I am always looking for new books to read. I especially love non-fiction novels about the lives of others. I want to know how they dealt with the experiences in their lives and how it worked out for them. I came across a book entitled “Educated” by Tara Westover. It is a New York Times best seller. My curiosity was triggered, and I bought the book.
It is a story about Tara Westover’s life growing up in a Mormon family in Idaho. Even by Mormon standards, her father especially, is an outsider in his own faith tradition. Eccentric might be another term that one would use. Tara and some of her other younger siblings are never sent to school and their so-called “homeschooling” is basically no schooling. Her father believes school will contaminate his children to the world- a world in which he sees himself as God’s prophet.
There are so many psychological and religious issues in this story that I can relate to on so many levels from my own personal experience. Although, I grew up Mennonite and not Mormon and the religious beliefs are different, the cultural dynamics are similar.
First, Tara grows up in a family where the father is the ruler and women are seen as needing to always be submissive to men. This is a standard Mormon belief as well as one of many evangelical Christians, but her father uses that belief to control and to manipulate his family into a separate kind of lifestyle ruled by paranoia of everything “out there”, religious superiority, and an expectation of family loyalty. He does this through demanding an adherence to a distorted preaching of his faith as the one and true faith, by shaming his children if they so much as show any interest in how others live and attempt to copy that behavior. I couldn’t help but make that connection to my own father. Though my father was not nearly as off-center as Mr. Westover, I recognized the same behavior from my childhood. The result is the child feels alone and unable to connect with anyone often for life.
Tara finds herself alienated from everyone in her world except her family. She sits alone in Sunday School and of course, she has no friends for two reasons. She feels different from everyone else and her father makes sure that she has no time or opportunity to cultivate friendships with others. He stresses that girls she meets are not good enough for her. Her father uses his faith to condemn them as not living the way a person of God should live. She, therefore, feels guilty for even wanting to associate with such “wicked” people.
Tara, even after she leaves home and goes to college, finds herself unable to fit in and at odds with pretty much everyone. I don’t think she, for many years, recognizes that this is a result of the socialization or lack thereof from her home life. It is deeply and complexly rooted in the emotional, psychological, religious, and cultural dynamics of her early years. I find it interesting that she titles the book, “Educated,” as if obtaining an education is what moves her to a place in society that she is accepted as “normal” by others. The lack of education is a handicap and with certainty will keep her a captive in her father’s strange world, but it is not what makes her feel alone, strange, and like she doesn’t belong in the new world that she explores. Getting educated will not fix what is broken inside of her from her childhood. It only gives her a better platform from which the self can say, “Now I am somebody.” I did the same thing. I went to school and got a master’s degree and a job that is viewed with respect and awe. And while working in it, I feel strong, accepted, and like I have worth. But outside of it, I still feel friendless and different from everyone else. I watch Tara as the story progresses feeling this total alienation from others and struggling with it. From my own experience, I have learned the feeling never goes away. One simply has to learn to be comfortable with being alone and knowing that this is who I am.
A part of her psychic also does the same thing that I did with my family even after leaving. It longs for the love of one’s parents and siblings. Tara, like me, keeps coming back to the family trying to convince them of reality and what is right. Even though on a logical level, one comes to understand that one’s family is mentally unhealthy, there is this deep seated need to stay connected to them. Afterall, if those who bore you and nurtured you in childhood don’t love you, then why would anyone else especially God. Tara loses herself and becomes mentally unstable for a year after she realizes that her family does not want to know the truth that one son has been viciously abusing other members. Her parents are not interested in addressing the problems in the family and the highest value of loyalty makes everyone choose to accept “the delusion that they are one big happy family” which will allow them to remain part of the family. Tara realizes that the family “truth” and loyalty are more important than loving her. This is devastating to her.
What really destroys her is that her mother betrays her in this battle to expose evil. Her mother one minute acknowledges to Tara that she knows about and will speak to her father about Shawn’s unacceptable behavior. But when there is an actual confrontation, her mother turns against her and sides with her father. Her mother tries to destroy Tara’s reputation and character. For the mother to stand against the patriarch of the family requires too high of a price. It reminds me so much of my own mother who swung from seemingly being rational to total denial and perpetrating vicious attacks on my character. It leaves one very confused and in the case of Tara, she cannot concentrate enough to even study. She falls into a deep depression. She had this deep-seated hope that her family would change because of her speaking the truth. But her family, like mine, was incapable of changing. Denial is a powerful substance that keeps the system stable no matter how dysfunctional. Only the individual has the power to change and often doesn’t because of these pressures from different aspects of society to conform, especially the family of origin and one’s religious community.
If you enjoy exploring the complex dynamics of families, “Educated” is a compelling read. My books “If You Leave This Farm” and “No Longer a Child of Promise” also explore many of the same dynamics. My third book, “Once An Insider, Now Without a Church Home” explores the same dynamics and pressures within the evangelical church as found within the family. One is only a friend and a member as long as one follows the dictated expected behavior and norms.
I appreciate all those who have the courage to write their stories. It helps me to know that I am really not alone and that I don’t need to be ashamed to share my own story.