Friday 22 November 2019

Inspiring tale of silence, survival and self-invention in Mormon family

Memoir: Educated, Tara Westover, Hutchinson London, €14.24


Justine Carbery

In this stunning memoir Tara Westover recounts with brutal honesty the incredible tale of growing up on a 'jagged patch of Idaho', daughter to a paranoid Mormon 'survivalist' father and a submissive midwife mother. In pitiless prose she charts her unbelievable journey from a violent childhood through traumatic and abusive teen years to heartbreaking choices in adulthood.

Her father, an unhinged anti-government fanatic, forces the family to live off-grid, while stock-piling guns, fuel and food supplies in readiness for the Days of Abomination after the fall of the World Of Men. Tara's birth was unregistered, her birth date unclear, no vaccinations received. The family never saw a doctor or received any conventional medical treatment, even when they were horrifically burned, hurt in car accidents or injured at work. Tara received no formal education at all, no books to read and with no TV or radio, she grew up almost entirely unaware of the world beyond her family. Having no other frame of reference she never knew that their way of life was not the norm.

Aged 10 she is set to work salvaging scrap metal from her father's junkyard and endures perilous working conditions with astonishing resilience. Her parents' indifference to potential dangers is hard to fathom, as is their wilful neglect of her education.

As well as a chronicle of a dysfunctional family, this is the extraordinary tale of Tara's self-education. Although never having set foot in a classroom until she was 17, she teaches herself enough mathematics, grammar and science to sit the ACTs [tests used for college admission] to gain entrance to Brigham Young University in Utah. But her odd clothes and scant money, her rigid religious beliefs and narrow worldview mark her as an outsider, rendering friendships difficult. As well as having no idea how to bond socially, she is wholly unaware of world history, geography, politics or current affairs. When she asks a professor what the Holocaust is, fellow students and staff think she is being disrespectful, thus alienating her further. Yet she displays incredible fortitude and, against all odds, moves from failing every exam to winning a scholarship to Cambridge.

Holidays are spent back at the homestead, where her violent and abusive brother taunts and belittles her for what he sees as 'immodest' behaviour and dress, while her parents turn a blind eye. Her brother has such an emotional and physical bind over her that she questions the validity of her efforts to educate herself, yet thirsts for knowledge and the freedom it affords. Crippled by loyalty, she even questions if the abuse actually happened, but the visceral detail in her diaries gives testament to his cruel outbursts and intimidation.

There are so many moments in Educated where the reader stares aghast at the page, incredulous that things like this can happen in today's world. We may flinch and balk at her parents' and brothers' actions but never once do we doubt the veracity of her words. When the rupture in the family finally comes, you hope that she can break the cycle of abuse, denial and most of all, silence. The choices she has to make are heartbreaking but submitting to the family's warped version of the truth is no longer an option.

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