Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, caught my attention when President Obama mentioned reading it. The author was raised in a survivalist family in rural Idaho, with no schooling. She went on to college, and eventually got her PH.D. at Cambridge and was a visiting fellow at Harvard. There’s a whole lot more to Tara’s story.
Several things jumped out at me:
Both of Tara’s parents had mainstream Mormon upbringings, and their own parents and siblings were baffled by the choices they made as adults. Tara’s father was an End Times prepper who was devastated when Y2K didn’t bring on the expected apocalypse. He was extremely paranoid about “The Feds,” and refused to enroll the kids in school or even get them birth certificates. They learned to drive, but didn’t get driver’s licenses. Tara’s mother tried to home school the seven kids at first, but became overwhelmed and didn’t teach them much beyond reading. And their father demanded that the boys help out in his scrapping business from an early age, and eventually the girls too.
Tara speculates that her father was bipolar, given to extreme mood swings. But his paranoia had to be encouraged by other sources. Tara doesn’t mention Fox — they didn’t always have a TV in the early years — but the theories he spouted were popular in far-right circles. He quoted conspiracy theories about Jews that Tara later recognized as coming from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In college, she became confused in a history class and asked about a word she didn’t recognize. The other students were offended, thinking she was making a tasteless joke. After class, she hurried to the library to look up the new word: “Holocaust.” She had never learned about it.
Her parents’ distrust of authority also extended to medicine. They “didn’t believe” in doctors, and the book is filled with near-fatal accidents with permanent effects on Tara’s parents and siblings. Tara’s mother was trained by the local midwife, and began making herbal oils and tinctures and doing New Agey “energy work.” Both parents insisted that doctors and their medicines “would kill you” (which sounds familiar after a year of listening to COVID deniers). Tara was accustomed to addressing pain with “treatments” that had no discernible effect. As an adult, taking an ibuprofen for the first time was a revelation for her. In a strange twist, after Tara’s father survived a devastating explosion, her mother’s fame as a healer spread and her herbal business lifted them out of poverty for the first time.
It’s unclear if older brother Shawn’s rages were caused or exacerbated by the untreated head injuries he’d suffered, or if he was just an abusive asshole to begin with. But Shawn became the missing stair in the family, the one everybody else had to work around. She describes him physically and emotionally abusing his siblings and girlfriends. Tara noted that she struggled for years with shame over the abuse — because a part of her believed that his violence toward her was somehow proof that she deserved it. While Tara was in college, her older sister Audrey told her they needed to confront Mom and Dad about the need to get Shawn under control. Mom said all the right things privately, but the moment Dad or Shawn was in the room, she folded, and Audrey quickly succumbed to pressure to deny the things she’d seen.
The family essentially split in two. Tara and two of her brothers got into college, by studying English and math books for the ACT test, and claiming on the college application that they were raised with a “rigorous homeschooling program.” That was enough to get them into BYU. All three of them went on to earn Ph.D’s. The other four siblings never got any schooling, work for their parents, and completely cut off Tara. Tara began reconnecting with extended family members on her mother’s side, who had also been cut off by Tara’s parents.
Many college students wrestle with the question of “How does anyone know what’s real?” For Tara, the question went far beyond the philosophical. In putting the book together, Tara compared notes with others, including the two brothers who had also become outsiders to the family, trying to reconstruct what happened when family members suffered traumatic injuries. They couldn’t agree on such basics as who was there, how the injury happened, and whether their father immediately sought help or made them wait. And even with incidents where she was there, it was sometimes impossible to disentangle her actual memories from the gaslighting she’d endured.
Given how we now have whole industries creating misinformation and disinformation, it’s a fascinating story seeing someone find her way through it.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.