Educated by Tara Westover at Jeanne’s November 2018

 

Thursday November 8th, everyone was there except Bev for the discussion on Educated by Tara Westover. This was a last minute book change from the scheduled book “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. As always there was animated discussion and we were not shy about expressing our opinions. We all agreed that we are blessed to have grown up in a free country with a great education and opportunities for work, travel, and much more!!

Link from Laura:

I happened to listen to the latest This American Life podcast last night and one of the segments in the episode dealt with a Mormon practice I had not known of prior to this, concerning “chastity rules”. I wondered whether Tara Westover had submitted to this practice during her early adolescence, and if so, she overlooked mentioning it in her book but it definitely would have contributed to her being “Educated”. She would have had to have her Bishop’s signoff in order to get into BYU. I include the link below if you want to listen to it – segment 1 – The Old Man on My Shoulder.

 

New book reference from Moira:

Who doesn’t love a story about a woman overcoming incredible odds, not to mention  the power of education in elevating the poor. I read The Hillbilly Elegy a couple of years ago which was a similarly illuminating novel about a group known as “white trash” who are both unable and unwilling to change and who live where education seems inaccessible/unattainable – hard to believe in this day and age.

From Jeanne’s notes:

Summary and Interview with Tara Westover

Tara Westover was born in Idaho in 1986. Her father, Val, and mother, LaRee, raised five sons and two daughters (Tara is the youngest). Val, who is given the pseudonym “Gene” in the book, is a fundamentalist Mormon who has devoted his life to preparing for the End of Days. His paranoia took a turn for the worse in 1992 after the tragic and highly publicized incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

At the center of that affair was a Christian fundamentalist named Randy Weaver, a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Vietnam, before settling with his wife and children at a remote farm in Idaho, in the American northwest. Like the Westover family, the Weavers believed in the imminent apocalypse, and tried to live independently of the authorities and be fully self-sustained.

During the 1980s, Randy Weaver attended rallies organized by extreme rightist organizations, among them such neo-Nazi groups as the Aryan Nations. In August 1992, the FBI raided Weaver’s home in search of illegal weapons. The raid went awry and FBI agents shot and killed Weaver’s wife Vicky and their 14-year-old son.

For Val Westover, the Ruby Ridge raid, which elicited harsh criticism of the government and the FBI, was a turning point. According to Tara, her father was convinced that his family was next in line. He believed with all his heart that the FBI intended to abduct his children, for the purpose of entering them in the public school system to “brainwash them.” Hence his decision to school them himself.

The education they received was based on a mix of racist beliefs and conspiracy theories. Val categorized the women in his world as either “saints” or “whores.” Westover relates in her book how her father and her brothers called her a “whore” when she rolled up the long sleeves of her blouse when working at the junkyard on a broiling summer’s day. Years later, when she registered for an introductory psychology course, she encountered the term “bipolar disorder” for the first time and realized to her astonishment that her father suffered from all the symptoms the lecturer described so drily, including paranoia and attacks of rage. She says that now she believes that all his life her father has suffered all from an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder.

“My dad was extreme about all of his views,” she tells me. “His mental irregularity was probably caused his religious extremism, and not the other way around. Everyone in my town was Mormon, and they went to the doctor and sent their kids to school.”

Indeed, the memories Westover describes in “Educated” are so shocking that it is easy to understand why her parents have done everything possible to refute them. Her childhood is described in an ambivalent way: On the one hand, she experienced the first years of her life as an attempt to survive in surroundings that were isolated and full of challenges (including preserving fruit and vegetables, and stockpiling equipment for an emergency that would help the family survive after the apocalypse). On the other hand, even today she emphasizes that in her childhood she was surrounded by family, wild nature and animals, and even today she stresses that her environment was fascinating and loving. She knew by heart every path and tree on the mountain that cast its shadow on the house, and before she reached the age of 10, she knew how to tame wild horses, dismantle a used car and prepare natural tinctures.

The idyll, however, crumbled quickly during her adolescence. Luke’s accident wasn’t the last one involving the children of the family, and that the parents tried to conceal from the authorities. The entire family was involved in a bad road accident but her father chose not to call the police because, not trusting insurance companies, he had never taken out insurance for himself, his children, or his car.

A few years later, another of the brothers, referred to by the pseudonym “Shawn” in the book, fell from a great height after losing his balance while trying dismantling some scrap metal. He suffered a concussion, but his father and his other siblings refused to call for medical assistance. The father just told him to take a break and come back to work.

About a quarter of an hour later, after Shawn had recovered a bit from the fall, he returned to the junkyard and started quarreling with his father and shouting at him. After he tried to shove his father, the two other brothers present attacked Shawn and beat him. He received another serious blow to his skull and lost consciousness.

