Thursday 19 September 2019

Hard lessons

Memoir: Educated, Tara Westover, Hutchinson, ­hardback, 329 pages, €18.49


Joanne Hayden

Born into an isolated, survivalist Mormon family, Tara Westover didn't enter a classroom until she was 17. Now she has a PhD and is a fellow at Harvard.

In the life she almost had, Tara Westover would never have written a book. She would certainly never have written a memoir like Educated, a courageous and often devastating depiction of her struggle to chart her own course. In the life she almost had, Tara Westover would be answerable to a husband, and living close to her parents and worryingly violent brother. That she escaped, that as a 16-year-old who had never been to school - never even been properly home schooled - she enrolled in university, and went on to do a PhD in Cambridge, is a testament to her resilience, determination and considerable intelligence.

She grew up in Idaho, in the shadow of a mountain; a visceral sense of place permeates her prose. One of seven children, she was born into a survivalist, Mormon family and though a note at the beginning stresses that Education is neither about Mormonism nor any other form of religious belief, the religiosity of her parents - particularly her father - meant that until she was 16, her opportunities were severely curtailed.

"I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination," she writes, "watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drop as if with blood."

As a young child, she helped her mother can peaches, pit apricots and churn apples into sauce. The sealed, labelled supplies were stored in a concealed bomb shelter in preparation for the Second Coming. Her parents' fanaticism set her family apart from the wider Mormon community - mostly "gentiles" in her father's eyes.

Born at home, she didn't have a birth cert and until she went to university, never saw a doctor or nurse. Her mother was a herbalist, an unlicensed midwife and energy healer. The Westovers' hostility to the medical establishment barely wavered in the face of serious and near-fatal accidents, of which there were several. The junkyard her father operated and expected his children to work in was fraught with danger. His crew lost fingers, gashed their bodies and injured themselves in falls. He and his son were horrifically burned.

"Don't worry, honey," he told his daughter. "God is here, working right alongside us. He won't let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is his will."

There were other, separate car accidents - the writer's mother was brain damaged in one but didn't go to hospital.

It was a tense, deeply misogynistic household. Her father's word was law, and in the main she accepted this until a series of events led her to deviate from her prescribed path of early marriage, children, herbalism and midwifery. One of her brothers went to university and, after a hiatus away, another brother, Shawn, returned to live at home. At first Shawn seemed like her ally but over time his behaviour grew more manipulative and threatening, escalating into frequent bouts of violence. He repeatedly shoved her face into the toilet. He called her a whore and almost broke her wrist. He stabbed his pet dog to death.

One of the reasons Educated is so powerful, so haunting, is because like a good novelist, Westover treats each of her characters - family members and others - with the consideration they deserve. There are no demons or angels here; people are many things at once. Her father and Shawn are complex and contradictory, capable of doing good as well as harm.

Her father comes through most vividly of all and Westover's depiction of him is so nuanced, so attuned to his inner turmoil, that it's possible to admire his resolve while at the same time despairing of it. It's also possible to understand the hold he had on his daughter and why - blood ties aside - she loves him so much.

Weathering his disapproval, she began to study and made it to BYU, a Mormon university in Utah where her perceptions slowly shifted. As she met more "gentiles" and immersed herself in history and philosophy, new worlds opened up.

She went on to Cambridge and Harvard, tried coffee and wine - caffeine and alcohol are forbidden in Mormonism - and discovered feminism, which was frowned upon in BYU. But having internalised many of her father's views, she found it difficult to navigate her new life.

She had moved on, yet could not let go; she was at war with herself. Though she now questioned their belief system, she frequently visited her parents but a chasm opened up over Shawn. Her parents refused to acknowledge the extent of his behaviour and wanted their daughter to renounce her memories. She had a breakdown. She recovered.

Her recovery is slightly skimmed over compared to other significant events; she could have included a more comprehensive account of it and talked directly about the process of writing Educated, but these choices don't diminish the book's ambition and scope.

In certain ways Educated is reminiscent of some of the best Irish memoirs in which fathers are central - Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People, John McGahern's Memoir, Carlo Gébler's Father & I. Westover excels at weaving ideas into her story and using her own experience to explore what memory and education, home and family are. And other characters are central, too, not just Shawn but Westover's mother, who facilitates small rebellions only to backtrack, and who, despite establishing a successful business, never develops a robust sense of self.

While the book is deeply serious, it's not solemn. Westover has an eye for humour and farce and looks back with amusement on her blinkered younger self fleeing when a roommate opened a Diet Coke. Her vulnerability and strength transcend her writing precisely because she never narrates herself with pity. Neither does she try and turn herself into a hero. Rather, her finely measured, beautifully rhythmic prose conveys the pain of trying to reconcile herself with being estranged from her parents, no matter how delusional they might be.

Rejecting any form of binary thinking, she writes with a humaneness that comes partly from having suffered, and the book that grew out of that suffering is a rare and unexpected gift.

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