(I doubt I’ll review every book I read this summer, but this selection is going to be with me for a long, long time. It touched me profoundly, but, I have to be honest: I feel like my review is written disjointly and, well, rather subpar for my usual written communications. I think that it’s simply a reflection of how much this book rattled me.)
The book opens with a scene from the Ruby Ridge standoff.
When I was 13, I remember stumbling across the Senate hearings and testimony of Randy Weaver one Saturday morning. I don’t remember why I stopped on the channel, I just remember becoming captivated by what had happened to his family.
When I first started reading Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover, I was immediately immersed in the scenery she described surrounding her rural upbringing.
My first life memories are of the Oklahoma plains, and while they aren’t the Idaho mountains, I immediately identified with Tara as she began to share about her non-typical childhood.
She was taught to work hard. She was close with her siblings. Her family would have been considered pretty “old fashioned” – just like mine was.
I never attended public school, but when I say I was “homeschooled”, it was exactly that. Structured, proctored learning – just at home. For the first 9 years, my mom taught me herself, and what she didn’t “teach me”, I read in the textbook. I learned, from a younger age than most, how to learn things from reading comprehension.
I have always been a firm believer that if you teach a child to read, and to read WELL, there isn’t anything they can’t learn. Being able to understand the written word is the cornerstone of every person’s education. If that cornerstone is damaged or set improperly, the whole structure is faulty.
Tara homeschooled too. At least, that’s what they told people who asked. But in reality, she wasn’t getting any sort of education other than her brother teaching her to read and her father teaching her what he wanted her to believe about God, family, marriage, money, medicine, education, etc.
Tara’s father was a Mormon Fundamentalist. Though I was raised in Baptist tradition, for many years I would call the teachings I received through the pulpit and my family life “fundamentalist” at worst, and something not quite “mainstream religion” at best. And even as the years began to teach some of us in my family better than to see life and even faith in such black and white terms, many more would cling to those types of binary belief systems and much of my extended family still does.
There are many, many wonderful loving people in my family. But there are also racists. Bigots. Homophobes. Sexists. Many have been abusive to their partners and children, manipulative within their immediate family, as well as our extended family as a whole.
I related to many, many experiences and mindsets of Tara Westover as I read through her memoir.
I related to her growth through not only life experience, but in the higher education she eventually received. The ironic thing being this: she would have likely never pushed herself as she did for that higher education, had she not been “educated” the way she had been at home. The skills she learned by teaching herself as a young child were the building blocks she would need to ultimately become a Cambridge and Harvard graduate.
She recognizes this, based on the interviews with her that I’ve seen and read. She loves her family, even as she is still estranged from many of them. And she says she believes they love her, and always have – they are simply that rooted in their belief systems.
This is where I have to detach from understanding Tara. Because there are so many accounts in this book about the verbal, physical and emotional abuse that she lived with throughout her life at the hands of her brother and father, it is very hard for me to understand her belief that they love her.
Victims of abuse and violence vary in the ways they heal and cope with the traumas of their past. While Tara’s education may have shed a light on the behavior she endured as being the result of mental illness, it’s very hard for me to believe the mentality of “they loved me in their own way.”
Because, you see, I don’t believe in such a black and white world as I did when I was a child. I believe there is a lot more to what meets the eye than we could and would ever understand about people. About religion. About education. About politics.
But not about love.
I know what love is. And I know what love isn’t. And even as much as some people wish it to be so, good intentions do not equal “love”.
Abuse, and the refusal to acknowledge it or call it by its truthful name is not love.
Shaming your children is not love.
Withholding medical care because of your own “faith” is not love.
I understand still loving the ones that hurt you. I get that completely. Because human beings are capable of grace and forgiveness. I can still love someone that has harmed me emotionally, physically, or psychologically. I’ve done it. But I think it’s a stretch to believe that those people love YOU. Especially when their behavior is a repeated pattern. And mental illness does not excuse it.
It seems a bit “judgy” for me to write about disagreeing with the author in terms of something within her personal memoir. But, that’s a risk when we write. That people aren’t going to completely understand our motives. Our perspectives. And that really isn’t our problem, as writers. Our responsibility is to only tell the story and let the reader take from it what they will. And, to be fair, most of my feelings about Tara and her memoir are positive. The story is exceptionally well told. I was especially shocked to learn that she had never really read for pleasure before she began working on her memoir and had to learn how to write in a non-essay, non-academic style.
It’s the subsequent interviews I’ve seen with Tara that have skewed my perspective about her a bit. She is either a much bigger person than I am, or she still has a lot of denial to work through regarding her past trauma.
There were a lot of feelings that became unsettled for me as I read this book. And I felt tense for the majority of the time I was reading it as I reflected on the subject matter of families and fundamentalism and its effect on kids, especially girls. It has taken me 2 days to really be able to sit down and write anything related to my thoughts on this selection, because it was that gripping and emotional of a ride.
But, like my own life, I have no regrets. Only lessons. Only the education it has given me. And I’ve learned a lot.