In the book, Tara relates that eventually someone – though it is not clear who – decided to call for an ambulance. This was the first time in the family’s history that someone gave in to common sense and chose to ask for help. Since Shawn’s condition was grave and he was unconscious, the hospital closest to their home sent a rescue helicopter, a decision that probably saved his life.

According to Tara, Shawn was never the same after the injury. He became an aggressive, impatient and fanatical young man. His fits of violence became a heavy shadow over the lives of Tara and her sister. Ultimately, her parents’ choice to side with Shawn and completely deny his violent behavior is what made Tara feel she had to choose between them and her own sanity. This choice took up many years of her life, and even now, it seems like she has not yet come to terms with the severance of relations that was forced upon her. “Once I confronted them about Shawn, my parents tried to convince me that I was insane, and that my memories could not be trusted,” she tells me. “It was an attempt to control me.”

However, even this narrative is not as entirely unambiguous as it might seem. As Tara writes in “Educated,” at the age of 16 she wanted with all her heart to believe that it was the accident that caused her brother to become a monster capable of abusing her physically and mentally. The abuse continued throughout most of her adolescence: Shawn would curse his younger sister, hit her and shove her head into the toilet. In two separate incidents, he broke her wrist and her toe when she tried to resist.

But she has even earlier memories of abuse at the hands of Shawn, memories that call into question the relatively comforting belief that it was the head injury that caused his outbursts of violence. There is comfort in cause and effect, she writes, especially with regard to a continuing tragedy that is almost impossible to translate into words.

“When you love someone, you want to absolve them of responsibility for the bad things they have done,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that you could do that if it makes you feel better, but that doesn’t change the decision you will have to make. So, with my dad, I feel like working with him in the junkyard was dangerous, and whether he was responsible for that doesn’t matter. If it turns out this is the result of bipolar disorder, it might make it easier for me – but it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t safe there.

“The question is not whether Shawn or my dad are malicious or evil. The question is what might have happened to me if I had stayed in these relationships. I think that there is a phase of bargaining that you go through when you’re trying to extract yourself from a toxic relationship, and a lot of that is going to be focused on the other person: whether they deserve having you leave them and so on. But a later, healthier, stage is to ask not whether they deserve it but whether I deserve it. If not – you need to get out whether they are responsible for it or mentally ill.”

Did you ever consider filing a police report against Shawn?

(Laughing bitterly:) “I grew up thinking the police were a part of the Illuminati. Calling them was never an option.”

After you told your parents about the abuse, Shawn threatened to murder you and placed a bloodied knife in your hand. He had access to guns, and he had butchered his dog and beaten his wife.

“I remember the night that he threw his wife out of the house,” says Westover, referring to an event that occurred when she was 18. “I remember vaguely thinking that it would be a good idea to call the police so she could have a record for her protection, in case she would want to leave him. But I didn’t want to question my dad’s decision.

“The funny thing is that every time I went back home, I returned to being their daughter. So something that might seem abnormal in any other context suddenly seemed normal again. I was back in a world where the police was never an option.”

Westover’s story raises difficult questions about the role of the authorities – which never bothered to probe why her parents took out a birth certificate for her only when she was 9 years old, never vaccinated her and insisted on schooling her at home. At the same time her story is an impressive and convincing defense brief for the higher-education system. Precisely at a time when anti-intellectualism has become a disturbing trend in America, Westover tells a Cinderella story of a lost girl who becomes a self-confident young woman thanks to her exposure to history, literature, philosophy and art.

She says the sole reason she was able to attend college was the help of her brother Tyler, who had taught himself mathematics and taken the college entrance exams secretly. After Tyler left home to study for his bachelor’s degree, he left his sister textbooks and encouraged her to take the standardized exams in mathematics, reading comprehension and written expression. Westover knew that her father would oppose this and therefore she had to study in secret at night, after exhausting days of working at the junkyard and in her mother’s improvised laboratory (“God’s pharmacy,” as her father called the family kitchen). Ultimately, she took the exams, received excellent scores and paid for her first year at Brigham Young by working the night shift in a grocery store in a nearby town.

The fact that she had never encountered the word “holocaust” wasn’t the only evidence of her unusual background. She had never heard of Napoleon, Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement. She had a hard time understanding an introductory history course until a friend explained to her that Europe is the name of a continent and not a country.

The more introductory courses and seminars she took, the more Westover realized that her father’s view of the world was extreme, distorted and very partial. When her parents came to visit her at college – for the first and last time – she took them to an Indian restaurant.

