Educated, A Memoir, by Tara Westover, Hutchinson, 400 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1786330512
The Westovers are of Norwegian stock. In the mid-nineteenth century, while still in Norway, they convert to Mormonism; then they move to the US and end up at the foot of Buck Peak, Idaho. Dissolve to 1951: Gene Westover is born. His family are traditional Mormons: pro-gun, pro-business, self-sufficient, hard-working.
Gene marries another Mormon (a townswoman who grows up in a house with a white picket fence), establishes a scrapyard on his parents’ land at the foot of Buck Peak, and sires seven children: five boys and two girls, one of whom is Tara, author of Educated.
In the early years Westover family life is hard-scrabble but not isolated. The three oldest boys go to school, for instance. But, as the years pass, Gene becomes increasingly convinced that the US is an ungodly, nefarious state, that its employees (teachers, doctors and so on) are all socialists and commies, and that its intentions towards the freeborn – like the Westovers – are malign. Gene’s ideology is then annealed by a great cataclysm. The Weaver family of Ruby Ridge, Idaho, are surrounded in their cabin by US marshals and FBI agents. Fourteen-year-old Sammy Weaver is shot dead, as is his mother, Vicki: Randy, Sammy’s father, is shot in the back. Gene believes the authorities were there to take the home-schooled Weaver kids into custody and then send them to state school to be turned into socialists. God’s message, told through the Weavers’ story, he opines, is that the Westovers face an existential threat to which there is only one answer. They must eschew the government and its agencies completely; they must arm; and they must hoard enough food and fuel to survive a ten-year siege. Gene also directs his wife (on God’s orders) to become a private midwife, so when the day of abomination arrives she can help survivors re-stock the planet. She complies, obviously. With no training or hospital back-up, she starts delivering babies.
Tara Westover’s childhood is dominated by Gene’s apocalyptic beliefs. She’s born at home, and doesn’t get a birth certificate. She never goes to hospital. Or the dentist. Or school. She just labours (along with her siblings) for her father, in the scrapyard or for his construction company. Gene is a hopeless employer, indifferent to safety and his children suffer numerous accidents, all documented here in forensic detail.
And Tara’s woes don’t end there: her older brother, Shawn, who completely subscribes to his parents’ apocalyptic views, becomes the family enforcer; his business, he believes, is to make each sibling the best Westover they can be, and he does this with violence – extreme, indefatigable, heart-stopping violence.
Tara Westover’s escape is catalysed by her brother, Tyler, also a victim of Shawn. Tyler gets out, then counsels Tara to get into education. Eventually, and via a complex and circuitous route, Tara follows his advice and gets herself to Brigham Young University. Here she discovers the cost of her non-education. She knows nothing. Nothing. She has never heard of the Holocaust. Or painkillers. She doesn’t understand the importance of washing one’s hands to eliminate germs. She doesn’t even know the truth about the Weavers. The siege had nothing to do with home-schooling and everything to do with Randy selling weapons to those he thought were in the Aryan Brotherhood.
Tara’s ignorance is epic. Fortunately she has a brain. She gets to Cambridge and Harvard and eventually secures a doctorate (her subject: Mormonism as an ideology). But the journey is far from straightforward. After the childhood and adolescence she’s had, how could it be? Besides which, when she goes home, as she must, Shawn’s there and she must submit to his will in order to survive.
It can’t go on. Of course not. Her older sister Beverley, also a victim of Shawn, decides truth must be told to power, the parents. She discloses. Her parents’ response is to offer Beverley a choice. Take it all back or quit the family. Beverley, who’s working in her parents’ business (they’re finished with scrap and are now making herbal remedies marketed as alternatives to Obamacare), can’t survive outside the family, so she recants. But despite this setback, the genie is out of the bottle. Eventually Tara discloses too and she’s offered the same deal as Beverley: but she won’t take it back and so she’s expelled from the clan, since which time she hasn’t seen her parents or the four siblings who take their side. And of course her stand also comes at a cost: she has a breakdown.
Tara Westover is a fine writer. She tells her story with panache and without rancour. But there are omissions. The religious torment she must have endured is only sketchily evoked. She also omits the physical. In Idaho modesty was mandatory and femininity abhorred as whorish. At sixteen she takes to makeup but her embrace of what her family dismiss as satanic is unexplained. In her early twenties she only very occasionally allows she has a body and then suddenly she has a boyfriend. Intimacy and love are surely hard won but she tells us nothing of that struggle.
Educated opens with a health warning: “This is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.” Quite. What Tara Westover endured could have happened as easily in a Catholic family as a Mormon one, on top of which, as we know, tyranny can flourish in any climate, religious and non-religious. The actual subject of Educated is abuse and the abuse of power in the family and how (as the publicity emphasises) a “girl” successfully struggles to liberate herself through education.
This is certainly the story told; but uplifting and empowering it ain’t. So this is my health warning to readers: Tara escapes as do two of her brothers, but her other four siblings remain trapped back in Idaho. That’s four-three, and by my reckoning, four imprisoned to three living free represents a clear victory for the forces of oppression.
Carlo Gébler teaches in Trinity College at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing and at the American College in Dublin: he also works with prisoners in the community. His latest novel is The Innocent of Falkland Road (New Island).