my house and is a bone of contention, and I know that’s true for most of my friends who are stay-at-home-mothers, too.  Hochschild briefly touches on that point – that the “job” of mothering and caring for a household has become extremely devalued – but it’s a point I want to get into further and hope to write about separately.  In any case, the focus of The Second Shift is families in which both the husband and the wife have outside paid jobs, so the imbalance between couples in one-income families falls somewhat outside of that.

Very good book; would make for excellent book club discussion.