“We waited for the food, and Dad asked about my classes,” she writes in “Educated.” “I said I was studying French. ‘That’s a socialist language,’ he said, then he lectured for 20 minutes on 20th-century history. He said Jewish bankers in Europe had signed secret agreements to start World War II, and that they had colluded with Jews in America to pay for it. They had engineered the Holocaust, he said, because they would benefit financially from worldwide disorder. They had sent their own people to the gas chambers for money.”

When I ask Westover why she didn’t try to argue with her father even though she knew for certain that he was mistaken, she replies that she realized full well that she didn’t stand a chance of changing his mind.

“I’ve never tried to educate him, because it would just lead to a much longer lecture. There was one conversation I remember having with my dad, when he talked about the Founding Fathers, and said it [that is, the early years of the United States] was the most moral epoch in the history of mankind, and if only we could go back to that, everything would be so much better. I remember saying to him, ‘You mean, when women couldn’t vote or own property and you could legally rape a woman if she was black? Is that really our Golden Age?’ And that was the only time in which he kept quiet and thought about what I had said. He wasn’t willing to defend that argument.”

In the book, you write that there were some things in the unusual education you had from your parents that you are grateful for.

“That’s right. My parents believed that it was your responsibility to learn, and that you could teach yourself whatever you put your mind to. When I did get access to an education, in college, the idea that it was someone’s else responsibility to teach me would never have occurred to me.”

No blacks, no Jews

The ongoing success of “Education” has made Westover a reluctant star. In the months since it was published, she has been running from one news studio to the next, telling CNN about her years at Cambridge and being photographed in a red dress and high heels for The Times of London. The release of the book, however, constituted a mortal blow to her relationships with Shawn and her parents. Today, she says, she is in touch with only three of her siblings.

Her parents declined a request to be interviewed by Haaretz. Their lawyer, Blake Atkin, however, denies many of Westover’s accusations and asserts that the education she received at home has enabled her and siblings to pursue higher education. (See his full statement, below.)

Beyond Westover’s talents for writing and storytelling, the success of “Education” can also be attributed to the American thirst to learn more about the lives of “the other America.” When asked if she thinks her book can provide new insights into America’s fundamentalist right, Westover hesitates and explains that her family is not a typical white family.

“I didn’t set out to write a political book. I wanted to humanize people who have radically different beliefs They are still full, complicated human beings. My dad has some crazy beliefs, including racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, but he is also a full, complicated human being.”

When you were growing up in Idaho did you ever meet someone who was either black or Jewish?

“No, no one,” she says with a smile. “I think I met my first African-American when I was a senior at BYU, at age 22. I only met Jews when I went to Cambridge at 25. But I probably never had a conversation with someone who was African-American till my mid-twenties. So for me racism was theoretical. And theoretical racism is really easy to hold on to. If there is no one there to contradict it, it is very easy to pass on these ideas.  

“I think sometimes people think that they have a right to be prejudiced and dehumanize other people if those people dehumanize a third party. But then we risk being incredibly prejudiced against racist people. It means that there are people we don’t want to engage with, and it’s okay to reduce their entire existence to a very simplified view. We wouldn’t reduce a black person to just one part of their identity. And I think it’s a hard case to make because it sounds like I’m defending them and I’m not. I don’t defend their beliefs. But I do say that if we’re serious about persuasion and enlightenment, that has to stop. It’s not productive for dialogue or any exchange of ideas.”

Who helped you change your way of thinking?

“It was a very long process. When I went to Cambridge, I was extremely homophobic. The only things I’d ever been told about gay people was that people become gay if they were molested as children, and that they will molest children when they grow up. This was my education on this topic. So if you asked me back then, ‘Should we allow gay couples to have children?’ my answer would be ‘absolutely not’.

“But when I got to Cambridge I had a really long conversation with someone who forced me to say out loud ideas that I had, that once I said them I felt very uncomfortable. The only reason I said them was that he never walked away or was appalled. He never said, ‘You’re a terrible human being.’ He just said things like, ‘There are no data that support that claim. Why do you believe that?’ I didn’t feel attacked or dehumanized. He was much more generous to me than I was to homosexuals, and that allowed me to change my mind. We argued till 3 A.M. and the next day I wrote him an email and said, ‘Thanks for talking with me last night. I decided that you’re right and I was wrong.” He was the first person who took the time to make the other case to me, over and over.”

You never managed to have a conversation like that with your father.

“No, but I do think that he is a moral person who always believed he was doing the right thing. Even though some of his ideas are hurtful and weird, they don’t come out of hatred or evil.”

Perhaps that in fact is the tragedy.

“It is a huge tragedy, but there is also a spark of hope. That way it’s

possible to think that maybe nevertheless there is away to talk with him.”

What would you tell someone who feels deeply estranged from their family?

