“Educated”: Survivalists, Hillbillies, and the End of Community

(Updated 7.8.18)

High on many a book club’s reading list this summer is Tara Westover’s harrowing memoir “Educated,” which recounts her growing up in, and her eventual escape from, a deeply dysfunctional Mormon family living on a mountainside in Idaho, and her gradual, painful education about the wider world and about herself.

It’s an incredible book, in both senses of that adjective: it astounds, and it beggars belief (several of Westover’s relatives and former neighbors have taken issue with her depictions of her bizarre family life). But whether exaggerated or not, the author’s constrained, internalized focus allows her to ignore the disturbing social and political issues her story raises, and the book’s uncritical reception as a narrative of personal empowerment inadvertently promotes what writer Rebecca Solnit, with her usual lacerating insight, has called our “misdistribution of sympathy” toward the white Protestant working class at the expense of other, equally deserving minorities.

The runaway success of “Educated” and its author’s appeal as an interviewee (and, one may safely predict, a successful motivational speaker), is easy to understand. The story of a bright, capable young woman trapped inside a repressive family ecosystem traces the time-honored tropes of suffering, perseverance, and eventual escape that propel any number of chick-lit novels and an entire sub-genre of dysfunctional-family memoirs, to which the commercial success of Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” gave new life.

In the “me too” era, “Educated” has inevitably been read as a testament of female empowerment and the never-ending struggle to cast off the shackles of a demeaning patrimony; many of the men in Westover’s story, and her father in particular, come off as casually cruel, manipulative brutes. And Westover herself not only looks the part of the unadorned backwoods girl-cum-PhD, but she writes lucidly and with an emotional acuity that never descends into self-pity.

But the discomfort that this book provokes goes far beyond the reader’s pained empathy with its author. Either it’s a brutally evocative fable from which we might learn a thing or two about hardscrabble life in the Idaho boondocks and the transformative power of higher education, or it’s an accurate account of Westover’s upbringing, in which case it is describing a long series of literal crimes that have gone wholly unpunished, and a condition of near-total social and political collapse that goes wholly unaddressed.

“Educated” is of course a direct commercial descendant of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” another story of physical and intellectual deprivation in a rural American subculture and the author’s escape from it through higher education. Indeed, Vance provides a glowing jacket blurb, complete with hokey reference to how his grandma would have approved. It should be said that Westover’s memoir is far better written than Vance’s, though it is much, much longer, and sometimes crushingly repetitive in its depiction of the physical abuse heaped upon her by her brother and father on her unaccountably frequent trips back home to her beloved mountain to receive more of it.

Both books have been hailed as windows into that other America, claimed by some to be the “real” America, that elected Donald Trump and that the coastal liberal elites suddenly need and want to know better, lest they make the same presumptuous mistakes they made in the last presidential campaign.

But the words “conservative” or “right-wing” don’t begin to capture the virulent anti-government paranoia in which Westover’s household was steeped. Her father, absolute dictator of his small world, divides humanity in general, and even his fellow Mormons, into “gentiles” (by which he means hopelessly corrupted participants in mainstream society), and a remnant of “freedom fighters” like himself, who see the Government and all its works (public schools, hospitals, law enforcement) as agents of the “Illuminati,” the secret elitist cabal that runs the fallen world on Satan’s behalf. He longs for the End of Days and is deeply disappointed when Y2K doesn’t deliver the collapse of civilization for which he’s elaborately prepared.

His children, including young Tara, are prevented from attending school, and his wife’s infrequent attempts at home schooling consist of handing books to her offspring and sending them to their rooms. Tara, for all practical real-world purposes, doesn’t exist; she has no birth certificate in part because her mother can’t remember when she was born. Her father calls her a whore when she pushes up her shirtsleeves while working for him in sweltering heat. Having heard of the armed confrontation between the “Feds” and their friends the Weavers at nearby Ruby Ridge, her father and brothers assemble an arsenal and bury it in the yard. Mom, meanwhile, makes money midwifing and selling herbal remedies and chakra-altering compounds.

The most outrageous episodes in the book describe the catastrophic injuries visited on the family by the parents’ negligence. Dad presses Tara and her brothers into child labor at his junkyard, where they are variously impaled, set afire, and crippled by falls. A brother is made to drive all night and ends up in a devastating car crash, Dad flips the family car off an icy road on a needlessly dangerous journey and nearly kills them all, and finally maims and horribly disfigures himself in still another avoidable workplace disaster. Consistent with his paranoid-delusional world view, virtually none of these life-threatening injuries receive medical attention lest the Illuminati be alerted.

One of Tara’s older brothers, emulating his father’s brand of pseudo-Biblical misogyny, orders his girlfriends and his sister around on demeaning errands, and whenever she refuses or shows any other sign of self-respect, bends her wrist to the breaking point behind her back and stuffs her head in a toilet.

Westover’s young life unfolds in this awful procession, and the reader keeps waiting for the comeuppance, for the concerned neighbor to summon the cops or for the social worker to appear at the door, but it never happens. The book is rife with accounts of adult criminals conducting their crimes – assault, child abuse, practicing medicine without a license – behind the veil of domestic privacy, and they are never brought to account. Yes, this book is itself a sort of accounting, and yes, eventually Tara teaches herself to read and escapes to BYU and eventually to Cambridge like the one-in-a-million prodigy that she must be, but one thinks of the countless others in similarly crushing circumstances but without her luck or gifts, who will never get to write a book about it, and for whom there will never be justice even of this attenuated, literary kind.

There are excuses, of course; indications that her father may be bi-polar, suggestions that her mother may have wanted a different life for her children but was cowed into submission by her volatile husband. But if Westover’s account is to be believed, there really is no excuse for the neglect and sheer violence that the Westover children are subjected to and are allowed to inflict on each other. The family lives near what sounds like a functioning town and attend a seemingly thriving Mormon church. The parents eventually parlay the junkyard and the herbal remedy business into a sizable personal fortune. Where was the priest, the school authority, the local sheriff, the health department when these crimes were being committed and could surely be read on the bodies of the Westover children, or by their absence?

The unspoken implication is that intervention was impossible, prevented by the rights of privacy, speech, and freedom of religion taken to uniquely American extremes. Westover, now a PhD in philosophy, never pulls back the focus to consider the terrible social and, indeed, political implications of her story, what the absence of the most basic sense of communal responsibility means at the ground level of our society, how our current political coddling of anti-social, violent, willfully ignorant elements in our midst might foster more bleak stories like this one.

For stories like this are ultimately about power, and who gets to wield it. The more we make excuses and political space for men like those described in this book and their female enablers, the more we risk sliding back into a feral tribalism that none of us should be asked to tolerate, and no nation can long survive. That’s the missing chapter of this riveting, horrifying book, one that might have left us all better educated.

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