In this last look at Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated,” the Wayne County Reads selection for 2019, I want to consider the importance of memories as they inform identity, personality, and character. A memoir concerns itself with memory, and Westover takes care in several footnotes to clarify or dispute accounts as other family members’ memories of an event differ from her own.
Experiments with memories
A recent National Geographic article by Rachel Hartigan Shea recounts the work of researcher Steve Ramirez, head of a lab that researches the neuroscience of memory at Boston University. Ramirez “learned that every experience leaves physical traces throughout the brain.” He said the fact that memories can be examined or altered fascinated him, and he has discovered “how to suppress bad memories by activating good ones.” He and his team experimented with mice whose brain cells they genetically manipulated to respond to light. Then they exposed the mice to a mild electric shock which lit up the brain cells. “Deactivating the cells would make the bad memory inaccessible or allow it to be overwritten by a good memory, for example, social time with other mice.”
Not that Ramirez suggests applying this genetic manipulation to humans, but he hopes that he can help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression — all conditions that Westover endured in a childhood and young womanhood filled with injuries from car and workplace accidents she witnessed, from name-calling to which her brother subjected her, and from the eventual separation from family members necessary for her own survival.
At Tuesday’s night panel discussion at the Wayne County Public Library, several audience members offered insights about what struck them in the book — astonishment that no one helped this child living off-the-grid except a paternal grandmother who could do only so much without being chastised by her son. Tara’s mother (actual name is LaRee) tries to defend and support her daughter, but she is guided by precepts of women as secondary to men: She betrays and is disloyal to her husband if she puts her child’s needs before her husband’s need to be right.
Fear is a theme in the book, and the fear that silences and immobilizes pervades in Tara’s memoir. In England she finds herself unable to study, to function even, numbing her mind with television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other diversions. She awakens to find herself in the street screaming until she finally seeks counseling that brings her back into her life of study, allowing her to continue work on her dissertation.
Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” and as we know, the names we are called cause us to question ourselves, to be confused about the “truth” of the names others have given us, and to accept or reject these labels as our understanding of them increases. In my childhood circles, everyone had a nickname, a word that has been around since the mid-15th century. The Dictionary of Etymology calls it a “misdivision” of ekename, meaning “an additional name.” It has older origins in Old Norse, Danish, and Swedish.
Some childhood nicknames were neutral, often taken from a physical trait. For example, my older sister Marie had pigtails down to her waist, hence her nickname, Pigtails. “Bugeyes” was the nickname for Elizabeth Lins, a friend who had a chihuahua she called Bugeyes.
Other kids were less fortunate — “Scab” so called because he ate them; “Wormwood” because he emanated bitterness; and “Goat” because he resembled that animal — were probably less than thrilled with their “additional” name.
In “Educated,” the name-caller, Tara’s older brother Shawn (a pseudonym), delights in finding her vulnerable places and assigning them a nickname — “Fish Eyes” when he sees her experimenting with makeup, and the N-word when their work in their father’s junkyard blackens her face. Both attacks on Tara’s appearance happen just when she is reaching womanhood.
Worse, though, are Shawn’s labels of “slut” and “whore” which attack her character as it is being formed, causing Tara to question her behaviors and stifling her instincts. She has heard her father apply these same terms to women who wear skirts too short or blouses too low-cut, claiming that one woman in their church waited until she was certain he was watching before she bent over, exposing herself. We see this incident as another example of Tara’s father’s paranoia, but years pass before Tara can recognize her father’s mental state.
The result is tentativeness in the relationships she forms when she attends college. On the scale that tests for Adverse Childhood Experiences, the first item asks if adults in our household swore at, insulted, humiliated us or acted in a way that made us fear they would hurt us physically. Shawn committed both these acts against his sister, even though he could be sorrowful later about his treatment of his “Siddle Lister.”
Just as with bad memories, we need set aside questioning ourselves and accepting others’ valuation of us; instead we need to impose new names upon ourselves just as Tara did: scholar, writer, woman of intelligence and ability who has the power to re-invent herself.
This book made me recall a class from years ago based on the book title “Your Child’s Self-Esteem: The Key to His Life.” The late Bill Condren taught the full classroom of parents like me concerned about effective parenting. The class taught us ways to talk with our children, not “You’re a bad boy!” but “I don’t like that you throw things at your sister. Tell me why you are doing this and let’s figure out another way.”
Even though Tara’s self-esteem was affected, in some interviews she praises her childhood, saying that she was a happy child. In a PBS News Hour interview, the interviewer asks her to sing. She sings verses by heart of a Mormon hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in a lovely clear soprano. Some lyrics reinforce the final success that marks Tara’s academic and personal achievement: “We’ll find the place which God for us prepared, / Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid.” All is well, all is well.