“If you could base your reason and choices on yourself and not on them, it’s better. There were many years in which I tried to justify my decision not to see my parents any more, based on things they had done or how culpable I thought they were, constantly tallying up everything bad they had ever done and trying to convince myself that it was bad enough to justify my decision. No matter how angry I felt, I never had enough that I felt justified for doing that. It never felt okay to me. I think I started to feel better about it once I realized it is not about what they have done – but about what I deserve.

“Anger can be a good thing. It’s a mechanism that your brain uses to get you out of situations that are bad for you. But in terms of leading a peaceful life, it is not very productive. You will have to live with it every day. Using anger to justify this decision for 30 years is just going to make you really miserable. Self-respect and self-love is much, much better. I choose not to see my parents because I value myself – and they didn’t value me or my mind. Forgiveness isn’t necessarily the absence of anger; it’s also the presence of self-love. When you value yourself, you don’t have to be angry.”

We all want to believe that if only we could forgive ourselves and others, the road to reconciliation awaits. If it were a Hollywood movie, it would end with a tear-jerking reconciliation.

“It might not end with reconciliation. I can’t have my family in my life because they are abusive, and I don’t have control over that. There is an abusive culture in my family, and I have to turn away from it. So forgiveness and reconciliation is not the same thing. Once I accepted my decision on my own terms I could let go of what they have done to me. If you want to live a miserable life – making your life all about other people is the way to do it.”

Lawyer for parents: Tara’s education was better than one at a public school

Blake Atkin, a lawyer representing Tara Westover’s parents, replied by email to questions from Haaretz. He claims that “Educated” creates a distorted picture of Val and LaRee Westover.

According to Atkin, “We used to think that the purpose of education was to teach young people to think, not to just be able to regurgitate dates or facts that someone else has collated. Tara tells a cute story of being in a college class and not knowing what the professor was referring to when he spoke of the Holocaust, as if somehow that proves her education was lacking. An educated person reading her book might conclude that parents who prepared her well enough that she was accepted at a renowned university at age 16 – on an academic scholarship – ‘without ever having stepped foot in a classroom, just might conclude that her home-schooling really was an education, even if she did daydream through lessons on the Holocaust and other world tragedies, which her mother is adamant she was taught.  

“Like her older siblings, Tara always had the option to go to the public school. Some of her siblings went to public school. An educated reader might find it difficult to believe that her home-school education was deficient when she finally reveals near the end that she is not the only Ph.D. in the family. Of the seven children, three hold Ph.D.s. Show me any public school with those kind of results. Of the four without Ph.D.s, three, like their parents, left college when they determined it did not meet their needs. The four who do not hold Ph.D.s are happy, successful, well-balanced citizens of the communities in which they live. No alcoholics, no felons, no drug addicts, no chronically unemployed among them. An educated person would conclude that the Westover home school performed in a way we can only hope public schools could imitate.  

Asked why her parents did not protect her from an ongoing abuse by her brother “Shawn,” Atkin writes that, “The story Tara now tells is substantially different from what she was saying to her parents and what she recorded in her journal at the time. Her parents are most heartbroken over the tales she now relates and hope there can someday be a healing for Tara.

“Similarly, although Val and his children were often in harm’s way, due to the physically demanding nature of the work they were involved in, the stories of wanton carelessness in Tara’s book are all fabrication. And while the family was inclined to seek and use alternative medicine in instances of injury or sickness, they were not shy of using doctors for broken bones or other conditions for which traditional medicine provides the best answer.”  

Tara talks about her mother and sterotypes

Mother

Westover’s mother is one of the more complicated characters in the book, seeming to waiver between two life paths. She lives within her husband’s world but she wants Westover to go to college. She brings a forbidden phone line into the house. She eventually builds up a massively successful business with her natural remedies that supports most of the family and is still in operation today, “a spiritual alternative to Obamacare.” She once told Westover: “I should have protected you,” before turning on her entirely.

“She’s really talented, really competent, but she is really submissive and passive. She will always defer to my father,” Westover says.

Westover had some anger when she first attended university and struggled to keep up with her peers – but she does not resent her parents failure to educate her: “I don’t think they were being malicious or selfish.”

So what was it in that 16-year-old that made her drive forty miles for text books to get through those entrance exams? She credits her older brother Tyler, who also left for college, as a support and influence. They remain close. But also, she was beginning to recast her idea of what a woman should be.

https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/.premium.MAGAZINE-how-tara-westover-found-out-about-the-holocaust-and-became-educated-1.6221342

Stereotypes

She hopes however that the book is not used to affirm stereotypes. “They’re very religious and they’re very pro-gun rights,” she concedes. “If you end there, you have a caricature.” Her father and brother had views that came from ignorance, not malice. “I would hope to contribute constructively to the debate in terms of constructing people as full and complete human beings, and not just as caricatures of political views.”From The Irish Times.

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