Written by Carey Chaney, Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library
You’re driving through rural Idaho, in the middle of the night. In the distance, you see an isolated farmhouse with the porch light on. You might wonder about the people there, and what their lives are like. Tara Westover’s family lived far from any main highway, in an even more isolated location. From her early childhood, aspects of her father’s mental illness completely dominated the family. His mis- trust of public education resulted in the children being “home schooled” by their mother. Mr. Westover’s frequent insistence that the children work in the family scrap metal business rendered their “education” sporadic and insufficient. Despite Tara’s dearth of education, an older brother’s physical abuse, and the grip of her family, she went to college, eventually received a Ph.D. and is now teaching at Harvard.
Tara Westover’s book “Educated” has a certain relevance to me, because I grew up in Southeastern Idaho, where Westover endured her troubled childhood. I was born in Pocatello, and Tara Westover grew up in the mountains Northeast of Malad, Idaho. The Utah State line is directly to the South. However, geographical similarity is not the only reason I found particular resonance in reading “Educated.”
First, although Westover’s childhood was consistently fraught with mental, emotional, and physical abuse, I want to very clearly state that my childhood, in the mountains outside Pocatello, was really quite idyllic, and unlike Westover, I can happily recall wonderful memories of a relatively “normal,” stable and loving family. It is the stark contrast in the way Westover’s childhood compares to mine that I found to be so evocative. This distinct dichotomy churned up several comparisons.
The region has a “prevailing culture.” Historically, one characteristic of Mormon culture has been the expectation that a woman should be subservient to her husband. This societal “norm” plays out with tragic consequences in “Educated.” Tara’s mother almost never stood up to her bipolar, tyrannical, delusional husband, and this deeply scarred every member of the family. By contrast, my parents had “traditional” roles, but there was a flow of communication between them, and conflicts were negotiated on a fairly equal basis.
Tara Westover’s father is not an example of nominal Mormonism. He took “end-times” beliefs to delusional extremes, and many of his other beliefs were simply paranoid thinking. Westover’s father thought he was a good man, but his behavior harmed his family in irreparable ways.
This sharply contrasts with my own father: a mechanic, later a minister, and a man of integrity. My father had a spiritual “conversion” experience that changed his life. As a result, he stopped drinking and smoking on the same day, and became active in a church with beliefs that clashed with the area’s dominant religion. In time, as a response to his religious belief, he made an orderly transition to a new profession. He went from working with things, to working with people.
Although our family lived ten miles outside of Pocatello, our situation was not comparable to the social isolation experienced by Tara Westover and her siblings. As a kid, I could spend hours roaming the hills in solitude, but also rode the bus to school. It is this sort of juxtaposition of my life with Westover’s that I found so intriguing. My own lackadaisical response to public school’s opportunities certainly contrasts with the lack of educational opportunity and abject neglect she experienced.
The story of my journey from Idaho to Florida is indeed circuitous, and if I hadn’t been working at Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library, I may never have encountered Westover’s sobering, thought-provoking book. Tara Westover’s memoir is inspirational because she was able to transcend her troubled childhood, and become, “Educated.”