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BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 230-231

Educated: A Memoir. Tara Westover. Random House, New York, 2018. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-59050-4


Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission11-Jul-2020
Date of Decision08-Sep-2020
Date of Acceptance08-Sep-2020
Date of Web Publication24-Dec-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Harshini Manohar
Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Hosur Road, Bengaluru - 560 029, Karnataka
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/WSP.WSP_65_20

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How to cite this article:
Khanna P, Manohar H, Seshadri S. Educated: A Memoir. Tara Westover. Random House, New York, 2018. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-59050-4. World Soc Psychiatry 2020;2:230-1

How to cite this URL:
Khanna P, Manohar H, Seshadri S. Educated: A Memoir. Tara Westover. Random House, New York, 2018. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-59050-4. World Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 18];2:230-1. Available from: https://www.worldsocpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2020/2/3/230/304814



This book is a sensitive coming-of-age story of author Tara Westover's intense struggles against her family's deep religious beliefs and her awe-inspiring journey from no schooling to a Ph. D. at Cambridge University. “Educated” is not necessarily about dreams, but about escape, desperation, decades of making sense of a dysfunctional family, and Tara's journey toward self-preservation.

It begins with a beautiful description of her hillside home at the base of Buck's Peak in rural Idaho in the United States. She was the youngest of her parents' seven children (Tara has five brothers and a sister), born sometime in 1986, with no documented record of her birth or any testimonials to her existence. Her father, Gene, an autocratic, paranoid, and delusional man, considered formal schooling, contemporary medicine, and adhering to government norms a sin. He isolated his family as he was convinced that the “Days of Abomination” were near, and frantically prepared for the doomsday, hoarding rations, supplies, and even ammunition. Following a decade of preparation, when it did not transpire, the author describes his dejection as, “He seemed smaller to me than he had that morning. The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this.” Her mother, Faye, an unlicensed midwife, and a herbal healer, firmly believed and followed her husband's ideology.

Tara never went to school and spent her childhood scraping metal in her father's junkyard or assisting him in building barns. The notion of homeschooling given by her mother was a contradiction, as it was largely nonexistent. Throughout the book, she elucidates numerous horrific incidents where she and her family members sustained serious injuries (Her brother Shawn's fall from the pallet, another brother Luke's burn, mother's head injury, and father's burns and crippling disfigurement) a combined result of her father's pathology and the culture he so rigidly subscribed to. His unfounded distrust in modern medicine prevented them to be medically treated except with his wife's tinctures, which he gloriously referred to as “God's pharmacy.” Recollecting the very first accident and many thereafter, the author writes, “I never blamed anyone for the accident. It was just one of those things. A decade later my understanding would shift, part of my heavy swing into adulthood, and after that the accident would always make me think of the Apache women, and of all the decisions that go into making a life– the choices people make, together and on their own, that combine to produce any single event. Grains of sand, incalculable, pressing into sediment, then rock.” The outcomes of the disturbing events clearly reflect her father's inflexibility and conviction and were shared by the family members to varying degrees, interfering with any endeavor to effect positive change. With time, the beliefs and choices grew deeper and stronger, immune to any confrontation and challenge. As Erik Erikson describes in his theory of psychological development, identity versus role confusion is a pivotal stage where the adolescent formulates a sense of identity and belonging and develops the virtue of fidelity. Deviant beliefs and interactions in the family system, along with nonconforming values and ideologies result in the anomalous upbringing of children and impact identity formation and sense of agency.

Oblivious to the external world, Tara firmly believed that the world out there was exactly the way her father had described. For long, she was a soldier in a conflict she never understood. Her brother Tyler's leaving the house to attend college made her curious to pursue education. However, every step forward was impeded by childhood conditioning by a mentally ill parent and the family's cultural affiliation.

