Catherine Cusick | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (2,900 words)
We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of homeschooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour into schooling back into family education might cure two ailments with one medicine, repairing families as it repairs children.
— John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down
I stood and, still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, “Don’t throw them here! I’m here!”
Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there.
— Tara Westover, Educated
When I was 9, my dad brought home a copy of Matilda on VHS. Every time I watched Matilda best her unfit parents and take down the unforgivably violent Trunchbull, something would swell in my heart.
“Daddy,” Mara Wilson pleads up to Danny DeVito, one of the only actors ever to plead at him in that direction. “You’re a crook.”
“What?” DeVito says, turning away from training Matilda’s brother in the junk tricks of his trade at the auto shop. He’s teaching his son how to fudge the mileage on used cars by rewinding an odometer with a hand drill.
“This is illegal,” Wilson says, stomping an indignant little foot.
“You make money?” DeVito asks a 9-year-old. “Do you have a job?”
“No,” Wilson replies. (Of course, Wilson does have a job. We are watching her do it. She’s hard at work headlining a major motion picture that ends up grossing $33 million at the box office.)
I, too, am 9 years old, watching Wilson back in 1996, crossing my gangly legs one over the other on the beige carpet in my family’s den.
“But don’t people need good cars?” Wilson-as-Matilda asks. “Can’t you sell good cars, Dad?”
“Listen, you little wiseacre,” DeVito begins, launching into one of those custom-made lines for movie trailers. “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Wilson takes one decisive look around. She sees her father’s signature hat next to some superglue.
In her debut memoir Educated, Tara Westover is a modern-day Matilda Wormwood. The story Westover tells about her life is almost identical to the one I read in Roald Dahl’s novel, although Westover couldn’t possibly have discovered Matilda the same way I did. While I was off watching VHS tapes, Westover was growing up in an off-the-grid survivalist family that put her to work in a junkyard. I read the book at school.
The story goes like this: a wonderful little girl, who happens to be a genius, endures incredible violence at the hands of the people who are meant to protect her. She studies herself out of her circumstances, wins over the hearts of her teachers, and reads her way to victory. Over time she learns how to use her newfound powers to change her life, finally, for the better. Everything turns out alright in the end because books have made a lonely little girl feel powerful, and she never looks back.
That’s what happens in Dahl’s story, anyway. In Westover’s, the ending is much less clear.
That’s the kind of thing my dad was doing when I was 9: bringing home videotapes about little girl geniuses, so that I could see myself in stories with heroes who looked just like me.
It’s not the kind of thing Matilda Wormwood’s dad was doing when she was 9. It’s not the kind of thing Tara Westover’s dad was doing, either.
“Come here.” His tone was impatient. He was used to dictating to grown men. Having to explain his trade to a ten-year-old girl somehow made us both feel small.
He yanked out a chunk of shimmering metal. “This here’s aluminum,” he said. “See how it shines? Feel how light it is?” Dad put the piece into my hand. He was right; it was not as heavy as it looked. Next Dad handed me a dented pipe. “This here’s steel,” he said.
We began to sort the debris into piles—aluminum, iron, steel, copper—so it could be sold. I picked up a piece of iron. It was dense with bronze rust, and its jagged angles nibbled at my palms. I had a pair of leather gloves, but when Dad saw them he said they’d slow me down. “You’ll get calluses real quick,” he promised as I handed them over. I’d found a hard hat in the shop, but Dad took that, too. “You’ll move slower trying to balance this silly thing on your head,” he said.
This was sometime around 1996, too, in the mountainous regions of southern Idaho. Westover is pretty sure she was 10 at this point, though no one knows her age for sure. Westover had no official records, medical or otherwise, until the State of Idaho issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth when she was 9. “Obviously I should have registered her when she was born,” Westover’s mother Faye drones into an anomalous lime-green phone almost a decade after the fact, “but I didn’t. So here we are.”
