I finished Tara Westover’s book Educated and I enjoyed every minute of it, though the story’s villains — Westover’s parents and her brother Shawn — were unpleasant in the extreme, and slippery to the end.
The story, which at the outset appears to treat mainly of the academic success of a child of radical unschooler parents, is more a family drama and, if you like, a battle between good and evil. The larger part of the book is the war Tara fights with her parents and their unusual parenting practices, which are based in a (mis?) interpretation of Mormon doctrine. The Mormon faith that emerges in her parents is one of justification of neglect and violence, under the heading of a search for purity.
Westover’s agon is how she can become a member of an educated world without losing her family. I am reminded of the fate of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man of the New Testament, who after death faced off over a divide between heaven (for Lazarus) and hell (for the rich man.) The rich man begs to be allowed to go where Lazarus has gone, but he cannot. With the same plaintive cry, the educated Westover wishes to cross back to her parents’ world, but it’s impossible.
There are chilling moments all through the book. The family business, a dangerous junkyard in which the children are forced to work as young as ten, occasions multiple potentially fatal burns, falls, and impaling-type injuries. Later, the mother’s naturopathic herbalist and oil business takes off and the junkyard is abandoned, but not forgotten, at least by Westover, who has made it a setting-character of remarkable malice.
But it is the behavior of certain characters in the family that gives this memoir its seering tone. We’ve all seen violent men and women in fiction before. There’s more than a little of Captain Ahab in Tara’s father, though instead of a fixation on killing the White Whale, Father Westover is obsessed with fighting a government and medical establishment with “religious truths” such as eschewing milk and refusing all contact with schools, with doctors, with insurance companies. Of course the family collects guns for the end times, or for self-defense if the government attacks them. But what really shocked me, and gives Tara the strength to stop returning to the family farm, is her mother’s duplicity when it comes to opposing Tara’s violent, almost murderous older brother and his serial abuse of his two sisters, his girlfriends, and finally his wife.
This abuse is not the usual, sexual kind you hear of in memoirs these days, but a combination of physical violence and verbal degradation that I haven’t heard of before among siblings, simply because even in “bad” families parents would be able to see that putting someone’s head in a toilet and screaming “whore!” is too much. Her brother justifies the abuse by saying Tara was being “uppity.” Her very soul is in danger, he claims, so what’s a little violence? What begins to surface, though it isn’t ever called by name, is a type of radical patriarchy where a woman’s value is less than a man’s, and thus her word cannot be believed when she confronts him.
Her mother watches all this but her efforts to defend Tara are minimal.
Westover never talks about belief in God or Good and Evil. She says her father may have bipolar illness. But for me, her diagnosis of her mother’s weakness as coming from brain damage during a car wreck is too simple, and unfair to mental illness sufferers. (The car wreck was caused by her father’s penchant for bizarre safety breaches during the family trip to Arizona, driving all night and insisting no one wear seat belts, then refusing to stop during a blizzard and literally driving off the road in a fury.) Her father’s cruelty does not line up in my mind with bipolar. Plenty of people with brain damage or bipolar don’t do or tolerate things like what goes on at the Westover home.
I spent a great deal of time two years ago in company of Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie. It had been recommended to me by a friend who was using it to understand and heal from a birth family with poverty and sexual abuse issues. Peck’s thesis is hard to simplify, but it involves the idea that most evil that is enacted is enacted to protect a foundational lie; in other words, that the wrong belief or lie is first, and then comes evil.
I had never heard of the Precepts of Abraham, a book of false propaganda claiming Jewish plans for world domination published by a Russian anti-Semite in 1903. But when at Brigham Young University, Westover discovers this book, and the Holocast it helped create, she is getting close to the lie that must be protected. Idaho, where the family resides, is a land of white supremacist currents, and Mormonism is a faith that historically admitted only whites. The root is long, but this is possibly why, for Papa Westover, the U.S. government is suspicious; it is possibly the largest entity in the world with a nominally pro-integrationist bent. This could also be why the Westovers study, in home school, the Founding Fathers, but not FDR and Lincoln.
We stand on the shoulders of those who went before, and their beliefs seep into our own. The World and White Supremacists are at war today and we should be grateful. Westover’s book, a phenomenal document, is remarkable as a memoir. But it’s also tremendously valuable as a primary historical source, a document which shows what one homeschooling Idaho family on the fringe really did, said and believed, in the observation of one family member.
Meanwhile, her parents have engaged their lawyer to problematize the veracity of Tara Westover’s story.