Trying to fit into a family whose ways of being she struggled to conform to, and surviving the vicissitudes of her childhood became the “normal” for Tara. She recalls the dreaded time spent with Shawn who repeatedly abused her physically and emotionally, much like he treated other women in his life. One night when he hurt her, she felt nothing more than the inflicted physical pain and tried hard to convince herself that she was unaffected. Tara writes, “This moment would define my memory of that night, and of many nights like it, for a decade. In it I saw myself as unbreakable, as tender as stone. At first I merely believed this, until 1 day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn't affect me, that he didn't affect me………I didn't understand how morbidly right I was. How I hollowed myself out….I had misunderstood the vital truth: That it is not affecting me, that was its effect.” Her endurance of continuous and severe injustice and hurt reflects how victims of abuse are conditioned to accept, rationalize, and normalize their experiences, consequently resulting in emotional numbing and greater fragility. Posttraumatic stress disorder is understood as a constellation of symptoms such as intrusive memories, flashbacks, autonomic arousal, negative alterations in cognition, and mood. Nosologically, emotional numbing is given lesser valence, whereas this construct represents a higher-order and more severe impact of the trauma, and has higher clinical relevance.

When Tara decided to end to her suffering and escape from the realities of her family life, she made an entry into formal education at the age of seventeen. She struggled through the initial years of college, endeavoring to expand and develop an independent world view, and despite the draw of her deep-rooted emotional ties with family. During a class on slavery, Tara discovered something elemental about her upbringing, herself, and her father: The power of tradition sculpted and transformed them into the individuals they were, the ones who retained and exercised power to brutalize and dehumanize others. She thought differently about her abusive brother, father, and conversations at home. The cognitive reconstruction of multigenerational ingrained culture is evident: She refers to Shawn calling her “Nigger.” “I could not have articulated this, not as I sweated through searing afternoons in the forklift. I did not have the language I have now. But I understood this one fact: That a thousand times I had been called Nigger, and laughed, now I could not laugh. The word and the way Shawn said it hadn't changed, only my ears were different.”

Whenever she returned home, she had to face her father's pathology, Shawn's cruelty, and her mother's apathy toward it, all resulting in her interactions with her parents becoming increasingly perfunctory. When she tried to expose Shawn's reality, her family outrightly disbelieved and refuted her claims, and estranged her. A family's response to abuse disclosure plays a critical role in determining the depth of the impact of abuse. In the context of abuse, the responding person's attitude should be fundamentally one of “willing suspension of disbelief.” With her family's disbelief, Tara is victimized all over again. The meaning of her struggle shifts from enduring abuse with the problematic rationalization that “the defect is in herself,” to questioning her memories, experiences, sanity, and her past, all conditioned by her family interactions and their culture.

She returned home in a desperate attempt to reconnect to her family, only to find that they had denounced her. She went back to the university, confused and disconsolate. Tyler expressed his unequivocal support which helped her to gather the strength to plunge herself into her academic work. While academics were also a struggle, perhaps due to her unorthodox childhood experiences and lack of formal schooling, she made great strides, going from the Harvard to Cambridge University, including completing her doctoral studies.

As the author states in the introductory note, “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.” “Educated” is an intensely gripping, astonishingly moving, and above all, liberating tale, of the innumerable, and seemingly insurmountable battles that children fight–against childhood adversities, ranging from parental mental illness, pathologies resulting from sociocultural circumstances to abuse. These battles of childhood adversity continue into adulthood, as individuals are exposed to alternative world views and experiences–and try, against these new backdrops, to make sense of their past and forge ahead to develop a sense of identity and selfhood. While there is much literature on the custodial nature of child care institutions and the adverse developmental and psychological outcomes for children in residential care, the truth is that there are few institutions that are more custodial than dysfunctional families. Tara's transformative social education is thus not only inspirational but also poignantly insightful, as she finally learns to self-differentiate from her parents and choose her own path. The book reinforces the message that education offers much more than mere knowledge: It is about perceiving one's life differently, and the will to change it. As the author eloquently described it in the last lines of the book: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.






 

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