Educated by Tara Westover

UnknownEducated

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.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

18339630All My Puny Sorrows

by Miriam Toews

This is a story about suicide.  It’s about other things, too: family, growing up Mennonite, resilience, grief, and friendship – but mainly, it’s about suicide.

Told in first person, Yolandi, or Yoli for short, tells about growing up in a cloistered Mennonite community in Canada with her parents and her sister, Elfrieda, or Elf as she is known by her loved ones. Elf is a piano prodigy, and at seventeen leaves home to study piano abroad, where she soon becomes a world-renowned classical pianist.  As the years go by, she also becomes more and more tortured.  Numerous suicide attempts ensue, and we find out at some point in the story that Yoli and Elf’s father committed suicide by kneeling in the path of an oncoming train (this incident is taken straight out of the author’s real life; her father actually did commit suicide in that manner, which she wrote about in her memoir, Swing Low: A Life, which I have not read).

Much of the story takes place in the psych ward of the hospital in which Elf ends up after her various suicide attempts.  There, Yoli keeps a devoted vigil over her beloved sister, willing her to want to live.  But alas, Elf is determined to die.  Now in her late forties, she is weary of life.  The story takes a turn when Elf begs Yoli to help her die.  At first, Yoli is predictably horrified by the idea, but gradually she begins to wonder if it wouldn’t in fact be an act of love to help her sister gain the peaceful oblivion she so desperately wants.

While all of this is going on, there are other family dramas taking place.  Yoli is in the middle of a divorce, she’s sleeping around a bit to comfort herself, her teenage daughter is giving her a run for her money, Elf’s husband needs propping up, Elf and Yoli’s aging mother and their aunt are suffering health problems – and, oh yeah, we find out that a cousin also committed suicide a number of years back.

The story is told with a fair amount of humor, but it still feels pretty heavy.  I wanted very much to feel like I could root for Elf’s autonomy and her right to die with dignity, and I applaud Miriam Toews for tackling such a taboo.  However, I couldn’t shake a feeling of anger at Elf’s selfishness.

It’s not that I think suicide is necessarily a selfish act.  I understand that it’s complicated, and that mental illness is often complicated.  I do believe in a person’s right to autonomy over his or her own life and right to die, but what makes this story difficult is the profound pain Elf causes her family by her numerous half-assed – maybe that’s a bit harsh; let’s say unsuccessful – attempts to end her life.  I kept thinking that if someone truly, truly wanted to end their life, they would find a method by which to carry it out that would be quick and effective.  More than that, though, is how Elfrieda drags Yoli into it by imploring her to help her kill herself.  She doesn’t want to die alone, so she places this immense burden on her sister by making her feel tormented by guilt and a sense of duty to end her sister’s suffering.

Toews delivers a well-written story about a difficult topic, but in the end, it’s not a story I cared for.