Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
By Roxanne Fequiere
My book club selects each month’s title via online survey, so it’s pure coincidence that we ended up reading another school-focused narrative—in this case, Tara Westover’s Educated. Perhaps “school-focused” isn’t the right word to describe Westover’s memoir. The title references one of the standout details about Westover’s upbringing: that she grew up without any formal schooling, a fact that is thrown into high relief when she gains admission to Brigham Young University.
Of course, there’s so much more going on. Westover’s life is steeped in religious fanaticism, isolation, and violence, both of the haphazard and deliberate variety, each category equally garish. The youngest of seven children, Westover is born to a family with a possibly bipolar survivalist zealot at its helm. In addition to his distaste for educational institutions, Westover’s father, Gene, also scorns modern medicine and maintains a strict moral stance that’s informed by Mormonism and fueled by what can only be described as a personal mania. His wife, children, extended family, and assorted believers remain in his thrall to varying extents throughout the book.
Any one of these aspects of Westover’s life story would make for a rich and fascinating retelling in print; that all of these elements converged upon one woman so bereft of resources and support and she lived to tell the tale is nothing short of incredible. Also incredible: the sheer volume of trauma that the author and her family seemed to endure on what appears to be a regular basis. It’s worth noting that if you’re even moderately squeamish about descriptions of severe injury, Educated may be difficult to power through. Westover’s father operates a junkyard on the family’s land, and his children become de facto employees and unwitting targets of his increasingly reckless behavior on the job. Statements of breathless incredulity escaped my lips at several points throughout the book, at which point I’d realize I needed to take a break and put it down for a bit.
Upon sitting down with my book club to discuss these harrowing passages and the layered nature of the author’s trauma, some of the readers in attendance confessed to trying, in their own way, to ground Westover’s extraordinary narrative in some semblance of mundanity. The author is likely in her early thirties—her lack of a birth certificate and her family’s conflicting accounts of her birthdate are described in the book—and her family still resides in Idaho. Google research commenced. Facebook accounts were discovered. For some of us, putting a face to pseudonymous names helped to contextualize portions of what was laid out in text.
It wasn’t long before this relative proximity to the events described in Educated turned the collective tide of our conversation. How much time had passed, we wondered, between the most recent portions of her memoir and the actual writing and publication of her memoir? Rough calculations were proffered; no matter how you sliced it, it felt like a compressed timeline.
Severed family ties, abuse, the subjectivity of memory and its conflicting accounts—these were subjects that could take a lifetime to sift through. To do so for a broad audience, while sifting through so much deeply-rooted pain, was almost certainly a profoundly distressing endeavor. For a moment, we reconsidered our role in the public consumption of such a story—and considered the author and her healing process instead of her writing process. It was a necessary, if difficult, conversation to have.
Weeks after our discussion, I’m still thinking about the author, her family, the purpose of memoir. A happy ending of some sort typically allows the reader of memoir to feel inspired, perhaps galvanized. By that standard, Educated has that arc—Westover goes from Brigham Young University to Cambridge to Harvard. For all intents and purposes, she made it out. But the myriad threads that combine to weave a life are rarely tied up so neatly. It’s clear that the success of Westover’s education was but one healed wound among several still being treated. Educated leaves more threads untied than not. As readers, all we can do is hope that the unfinished tapestry we’ve borne witness to ends up pleasing its creator in the end.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.