There are sections of Educated that are simply jaw-dropping – and, believe me, my jaw does not drop easily! Set in a remote rural area of Idaho, United States, Tara Westover’s account of her childhood, upbringing and education is an insight into a world that is profoundly alien to anything most of us would recognise within the concepts implied by “childhood” and “parenting”.
There is love, certainly, but little nurturing, less care, and no preparation whatsoever for life in the wider world. And it is the tension between the love and the absence of other parenting duties that gives the book its central dynamic and its grip on the reader.
Up until the age of 17, Tara had no birth certificate. Her older brothers and sister had one but by the time Tara was born her parents had given up on registering. Worse than that, nobody could remember the precise date on which she was born. As a child she had no immunisations. She was “home schooled” until around the age of eight, when even that stopped. At an age when her contemporaries were going to college, she had never heard of WWII’s Holocaust, could not tackle straightforward Maths and thought Europe was a country.
Yet within 10 years, Tara had a PhD from Cambridge. Educated is the story of her transformation.
There is not, I think, a single cause of Westover’s dysfunctional childhood but rather a multiplicity of strands. First is her Mormon background, although as she quickly asserts, “This is not a story about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.” Her point is made when as a late teenager she meets other Mormons who fit in with the wider world much more comfortably than she can. It is, however, about the effects of religious fundamentalism as personified by her terrifying father, a man who believes the end of the world is nigh, who stocks the cellar with food and rifles in preparation for his family’s survivalist battle, and holds passionately that the Feds are about to attack his family. Oh yes, and that there is a secret and sinister organisation called the Illuminati which has infiltrated society and plans its destruction.
Gene Westover dominates Educated pretty much from cover to cover. There are the fervent religious outbursts and lectures, the obsession with female meekness and modesty, the antipathy to the outside world and its ways, the belief in the path of righteousness (as defined, of course, by him) and a paranoia about anything and anybody that does not accord with his world view. Later, Tara believes he is bipolar. During her childhood, she is bludgeoned into silence.
That Gene loves his children is in little doubt but that does not spare them from the most horrendous injuries and neglect. He is a builder of barns but his main business is scrap. From the age of 10, Tara labours in the yard. The work is indescribably dangerous. She is hoisted high on fork lift trucks without harness or helmet, trapped under twisted steel, bruised, battered and cut open. Her brother loses a slice of his arm to a huge guillotine. Gene himself liquefies the bottom half of his face when a petrol tank explodes as he cuts it, undrained, with an oxyacetylene torch. In these cases and more, the only repair and remedy is the homeopathic medicine mixed by Tara’s mother. No doctors, no hospital. In a less dramatic but nonetheless poignant moment when Tara has left home and admits that she has taken penicillin to cure a dangerously bad throat infection, her mother sends one of her herbal remedies not for the infection but to rid her body of the penicillin.
As if all this were not enough, her brother Shawn is borderline psychopathic. At his hands she is beaten, strangled, dragged around by her hair and has her head pushed into the toilet, usually for minor crimes of “whoredom” like wearing traces of makeup or talking to a boy. At one point in her student days, he phones to ask whether he should kill her himself or send an assassin to do the job. All attempts by Tara to persuade her parents that Shawn needs help simply rebound on her.
So is there a happy ending to all this? Well, yes and no. Tara escapes to college, then to university, then into postgraduate education. But the struggle is immense, such is her dislocation from the outside world. When sharing a house with other students: “The apartment looked fine to me. So what if there were rotting peaches in the fridge and dirty dishes in the sink? So what if the smell slapped you in the face when you came through the door? To my mind if the stench was bearable, the house was clean, and I extended this philosophy to my person. I never used soap except when I showered, usually once or twice a week and sometimes I didn’t even use it then.” It is a long way from this to the cultured lawns of Cambridge.
And also immense is her pain at the loss of whole sections of her family. Extraordinary as it may seem, her love and her loyalty barely wavers despite everything she has suffered. This may be a book about a kind of craziness and even madness – but it is also a book about love. Stunning.
Author: Tara Westover
Publisher: Hutchinson, memoir