Faye had apparently wanted to give Westover and her siblings a more structured education when they were younger, before their father, Gene, convinced her otherwise. “She used to say that we were kept at home so we could get a better education than other kids,” Westover writes. “But it was only Mother who said that, as Dad thought we should learn more practical skills. When I was very young, that was the battle between them: Mother trying to hold school every morning, and Dad herding the boys into the junkyard the moment her back was turned.”
Whether one’s true education happens outside of a traditional classroom or deep within the archives of research libraries, Safety First is Lesson 101: Intro to Everything.
My own parents have a kind of unreal span of experience between them. Mom’s always been a fan of trade schools and apprenticeships; she graduated from the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden decades ago with a speciality in landscape design. If they split the load, my parents could probably teach some pretty rigorous courses in botany, social work, politics, finance, management, security, sanitation, religion, childcare, ethics, fine art, history, literature, English, and Russian. If I had been homeschooled, I probably would have been just fine.
But every good teacher is supposed to introduce new subject matter with one very important disclaimer, and its absence is what tells you who the bad teachers are in all of these horror stories. In any good education, safety is supposed to come first.
Whether one’s true education happens outside of a traditional classroom or deep within the archives of research libraries, Safety First is Lesson 101: Intro to Everything. The mantras are usually simple, but they’re important to recite early and often: Here is how to do this trade safely. Here is how to exercise a muscle without pulling it, how to warm up and cool down, how to stretch within reason. Here is how to do a little extra today so that you’re able to come back and do some more tomorrow. Here is how not to get hurt.
Degrees and experience come at the end of the story of an education. Lessons about safety are supposed to come at the beginning.
In Educated, lessons about safety just never come.
Dad’s eyes were fixed on me. It was the gaze of a seer, of a holy oracle whose power and authority were drawn from the very universe. I wanted to meet it head-on, to prove I could withstand its weight, but after a few seconds something in me buckled, some inner force gave way, and my eyes dropped to the floor.
“I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” Dad said. “It is coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility. And when you are there, when you are lying broken, you will call on the Divine Father for mercy.” Dad’s voice, which had risen to a fever pitch, now fell to a murmur. “And He will not hear you.”
I met his gaze. He was burning with conviction; I could almost feel the heat rolling off him. He leaned forward so that his face was nearly touching mine and said, “But I will.”
The silence settled, undisturbed, oppressive.
So it goes in too many schools in this country. Children are never safe for long.
I have had many heated discussions over the years about feminine forms of storytelling, about how the rise and fall of straightforward plots with beginnings, middles, and ends chart with the male orgasm, about how narrative linearity dominates everything. That’s what a story is, we’re told: a before and an after, a developing arc, a definitive change. But that isn’t a life. Stories are only choice cuts of one.
“Westover has a story to tell that shouldn’t be ignored,” Michelle Dean writes in The Guardian. “There are insights here that could compete with JD Vance’s problematic and more ideological Hillbilly Elegy — if only they were more directly articulated.”
I understand how it can be useful to compare titles to help sell or recommend a book. It is just one critic’s opinion, though, that Educated is in competition with Hillbilly Elegy — as though Hillbilly Elegy is some kind of standard-bearer, or more worth reading somehow, despite being problematic in its own right. I don’t need Educated to be a different book, or for it to have been written more clearly, or for it to have been written by someone else. This story is special precisely because it could not have been written by anyone other than Tara Westover. It could not have been written by anyone without her exact history and experience.
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What is indirect about a growing mountain of evidence that if your brother stabs you, you’ll be stashed away in a basement and “given lavender for the wound” instead of being taken to a hospital? What is indirect about your sister begging you for backup in recounting her shared history of abuse, only for her to denounce you when she realizes what a bargain it is to sell out just one sister for an entire family? What is indirect about being estranged from your family for years, knowing you’ll never feel true resolution in your heart until the day you die?
What if, after a lifetime of hearing Satan’s opinion of how ruined you are and the eternity you can expect as a sister-wife, you’re not even sure whether death will be the end of it?
