Educated: A Memoir

   

Traveling between China and California, I read Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir during my two long haul flights.

In this book, Tara tells the story of her life, born to survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho, grown up in a household that distrust public education and medical establishment. She was an invaluable assistant to her mum, a midwife and healer, worked in her father’s junkyard since young age. There were occasionally sweet and inspiring moments: the time with one older brother, observing her mum’s transform (from yielding to her father completely to having her own flourishing business with yet still very limited independent and free views), limited interactions with people (grandparents and boyfriend) connecting the two worlds before finally leaving home in her late teen. There was also violence upon her and female characters by one other older brother. Throughout the book, this constant struggle of what is truth and what one lets oneself to believe persists.

Tara’s quest for knowledge and determination of self-invention triumphed, with the cost of severing many family ties. She shares with us an incredible journey of hers, beautifully balancing the storytelling, her inner struggle and epiphanies. In her own words:  Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.

Later on in the book, during Tara’s time in Brigham Young University and Cambridge University, a few great teachers and friends played instrumental roles in her continued transformation and self-creation. The stark contrast between the influence of these people with others in her life can not escape any reader’s attention.

Many favourite passages of mine from the book:

To write my essay I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration. Because Burke had defended the British monarchy, Dad would have said he was an agent of tyranny. He wouldn’t have wanted the book in the house. There was a thrill in trusting myself to read the words. I felt a similar thrill in reading Madison, Hamilton and Jay, especially on those occasions when I discarded their conclusions in favour of Burke’s, or when it seemed to me that their ideas were not really different in substance, only in form. There were wonderful suppositions embedded in this method of reading: that books are not tricks, and that I was not feeble.

I carried the books to my room and read through the night. I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft, but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.

Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.

I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. —Virginia Woolf

A witness. An impartial account. The fever of self doubt had broken long ago. That’s not to say I trusted my memory absolutely, but I trusted it as much as I trusted anybody else’s, and more than some people’s.

I couldn’t articulate how the name made me feel. Shawn had meant it to humiliate me, to lock me in time, into an old idea of myself. But far from fixing me in place, that word transported me. Every time he said it—“Hey Nigger, raise the boom” or “Fetch me a level, Nigger”—I returned to the university, to that auditorium, where I had watched human history unfold and wondered at my place in it. The stories of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were called to my mind every time Shawn shouted, “Nigger, move to the next row.” I saw their faces superimposed on every purlin Shawn welded into place that summer, so that by the end of it, I had finally begun to grasp something that should have been immediately apparent: that someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested. …. I did not think of my brother as that person; I doubt I will ever think of him that way. But something had shifted nonetheless. I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.

From my father I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. Books that were of God…were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself. I had been taught to read the words of men like Madison as a cast into which I ought to pour the plaster of my own mind, to be reshaped according to the contours of their faultless model. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself.

He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.

Curiosity is a luxury for the financially secure.

Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

The past was a ghost, insubstantial, unaffecting. Only the future had weight.

You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.

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. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.

My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.

Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.

It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.

By the end of it, I had finally begun to grasp something that should have been immediately apparent: that someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested.

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.

The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.  You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.

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