It took me a while to realize that not every book I want to read is offered on Audible. Really. It took me a while. At first, there were so many I did want to read that I never did any digging around. Then, when I finally didn't have a particular book I was going after, I started looking for what's available, what other people liked, what has resonated with other listeners.
Tara Westover's Educated really struck a nerve with people. As I read the reviews and short synopsis, I quickly pressed 'purchase' and set myself up for some household chores, the best venue for my listening.
I was drawn to this book because I was raised (until the age of 13) in the Mormon church and because people rave about Westover's writing and the overall story. I believe one reader said she couldn't stop listening because she had to hear what happened next.
All of this sounded right up my alley. I got started the next day.
Westover's story details her childhood living on a homestead (I can't think of a better word) on the side of a mountain in Idaho with a father who was likely bi-polar, a mother who was submissive and complicit in the father's wacky schemes and lifestyle and a gaggle of siblings I couldn't really keep up with, save Sean, the antagonist of this book (except for Mormonism, which is also an antagonist, even if Westover argues it's not, and Westover's father).
I want to say Westover's story is ultimately one of strong will, determination and overcoming not just obstacles but society as a whole (at least this particular society) to transcend a life of violence, subjection and brainwashing.
But for me, it's not.
I hesitate to write that. This is a blog, and I'm acutely aware that blogging is best done in a positive manner, promoting what we love rather than bashing what we hate.
Mostly though, I just don't want to be mean. People have been mean to Tara Westover her whole life, so it seems small of me to hop on that bandwagon.
In addition, her book has over 800 reviews on Amazon with 4.5 stars. Educated is a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
But I'll just get on with my usual 10 Thoughts on Educated and be done with it. You've all been duly warned.
1. Westover at times writes incredibly well and, at times, over-writes. I'm surprised some of this made it past editors. Some of her writing was really heavy-handed, and I stopped more than once and thought: that was a somewhat syrupy description of, say, the side of a mountain.
2. For all of her description of her family members, I can't picture them. I don't see them in my mind's eye. I can't recall tiny details about them that would make them real for me. I have some vague, fuzzy images of these people, but nothing is crisp or clear. I have a much clearer image of the father and son in The Road, and I'm not sure McCarthy ever exactly describes them. However, Westover's book is nonfiction/memoir, so perhaps that's the issue.
3. At one point Westover writes that she felt uncomfortable at Cambridge being sold as some kind of Horatio Alger story, yet her book seems to be doing just that. It's a bit more subtle, of course, but it's a little like being at a dinner party with someone who says: I don't want to say I'm incredibly beautiful and intelligent....but.....
4. I feel incredibly sad for all of the people in Westover's family, and I think she does a good job of showing the vulnerabilities of all her siblings and even her parents. I think Westover was able to show that malice wasn't the issue in the tragedy of her upbringing.
5. I found myself at times relating so many to Westover's experiences (even though mine were considerably different) because of some general themes that ran through both of our childhoods and were connected to the Mormon church: men being the head of the household (even to disastrous effect), preparing for the end-of-days, being encouraged to dress modestly and having a strong sense of community as part of a very clearly defined community of like-minded people. Also, my step-father was a custom home-builder, and we spent a lot of time with building scraps and working at the lot. It wasn't as dramatic as Westover's child-labor (or even close), but it had some similar hints about it. I related to much of the good in her book (there is good) and some of the hard stuff.
6. Westover freely admits and writes about conflicting accounts/memories of past events. In fact, in one major event in the book, one person says he wasn't there at all, and Westover says she vividly recalls his being there. This is par-for-the-course with memoir, but it makes her seem like an unreliable narrator. We all know our brains lean toward conformational bias and remembering the past as it relates to us and as it's viewed through our lens, so it left me wondering: how much of this really happened? What is she distorting, not through any malice but simply because our brains do that; they distort the past so that memory is fluid and often, well, unreliable. Having said that, I do think there is enough from her childhood corroborated by others and remembered as a whole rather than picking at details, to merit substantial trauma. I just found myself often thinking: I don't trust her much as a narrator of her own life.
7. There were many instances and events described by Westover that seemed truncated to me, like important details may have been omitted, particularly as they relate to her own behavior. Basically, Westover suffered substantial, on-going trauma during her childhood. I expect her behavior as a kid and young adult to reflect that experience, so I was prepared for her behavior to reflect this sort of background. But she glosses over her own behavior. Yes, she describes not being the best girlfriend (no details, really) and fobbing off her education to binge-watch TV, but there is more there. The reader can feel it. I would have loved a book about that. I would have loved to see Westover's vulnerability and weaknesses as a result of the trauma rather than an ongoing laundry list of the crazy shit her parents and siblings did to her, around her and related to her. While Westover touches on some of the effects her childhood had on her self and her life, I think she could have gone deeper here, and I think the book would have been richer for it. She always felt, as a narrator, detached to me. I've worked with students who've suffered extreme trauma and who must write about it. This detachment is common, at least from my experience. But I wish an editor had helped Westover go deeper. So much of this book, while shocking, sad, terrifying and tragic, felt surface.
8. I wonder what Westover's point in writing this book was. Was it to bring attention to a particular social issue? Gender? Religion? Mental Illness? Was it cathartic for her? Because for the reader, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take from it. While I didn't love Hillbilly Elegy (for many of the same reasons), I feel it at least made a point about society as a whole, about a part of the country often forgotten and about how this forgotten swath of America has been shaped by a variety of factors: drug addiction, public policy, apathy and more. Westover's book didn't have that thematic significance for me. It's possible it's there, but I'm too close to the subject and was too emotionally reactive to this book to see it.
9. I wonder what Westover's family thinks of this book. I can't imagine it's gone over well. I wonder if it was worth it for her. I'm not suggesting she shouldn't have written the book to spare anyone's feelings. Except...well...I guess I am suggesting that. Where is the line? When do we get to tell our story at the expense of others? I'm not saying Westover crossed that line. The question just lingers for me after having finished her story.
10. Finally, my negative reaction to this book is a little off kilter, which makes me realize it's a bit myopic. As I said, I related to a lot of what Westover writes, and I have my own issues with aspects of my childhood. Much as I tried to listen to Westover's story as her own, I am far too emotional about much of it to offer an unbiased opinion. I wonder what I would have thought if this book had been about a girl raised, say, in a Seventh Day Adventist background. Would I have reacted differently? Perhaps. I guess I am saying: if Westover is an unreliable narrator at times, I'm an unreliable reader probably more often.
I wholly recommend this book. I'm a believer we can read and glean much from books we don't love, sometimes more-so in fact. I thought a lot while listening to Westover's story. I thought about gender and marriage and religion. I thought about siblings and love and what makes a good parent. I thought about the Arizona sunshine I love so much and what it would be like to live on a mountain in Idaho. I thought about the fact that much of what Westover describes as crazy town is becoming more common-place in mainstream American society (herbal remedies, distrust of doctors, not vaccinating children, and schools as purveyors of socialist tripe).
Westover's book wasn't my favorite; it elicited strong emotional reactions in me. That does not, however, mean it wasn't compelling or is without merit.
I'm kind of talking in circles now because I feel bad about writing a ten-point list taking a #1 New York Times bestseller to task.
I'm curious if anyone has read Educated? Did you love it? Did it move you? Am I missing something here?
I'm off to whip this house into shape after the weekend (funny how that works), write for a few hours and bask in this sunshine.