We were the ones who’d paid for it, I thought. Mother. Luke. Shawn. We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment. Because Dad always put faith before safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right — after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.
Westover’s eyewitness accounts of so many life-threatening injuries are graphic, visual, and scene-setting. They are all viscerally well-told. Skin is charred; bones are exposed; a face is burned off. I can call those scenes a lot of things, but indirect isn’t one of them.
I’ll admit I was expecting more of a story, too, and less of a woman’s lived experience. I kept thinking there would be an abrupt fissure halfway through Educated, some shocking plot twist that would cleave the book in half. It never came. Tara’s ties to her family run deep throughout the whole thing. Even when they disown her, it isn’t over. It shouldn’t be possible to disown a daughter more than once. And yet.
Westover can write herself to safety and publication, but she can’t resolve an in-progress life. A stubborn, to-be-continued future of open questions keeps seeping through the narrative linearity. Family keeps seeping through each layer of estrangement, no matter what happens, no matter who gets hurt or how badly.
“Educated relies on the conceit that Westover was saved by books,” Dean writes, “but at the end I had a sense of our narrator still hiding behind her degrees and certificates, not quite ready to step into the light.”
Our narrator’s publishers might be hiding behind Westover’s degrees and certificates. The author bio lists her BA, her MPhil, her associations with Harvard and Cambridge — as though what made Westover’s debut so valuable had nothing to do with the uniqueness of surviving such a brutal upbringing. Much is made of Westover never setting foot inside a classroom until age 17, but what Big Five publisher would have entrusted an advance to an uneducated 17-year-old in 2003? Would that manuscript have secured a six-figure preempt at the London Book Fair, too?
This book would not exist without either education, the survivalist childhood or the doctorate from Cambridge. But Westover’s flap bio is just avoiding spoilers. Her degrees are not what the book is about, and she knows it.
We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.
A true education plot goes like this: If education is a story after all, it is the story of graduating from certainty into doubt.
In the beginning, Westover’s father is certain and so is she. The narrating Tara knows for sure that he is wrong. At the time, a younger Tara knew for sure that he was right, but we don’t quite hear that other certainty yet. We just hear the absence of doubt, which is where any truly good education needs to begin.
To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s. I have often wondered if the most powerful words I wrote that night came not from anger or rage, but from doubt: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
I don’t think Westover is hiding behind anything. I think doubt is the byproduct of a successful education.
I think she is telling a story of violence, one that will never be linear enough, not while a woman is still hurting as she tells it, not as long as women still have so many of these harrowing stories to tell. In the beginning, there is bewilderment. In the middle, there is pain. In the end, there are the legacies of both. In truly violent stories, the plot is one of grappling, and grappling with grappling. Someone — all too often, a lonely little girl — is always looking back.
By the time Educated is through, Westover doubts her sanity, her primacy, her agency, and her right to tell her own life story from her perspective. Her transition into doubt is total. It feels permanent. This is where an education leads you — away from certainty, away from answers. If an education is any good, if it’s really done its job, there are only more and better questions. If a religion is any good, for that matter, there should be room enough for adult doubt, too. There should be room for doubling back, for searching. There should be ample space, expectations and protocols for when adults inevitably start asking better questions. There should be room to test that faith.
Educated is not a straightforward tale of triumph. It is not a hero’s journey. When someone’s history is teeming with storybook adversaries come to life, it is not a story at all. Education can make sense of that history, but it can’t erase it. The ending just keeps wrapping back around to the beginning, as narrator and reader alike circuitously wish that the violence and injustice had just never happened in the first place.
“We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories,” Westover writes in the acknowledgements. “Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.”
Autobiography may dress up like a story, it may borrow structural devices and tactics from stories, but it can’t realign the plot of its lived inspiration. Lives will never be stories. No one’s life is.
Books can’t save Westover. She knows they don’t, and didn’t, and can’t ever.
Her father just can’t save her, either. No matter how many stories he tells.
Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor at Longreads.