Tara Westover’s Educated has a tag-line from Barack Obama on the cover, ‘a remarkable memoir’ and in terms of sales I doubt there was a bigger selling book in 2018. I’m a voracious reader but it’s been a long time since a book kept me up to the wee small hours. I’d nibbled at Educated online, reading the first few pages, before getting the paperback and devouring almost 400 pages in one large gulp.
It’s the kind of book I like, because it’s about people like us. Dirt poor people. That never really had a chance.
And I like books about religion that gives the reader an insider account of what it’s like to be saved or damned. Here we have Jeanette Winterson’s sombre yet joyous debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and middle-class snobbery and sense of entitlement in the vicarage and in the village where her grandparents lived. Here we have another force of nature with a very simple rule.
‘The whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.’
Tara’s dad ‘Gene’ was Mormon, patriarch of his family of five sons and two daughters of whom Tara was the youngest. Audrey, her sister, was older and most of her brothers seemed like adults to her.
Where the family lives is important for a number of reasons. For the reader it hankers back to a simpler life of living off the land and her mother a herbalist and self-taught midwife adds to that impression of living in the promised land.
Westover’s lyrical prose describes the farmstead with a nostalgic longing.
The range had other mountains, taller more imposing, but Buck’s Peak was the most finely crafted…My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley…All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged piece of Idaho.
For her father seasons are short and long. Before the coming of the snow he’s got to make enough money to feed his family, keep the homestead running and put enough aside for the End of Days, or the Days of Abomination in Mormon text. It’s a frantic race Gene intends to win.
Tara is nine, or thereabouts, when the memoir begins. She was home-birthed and home-schooled, never seen a doctor or nurse and, until they are issued with a Delayed Certificate of Birth, the state of Idaho and the federal government don’t know she, or her younger siblings, exist.
Home-schooled Tara shows is an exaggeration. The boys worked in the scrapyard outside their window, sorting, cutting and welding scrap metal into sellable chunks and helping their dad in construction. And although Gene was a firm believer in patriarchy and the division of the sexes, men’ s work and women’s work, Tara, around the age of ten, also found herself in the scrapyard, scrapping, like the boys. Her dad taught her that wearing a hat against the stifling sun slowed her down and gloves made her hands soft. She’d grow callouses and be better off. Metal whizzed by her head and hit her in the stomach. An employee lost a finger and the boys had their scrapes. At an age when parents are running their children to school and sitting parked outside the school gates, Gene is telling Tara to get into a skip of metal and sort it while he tips it, she can jump out. She gets away with a busted and bleeding leg, but she’s alive.
Close calls don’t count. After the Feds raided Waco there is enough military firepower buried around the hills to bring down a helicopter and start a war. A thousand gallon tank of petrol is buried to fuel the vehicles when the End of Days come.
God tested them, of course. When the winter snow came and Gene became almost comatose, her mother said ‘he was like a sunflower’ they piled into the car and across snowy states to visit his mother in the desert and in the sunshine for him to heal. When Gene said they were ‘hitting the road’, he didn’t mean it literally. But in the snow they hit a utility pole. Nobody, apart from Gene seemed to emerge unhurt from the wreck. Her mother, for example, suffered ‘raccoon eyes’ associated with brain damage, but hospitals were the work of the devil, so she suffered and self-medicated with herbs.
They hit the road again the following year in a snow storm. Gene’s argument that the angels protecting them could fly quicker than the sixty miles per kilometer they were doing on unmarked road flipped to a different story in the end.
Sara escapes, as we know she will, through education –it’s there in the title. But at what price? She tries to prove to herself her father is bipolar.
In a Virginia Woolf essay she argued that women were constrained by the dominant ideology of womanhood, of being a wife and mother. Par, for the course, here, where Westover recognises in her extensive reading the Mormon practice of polygamy was god’s way of rewarding men by handing out new wives to the righteous like sweeties.
More taboo for Woolf was constraint on women’s bodies, woman having passion. For Woolf this ‘constrained her from telling the truth about [her] own experiences as a body’.
Educated is also a love story to herself, her body, a coming-of-age story. The wolf here is her brother Shawn. When she is a little girl, she is sweet. But when she hits adolescence and thinks about boys and wearing lipstick Shawn treats her like a slut and re-educates her. In a word, he’s a manipulative psychopath and even a Mormon bishop classifies him as such.
There’s a kind of naivety here of the truly desperate. If I do this…If I didn’t do that…I shouldn’t have done this. Shawn knows how that narrative goes. You read about the Shawns of this world in court reports that outline how they beat and murdered their partners for making the wrong kind of stew. For being out late. For talking to another man.
Here Westover hopes her family will take her into the fold if they find out how evil Shawn really is, how he played the same games with Tara’s sister, Audrey and if her father Gene, the great white patriarch, knew, really knew, he would shun Shawn, cast him out of the family and into everlasting damnation. The lies we tell ourselves are often the cruellest. That’s the moral of this epic narrative.
Best seller for good reasons. Beautifully written. Beautifully told and bold, but really, like father, like son. The foolishness of man is here in all its glory.