Head for the Hills

12 DECEMBER 2018 | KAREN KAO

When Michelle Obama writes a memoir, people read it. They want that peek behind the curtain. When you’re a not so famous person like Tara Westover, your memoir must be dramatic enough to excite and universal enough to resonate. Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, asks the fundamental question: what does it mean to be educated?

When Westover was six years old, her father decided it was time. The Feds had closed in on Randy Weaver and his family up on Ruby Ridge. The Westover family might very well be next. Westover’s father ordered his family to prepare. They packed rations, weapons, and thermal blankets into bags that they kept close at all time. Westover slept with hers in her bed. They called them their head for the hills bags.

The Westovers are survivalists. Their particular understanding of Mormonism tells them they are the chosen. When the End of Days comes, they will survive but they must also do their part to prepare. They cannot rely on anyone else, least of all the Government in its myriad forms: schools, hospitals, insurance companies.

Home-schooled

Westover does not attend public school but this doesn’t mean she’s uneducated. She can read and write, do some basic math. From her mother, she learns the medicinal properties of the flowers, roots and bark native to her mountain, Buck’s Peak. From her father, she learns how to work a forklift and strip copper. She can help deliver a baby. For someone who needs to survive the Days of Abomination, Westover is plenty educated.

In Part I of her memoir, Westover depicts a world unlike any I’ve ever known in life or on the page. Buck’s Peak is her lodestar.

The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Educated, Prologue, p. xiii

But there’s nothing idyllic about life on Buck’s Peak. There are catastrophic car accidents, explosions, falls, and burns. Once Westover reaches puberty, an older brother begins to abuse her, physically and mentally. Her brother tells her she’s a whore for wanting to wear mascara. Her church sees her as a wife and mother. Singing is one of the few things Westover is allowed to pursue. Her ambition is to lead the church choir.

Harvard educated

In a giddy, seemingly implausible series of great good fortune, Westover leaves Buck’s Peak for the great wide world. Her first stop is Brigham Young University, the private Mormon college in Provo, Utah. Yet Westover struggles to fit in. She’s shocked by the clothes her roommates wear, the Cokes they drink and the Sabbath they so casually break. She can’t sleep.

The chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air brakes, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk — I heard every sound individually. My ears, accustomed to the silence of the peak, felt battered by them.

Idem, pp 153-154

Westover is certain she’s not normal. Imposter syndrome follows her to Cambridge University and on to Harvard University. She struggles to keep alive her two selves: the dutiful daughter on Buck’s Peak and the budding academic at Harvard.

That delicate balance is broken the day Westover confronts her family about her abusive brother. The family closes ranks. Westover is devastated. She returns repeatedly to Buck’s Peak in the hope of reconciliation, only to realize each time the price she must pay.

If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.

Idem, p. 304

As tragic as these events are, I found the second half of Educated less moving. Neither the places nor the people come alive. Westover’s journey is internal now.

The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you.

Idem, p. 307

Enlightenment

The most moving moment for me is buried in a note at the back of the book. Westover is humble about her own memory and the fallacies it can contain. Even a life-threatening incident like the day Luke got burned or Shawn fell off the pallet grows fuzzy in the mind. It’s not her memory that Westover distrusts, but her understanding.

Either my father sent Luke down the mountain alone, or he did not; either he left Shawn in the sun with a serious head injury, or he did not. A different father, a different man, is born from those details.

Idem, A Note on the Text, p. 334

The reactions to Educated have been fierce: support and admiration for Westover and her achievements but also claims that Educated is more fiction than fact.

Individuals from all walks of life, both those known to the Westover family and outside of their world completely have weighed in.

Goali Saedi Bocci, Psychology Today, Apr. 2, 2018

Meanwhile, Westover’s parents have lawyered up. Their attorney, Blake Atkin, issued a statement to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He described Educated as distorted, fabricated, and heartbreaking to her parents.

An educated reader might find it difficult to believe that her home-school education was deficient when she finally reveals near the end that she is not the only Ph.D. in the family. Of the seven children, three hold Ph.D.s.

Neta Alexander, Haaretz, July 3, 2018

It’s almost a direct quote from Educated.

Dad had read the articles about my scholarship, and what he said was, “You didn’t mention home school. I’d think you’d be more grateful that your mother and I took you out of them schools, seeing how it’s worked out. You should be telling people that’s what done it: home school.”

Educated, p. 250

A Sense of Sovereignty

Every writer is influenced by what she reads. For many of us, it’s inspiring when the books you’re reading start talking to each other. Educated, by contrast, feels like a lone oak, emerging out of nowhere. Or, perhaps, I don’t recognize the root system that has fed Westover for so long.

I read the Book of Mormon twice. I read the New Testament […] I worked through the Old Testament next, then […] the speeches, early letters and journals of the early Mormon prophets.

Idem, p. 62

Westover has described the writing of Educated as a way to come to terms with the loss of her family.

“I didn’t feel like there were stories that talked about forgiveness without simply equating it with reconciliation.”

Catherine Conroy, Irish Times, Feb. 24, 2018

Educated is not a book about Mormonism or political caricatures. You can read this memoir as a take on memory, mental illness, or living off the grid.

There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.

Educated, p. 27

Being educated is about achieving that sense of sovereignty. To acquire custody over your own mind. In this day and age of bubbles and group think, it’s an idea as bracing as a wind off an Idaho mountain. 

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