Imagine that at age 7 you become aware that you don’t go to school as other children do, that you have no birth certificate, that you are born to survivalist parents who do not trust government, that the religious faith your family practices follows the literal word of the Bible, that your source of solace lies in the mountains that surround your family home in Idaho.
Imagine further that your being schooled at home consists of waving through pages in a mathematics textbook before going to work the remainder of the day in your father’s junkyard or helping your mother in the kitchen as she processes herbs and healing potions. You have little contact with the rest of the world except through church attendance and visits to town to retrieve supplies.
If you can envision this life, then you can accept the account Tara Westover writes about her life in “Educated: A Memoir,” the Wayne County Reads selection for 2019. Upon a first reading, one might think the setting of the book is years ago; I was shocked to discover that Westover, born in 1986, is presenting a modern-day account in which she relates that she first entered a classroom in a public institution when she was 17 — in 2003, in fact.
Tara Westover’s parents, renamed Gene and Faye in the memoir with pseudonyms as are 16 other people, are depicted as Mormon “fundamentalists,” though Westover, in an Author’s Note, declares that the memoir is not about Mormonism or “any other form of religious belief.” Her dad Gene believes in the Days of Abomination or end times when the family will need to escape from “the Feds” or when the world will end. He has the children, all seven, of whom Westover is the youngest, prepare “head for the hills” bags filled with supplies — “herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint and steel” and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The dad tells the children about Randy Weaver of the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992 when Weaver’s wife, son, and a federal agent were killed by gunfire. Gene is determined to protect his family from a similar fate, so weapons are added to the supplies they will need if they must run to the hills.
Westover endured a childhood marked by the paranoia of her father and the potential for violence from the external world. However, the most daunting descriptions in the book focus on the physical abuse Westover suffered at the hands of her brother Shawn, Tara Westover’s third oldest brother, especially as she experienced puberty and her changing body. While Shawn could advise and counsel about riding a horse or teach other skills, he could also threaten and harm through physical violence, notably when he pushed Westover’s head into the toilet. Westover’s mother on one occasion plead with Shawn to leave Westover alone when he was twisting Westover’s arm to the point nearly of breaking it. When Tara Westover learned the term “bipolar” later in a college psychology class, she realized that the definition fit her brother Shawn’s behaviors and perhaps her father’s, too.
While both parents believed practical skills would benefit their children better than formal schooling, Westover’s mother on occasion would tell the children to “do school.” The family library held books on herbalism, math, an American history book, and a children’s book on science. The children chose a book and went to separate rooms where they “did school,” which in Westover’s case consisted of flipping through pages of a math book: “I opened my math book and spent ten minutes turning pages, running my fingers down the centerfold. If my finger touched fifty pages, I’d report to Mother that I’d done fifty pages of math.” Tara Westover would later regret this deficit in her math skills when she tried to take the ACT (American College Testing, a test in four parts most colleges and universities accept for entrance) to gain admission to Brigham Young University. She needed tutoring in math to score high enough on the ACT.
When she is accepted to BYU, she feels “fearful and uneducated,” she said in a National Public Radio interview. When one of her professors referred to the Holocaust, Westover raised her hand to ask what a Holocaust was as she had never heard of it. Some in the class assumed she was a Holocaust-denier while others were astonished at this ignorance.
One of Tara Westover’s brothers, Tyler, the third son, asked at age 13 to go to public school, a request his father granted, but after the Ruby Ridge incident, their father Gene never allowed any of his children to attend public school. Tyler taught himself calculus, but family chores in the junkyard prevented his having any study time. Eventually Tyler leaves the family entirely to acquire an education, and on a rare visit to his home, he encourages Tara Westover when she is 15 to get out, too.
The hazards of memoir
Westover uses two epigraphs on the initial pages of the book, one from Virginia Woolf about memory, and the other from John Dewey about education. The Woolf quotation reads: “The past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
Westover’s memoir does not paint a “beautiful” past; rather it depicts a narrow world of repressions and contradictions. Expressing her emotions about her past has come at great cost — estrangement from half of her family. An article in a Utah newspaper cites the family attorney who said, “Tara’s parents are disappointed Tara would write a book that maligns them, their religion, their country, and homeschooling.” He asserts that the book is a false presentation and that “The Westovers have hundreds of people that rely on their business [Butterfly Express that specializes in oils, tinctures, minerals, diffusers and jewelry], so they’ve instructed me to not let the allegations go unanswered.”
How did Westover overcome the world she knew as a child and young adult? Wayne County Reads events will explore this question throughout March.