Biographer Monique Goodliffe has contributed a review of Tara Westover’s stunning memoir “Educated”:
When I was little, I lived at an Anglican mission in the high veld in South Africa. My parents, both doctors, worked at the hospital there. We were brought up as nominal Anglicans – my parents seemed to take a neutral position towards the Church and religion in general. We celebrated Christmas, of course, and we did occasionally go to church. I remember once my father was asked to be the Archangel Gabriel in some sort of church parade and he seemed slightly sheepish and uncomfortable in the role as if he didn’t entirely belong there.
Then, when I was six, I was sent to board at a Catholic school run by Loreto nuns. It was the only school within a sixty-mile radius. I loved it! The nuns watched over us in a benevolent manner and we were given a huge amount of freedom to play in the grounds. The nuns in their black gowns, veils and starched white wimples glided along the polished floor of the corridors. I didn’t think they could walk like normal people. They oversaw us during the day and then they disappeared into their own quarters at night. I was drawn to the mystery of their lives and to the rituals of the church services. Although, as I later found out, my parents had instructed that my brother and I should not be converted, we were allowed to sit on the balcony and observe mass. I wanted to be down there, a part of it. I was envious of the preparations for confirmation especially the pretty dresses and the shiny patent leather shoes which were an integral part of the ceremony. It all seemed much more exciting than the services in the Anglican church in the town to which we were taken once a fortnight and where the only hymn we ever sang was ‘There is a green hill faraway’, whatever the time of year.
Since that time I have been fascinated by memoirs or novels about people who have been brought up in a religious way. That early experience of feeling shut out from a mystery has made me want to learn what it is like to be a part of the ‘cult’. James Joyce, Lorna Sage, Jeanette Winterson, Antonia Frost, Olive Schreiner and others have all been influential in helping me to understand what a difference a religious upbringing can make to what a person becomes.
When I heard about Tara Westover’s book, I was immediately drawn to it and having finished it, I must say that it will be a long time before I forget it. I found it totally compelling and compulsive though I had to stop reading it at night before I slept as it filled my dreams with uncomfortably violent images.
Educated tells the story of Tara Westover’s upbringing as a Mormon in rural Idaho. She lived with her parents and several brothers – I’m a bit vague on numbers but I remember Tyler and Shawn in particular and then there is her sister Audrey who becomes important later on. It’s a shocking story of parental coercion and abuse all in the name of the Lord. Westover is ‘home-schooled’, which basically means she is taught the rudiments by her mother when her bully of a father allows it and the rest is up to her. When her favourite brother Tyler breaks free of the family and goes off to college, he encourages her to do the same. Against all the odds and with the gargantuan and forceful opposition of her father especially, she does break free. She goes to college and then miraculously ends up moving to the UK to study for a PhD at Cambridge.
When she’s not busy trying to get away from home, she’s helping her parents - attending births with her midwife mother or distilling the homeopathic herbal remedies which are all the family is allowed to use for injuries and illness. Or she’s working in the junkyard with her father and brothers. This involves lifting, smashing, sorting, burning and hauling huge hunks of metal. There is zero health and safety protection and frequently someone ends up being burned, or falling from a height, or having parts of their body gouged out by flying metal.
They live in isolation from the world. Their father is keen that they don’t follow the rules and that they realise how the Government with a big G is out to get them. They must not go to hospital or mix with ordinary people. He is sure that the end of the world is nigh and for that reason is stockpiling and burying essential supplies on their land. A lot of this seems to consist of bottled peaches. And guns.
The trouble is that as a child you believe in your parents and even when you question it, it is hard to know where the reality lies. This becomes especially true for Westover when she is subject to years of abuse from her violent and sociopathic brother Shawn. Even when her parents are confronted by the truth and must see what is happening, they refuse to support their daughter’s version. She must choose their truth or be disowned. It is a cruel and painful choice.
It is an extraordinary story in itself but mostly impressive for the bravery which she demonstrates in putting all this onto paper. Not only that she is writing about the kind of intimate moments in a life that most of us, I would imagine, could hardly face ourselves let alone tell to the rest of the world, but that she is writing about her own people. A lot of them will still be alive, out there, reading the book.
She is like one of those Kelly dolls: every time she hits a brick wall, falls into a slough of despair so deep and sticky you wonder if she’ll ever be able to emerge from it, somehow she does. She bounces back again, and again, and again. It takes courage and intelligence and help.
That is the bright side. Along the way there are people, a lot of them teachers but also friends, who recognise the shining need in her and manage to help her see how she can do things differently.
It does beg a few questions for me: why do we read books like this, so full of hurt and anguish? Does it help us to understand ourselves? Or does it merely furnish us with ammunition to attack those who are different? Is it just a kind of prurience or voyeurism which makes me want to peer into the lives of those who have such a different way of looking at the world? Is it, as the blurb asserts, ultimately uplifting or is it just very, very sad that there are people out there who will do anything to uphold their beliefs including treating their children in such a punitive, unforgiving way?Educated by Tara Westover