‘Educated’ – book review [April 30]
Why do we read memoirs? One theory is that we are mentally rehearsing for other possible lives, imagining how wewould behave in these situations. Some memoirs also function as a reminder to count our blessings.
One of my many blessings was a free university education. I studied politics and learnt about the theory of ‘interpellation’, the process whereby ‘repressive state apparatuses’ make passive subjects of their citizens, robbing them of the power to think critically about dominant ideologies. These ideologies are embedded in everyday language and absorbed unconsciously into our sense of identity.
Reading Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in rural Idaho, it struck me that her fundamentalist father would have loved this stuff. It would have reinforced Gene Westover’s paranoia about ‘the Feds’. It would have made him even more determined to isolate his family from the education system, the health system, from every form of social support offered by government.
It would have justified his decision to refuse medical help when the family car overturns, seriously injuring his wife. And when his son suffers deep burns whilst working for his father. And when Gene Westover nearly loses half his face from an even worse burns accident.
There is a tragic irony at the heart of this memoir. While Tara Westover’s father rails against the persecutory power of ‘the Feds’, he cannot see that his own wacky brand of religious fundamentalismisa repressive ideology. Every member of his family is scarred by it, literally and/or emotionally.
‘Educated’ is the story of how Tara Westover survived her brutal childhood and, despite having no formal schooling, made it to university. But this is no revenge memoir. It is also a story about how love can survive in the face of unfathomable cruelty.
To remain within the embrace of the family Tara must embrace her father’s worldview. When he forbids her from going to school and instead puts her to work in his junkyard, young Tara falls from a front-end loader. Though the fall was caused by her father’s recklessness, still she loves him. When her brother Shawn nearly breaks her wrist trying to stop her meeting up with a boy, she forgives him. And when her family labels her a ‘whore’ for wearing lipstick, she internalises the label and the shame that comes with it.
It’s not until she finds her way to university that Tara begins to question that worldview. When her brother calls her a ‘nigger’ for the ‘thousandth time’, she finds she can no longer laugh it off.
‘Something had shifted… I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself… that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalise others.’
The narrator’s voice remains distanced, even dissociated, as she recounts episode after episode of physical and psychological violence. A more lyrical voice takes over when she is describing the consolations of nature and art.
The family farm sits at the foot of a mountain her father calls the Indian Princess, and in young Tara’s imagination the Princess is a benign presence watching over her. When she leaves home to go to university, she misses the mountain as keenly as she misses her family.
Music is the one thing that can soften her father. Entranced by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tara takes some singing lessons. Somehow Gene Westover’s anti-education views are trumped by the heavenly sound of his daughter’s voice floating above the church choir.
As Tara Westover declares in an Author’s Note, ‘this story is not about Mormonism’. Her father, she belatedly realises, suffers from a mental illness. Any rigid dogma, when combined with madness, can be dangerous.
In this era of ‘fake news’ and popular despotism, Tara Westover’s memoir reminds us that the best defense against repressive ideology is critical thinking – the kind that comes with an education.
(This review was first published in The Age and the SMH in April 2018).