Sunday, May 27, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

When I think of separatists, I think of people living in a cabin far from civilization.  What surprised me most about Tara Westover's upbringing was that her cabin was only 15 or so miles from town - distant to a Philadelphian like me but not far for someone in the rural parts of the Mountain West.  She grew up in a separatist family.  Her mother theoretically homeschooled her and her six older siblings but in reality kept the family financially afloat as an herbalist and midwife.  The children all worked for their father, sorting scrap metal and doing occasional construction jobs.  In their father's eyes, school was part of the government and the government was the enemy.  After all, the government had killed the Weavers, and had done so because they homeschooled their children.  Modern medicine poisoned rather than healed, and the family treated even severe injuries with herbal remedies mixed in their kitchen.  And yet, the family had contact with general society.  Tara's paternal grandparents lived in an adjoining property and they saw each other almost daily.  Her maternal grandparents lived in a nearby town, and the family also attended weekly services at the Mormon church in town.  As the children (Tara is the youngest of seven) came of age, some of them took jobs in town, and Tara even participated in musical theater productions.   With nearby family and contacts in town, I wonder how or why no one noticed what was happening on Buck's Peak.

It all seems innocent, when Grandma-over-the-hill offers to take Tara with her on her yearly snowbird trip to Arizona.  If she comes to Grandma's house by 5 am, no one will notice that Tara is missing until nightfall.  By then, she'll be in Arizona and can enroll in school.  She's tempted, but after staying up all night decides not to go.  Maybe Tara was too young at that point to see how truly difunctional her family is, or maybe it wasn't quite so bad yet.  It's probably a bit of both.  At seven, Tara's life felt normal to her because she'd never experienced anything else, and it becomes clear that Gene Westover is not so much an ideologue as a man whose severe but undiagnosed mental illness became more disruptive and destructive as time passed.

By age 10, Tara is only theoretically homeschooled.  Her mother Faye's midwifery practice fell victim to concussion-induced migraines and with the three oldest sons gone (Tony started his own trucking business and got married, Shawn ran off after a fight with his father, and Tyler unexpectedly went to college), Gene needed Tara's labor sorting steel from copper, working alongside her brothers Luke and Richard (15-year-old Audrey had found a job in town).  Tara follows suit, working as a babysitter for two families and packing nuts at a local store.  That's when she started taking piano, dance, and voice lessons, leading to a disastrous recital and her foray into musical theater.

It's during her years in community theater that we first get to know Shawn.  We see from the start that he's emotionally manipulative and explosively violent, but to Tara he's a protective older brother. Later, the family attributes his mood swings and outbursts to a head injury incurred while working on a family construction project, but we (and Tara) eventually realize that he's always been violent, perhaps having inherited a variant of the mental illness that plagues their father.  Tara's relationship with Shawn is unsettling, leaving me to wonder if she left anything unsaid.

Music also leads to Tara's unexpected entrance into the outside world.  Her brother Tyler, now a college graduate and about to start a graduate program in mechanical engineering, encourages her to apply to BYU.  They accept homeschooled students, and they're a conservative, Mormon university.  She hesitates, but he convinces her that if she majors in music, she can become a choir director in a Mormon congregation.  With a high ACT score and an application filled out by Tyler, she's accepted and enrolls.

Tara doesn't initially adjust well to outside life.  Her roommates shock her by wearing revealing clothing and grocery shopping and doing homework on Sunday.  She, in turn, appalls them wth her questionable hygiene.  She'd never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement, and had no idea that she was supposed to buy textbooks.  Somehow, though, she manages to make it through her freshman year and eventually gets counseling from her congregation's Bishop.  Asking a professor for help in class leads to mentorship, and eventually to a program at Cambridge.  Still, Buck's Peak calls her back and she spends summers scrapping and working at the local grocery store.  Her expanding knowledge, though, eventually shows her that Shawn is dangerously violent (and also victimized Audrey and Tyler).  Things change after her father suffers severe burns in an accident.  He survives, attributing it to Faye's herbal preparations.  Suddenly, they've got a successful business and Gene's survival leads him to become almost a cult leader.  Tara's journey to be Dr. Westover isn't just a matter of being educated, but a matter of developing the perspective to see how destructive her upbringing really was.  Estranged from part of her family, close to others (including Tyler and Richard who have Ph.D.s in mechanical engineering and chemistry, respectively), and reconnected with the aunts and uncles she barely new growing up, Educated ends with the newly minted Dr. Westover reading an e-mail for her aunt who's excited that she'll see Tara again in only 12 hours.

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