This past weekend I finished reading Educated by Tara Westover. After that I wrote a short review about it. Usually, I am never hungover a book. But this time Tara’s story has been playing inside me like an unending tape. Educated is a remarkable, fierce story of a girl’s ascend to the zenith of her capabilities from astoundingly challenging circumstances. It is also a testimony to the price she has had to pay for the kind of education most of us take for granted and for the confidence to live in a normal world. I rarely read non-fiction, and this story was so shocking and gripping that I had to constantly remind myself that this is a real story, all of whose characters are alive and kicking. Educated is not just the story of how Tara, without any formal schooling, went and achieved education from Cambridge and Harvard. It is a story about her struggle between the rationality provided by her education and the radical beliefs that had been the foundation of her formative years.
In one of the initial episodes of the famous sitcom FRIENDS, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is heard telling her father, “All my life people have told me you’re a shoe, but daddy what if I don’t want to be a shoe? What if I want to be a hat?”. Tara’s story is something similar yet murkier and dark.
Born to Mormon fundamentalist parents, Tara had not entered a formal classroom till the age of 17. Her dad is a religious fanatic who believes that the government, the education system, and the healthcare system are members of Illuminati and are there to brainwash people. Thus he keeps his family out of grid, without filing for their birth certificates, without providing them adequate medical assistance when required, and keeping them off formal education. Her mother is a herbalist who treats the family of everything (severe gasoline burns, explosion, head injuries) using her herbs and essential oils. There are times when Tara’s mother seemed sympathetic toward what her children were being subjected to. However, being a submissive wife, when confronted she always chose to side with her husband’s beliefs and proclamations instead of protecting her children.
There are no perfect families. The experiences we have at our homes, especially during childhood, are the foundation of our understanding about the reality and the world. That is how a human grows. That is how a young mind makes sense of and interprets its relationships and surroundings. If you are brought up with liberal thoughts and ideologies, your life and adulthood are inclined in that direction. And same is true if you are born in a conservative family. Tara’s childhood was one that belonged to the extremely radical end of the spectrum. And this was ‘normal’ for her because she had not witnessed any other.
Kids in the Westover family have been fed certain extremely polarized thoughts. The word of the father is the final word; girls can have no other ambition apart from getting married and bearing children; a woman’s place is in the kitchen; and it is OK to physically abuse sisters when they cross their limitations. Throughout the book there are instances of the same. Tara and her sister have been time and again physically abused by one of her brothers.
What is shocking is, even though Tara knows that what is happening is wrong, she chooses to cover up those brutalities as normal sibling fights. And what happens when she decides to speak to her parents about it is even more shocking. Initially her father asks her for proof and her mother sides her brother saying he was doing it for her good. Later they deny the entire subject stating that Tara is taken over by the devil and it was all her imagination. How the brother reacts on knowing that Tara has told about his behavior to her parents is cringing to the core.
This gaslighting led Tara toward severe mental breakdown jeopardizing her education for which she had already fought so much. It takes years to understand and accept the brutal experiences, especially those that take place in one’s childhood. This processing becomes further difficult when your own parents are a party to the brutalities, directly or indirectly. Immense mental effort is involved just to remember the incidents, and despite that you are not sure about whether those events actually occurred. That is what happened with Tara. She almost ended up believing her parents’ narrative.
Another infuriating thing that I came across was Tara’s constant efforts to reconcile with her family. And I am sure, the way she keeps on going back to her family even after all the abuse, a reader might feel why is she doing this. But a little thought and further reading allowed me to witness her struggle between her love for her family and rationality.
We all are well aware how family ties are. Estrangement from ones family, however bad, is not an easy experience. None of us want to severe ties with our family. All of us, in some or the other way, are making efforts, overlooking and tolerating quite a lot of conflict just to maintain the relationships. When I look back now, I do not feel shocked anymore that it took Tara quite a long time to walk away from her family. I feel she was right to first make all the efforts to reconcile with her family. And I feel she did the right thing when ultimately she walked away.
This book is a hope for those who are struggling with similar circumstances. The control of one’s family has over them, in conjunction with extreme and radical religious beliefs and severe mental illnesses, is most exhausting and agonizing. Though Tara finally managed to escape, the scars, I believe shall forever remain.