Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tara Westover's Educated: "What my father wanted to cast from me wasn't a demon: it was me."

Having finished reading Tara Westover's Educated several weeks ago, I've been thinking about what I'd like to say as a concluding statement about it. I've blogged about Educated previously — here and here — noting that Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Educated recounts the story of her attempt over the course of years to emerge from the prison in which her upbringing put her. It tells us about her father's wild delusions of grandeur, his belief that he was directly guided by God and watched over by angels — and of his danger-courting and relentless attempts to control his daughter with threats of damnation when she sought to move beyond his control.

It tells of the equally relentless violence of one of her brothers towards her and a sister, of her mother's abdication of maternal responsibility in the face of that violence and of her failure to teach the children she was ostensibly home-schooling. It shows us how her brother's violence was enfolded in her father's paternal control of his family — how her father excused this violence, blessed it, presented it as in accord with God's paternal plan in which men rule and women submit.

Educated also speaks of Westover's thirst for knowledge, especially after she had a taste of a world larger than the painfully constricted one her father's religious delusions, paranoia, and bipolar disorder constructed for his family with his wife's complicity. A central motif of the book is Westover's struggle to be educated, to educate herself, first at Brigham Young University, then at Cambridge, to which she won a scholarship, and Harvard, where she had a fellowship. The word "struggle" is important because she had been given practically no tools to understand a world larger than her family's world. The word "struggle" is necessary, as well, because Westover's emergence into that larger world — her emergence into adult autonomy — required that she struggle against her family, who did everything possible to impede this emergence.

Central to Westover's struggle for education (a word with etymological and Platonic resonances of leading oneself out of darkness into light) was the imperative to separate herself from her father and his control. Near the end of her chronicle, she sums this imperative up as follows:

I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it (p. 327).

But because her father controlled not merely Westover herself, but his entire family, this educational process required Westover to engage her family as well. A core assertion of the memoir, voicing a major theme of feminist thought, is that her sense of self, of a personal identity distinct from the identity accorded to her by her culture and shaped for her by her violent father and brother, was so weak that it was almost non-existent prior to her intellectual awakening in young womanhood:

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 (p. 197). 

Once shaken out of her childhood and adolescent slumber — awakened by books, by her discovery of a world far larger than the world inhabited by her paranoid father and her complicit, obedient mother — Westover found that she had to fight with all of her strength to attain a sense of self independent of her father's and brother's control:

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn't a demon: it was me (p. 304).

For anyone raised outside the stifling, airless, church-dominated culture in which Tara Westover was raised, in a family controlled to the nth degree by her father's delusions of grandeur, his religious psychosis, his bipolar disorder and paranoia; for anyone not raised in a family in which children were home-schooled by a mother who effectively provided no schooling at all for her children, it's almost impossible to understand how such a struggle for autonomy can have been so exceptionally torturous. Once launched into a promising academic career, she fell to pieces as she began to discover the familial price of her "disobedience."

Her Ph.D. work ground to a halt. She spent days glued to the television set, watching mindless programs (p. 307). Nights, she'd find herself running — asleep — into the street outside her flat, screaming. Her mother and sister played cat and mouse with her in an unbelievably cruel way, one minute telling her that both were aware of the extreme abuse her brother inflicted on her and her sister, the next moment telling her that she had imagined that abuse and was possessed by an evil spirit that had to be exorcised.

Her parents and almost all of her siblings informed her that she had fabricated her memories of abuse at the hands of her father and brother, had fabricated, embroidered, imbricated each and every childhood and adolescent memory she recounts in her book. If she wanted family again — if she wanted any connection to the people and place from which she had sprung — all she had to do was agree that they were right and she was wrong:

All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family (pp. 299-300).

All she had to do was confess that anything her father had ever thought or done was guided by angels and the hand of God:

I believed then — and part of me will always believe — that my father's words ought to be my own (p. 172).

This is a form of extreme mental torture that would daunt the strongest of us. Consider the testimony of Dore Laub as summed up by poet Carolyn Forché in her introduction to her book Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (NY: W. W. Norton, 1993):

The psychiatrist Dore Laub has found that in the oral testimony of survivors of the Shoah, their accounts fragment as they approach the core of the trauma. The narrative of trauma is itself traumatized, and bears witness to extremity by its inability to articulate directly or completely (p. 42).

The more traumatic the events we're seeking to remember — to re-member, to put back together in memory — the more difficult it is to accomplish that task. The effect of trauma is to veil the traumatic event of the past, to fragment it the closer we approach that event. 

In her graduate education, Westover focused on historiography — on divining the mystery of how individuals and communities engage in acts of remembrance and frame what they are able to re-member as history — precisely because, for her, the task of remembering even her own childhood and adolescence was fraught with pain and danger.

Remembering the tortures her father and brother put her through was difficult enough: facing the pain again in remembrance was hard enough. But in her case, the act of remembering what was exceedingly painful was fraught with much more pain as she had to face the fact that her own mother had permitted her abuse to take place, and that her mother and sister, who she naturally expected to be her allies as she came to terms with her memories of abuse, not only continued to excuse her abuse, but informed her that the abuse was imaginary and that her memories proceeded from a demonic source.

How to trust any memories, when one is locked into such a torture chamber of family and faith? Why not dull the memories by spending entire days watching television, when you know that the night might well bring another episode of waking screaming in the middle of the street?

Westover's book is dotted with footnotes in which she scrupulously records the ways in which her distinct memories of certain events conflict with how her parents and siblings and other witnesses remember them. These footnotes have given critics license to ask if anything that Westover remembers is accurate. Internet sites discussing Educated are replete with questions — many of them fueled by negative statements of her own siblings — about how this book is an unreliable account of the upbringing of a young woman in an extremist Mormon survivalist household in Idaho in the latter part of the 20th century.

Not a few of these critiques are driven by the refusal to imagine that religious cultures can possibly inflict such pain on girls and women, that religious cultures can possibly be so inured to the pain of girls and women as they exalt fathers and brothers to godlike status and give fathers and brothers unlimited power to define and control wives and sisters.

A core conviction to which Westover clung as she fought for her right to remember what she remembered, to think what she chose to think, to be who she is, is that no one else's story — even the all-powerful stories of her father and her family — could sum up the complexity that is Tara Westover:

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell (p. 334).

It should not be so hard to get people to understand the story Westover tells in this book. Young women should not have to risk their sanity — their very lives — to provide testimony about all the ways in which patriarchal cultures, and especially those in which patriarchal control is bolsterered by religious warrants, do serious harm to women. It is a testament to the continued power such cultures exercise in the world in which we live today that there should be so much controversy about the story Tara Westover tells in Educated, and such blatant attempts on the part of patriarchal religious communities to discount that story.

And these footnotes from recent news are clearly partinent to this story:

A study has revealed that 90 percent of under-18s who are killed by a current or ex-partner are girls, while almost 90 percent of perpetrators are men.

This is a photo of a pure "eureka!" moment. It’s delightful, an inspiration. It quickly went viral, and news outlets including the New York Times began hailing Bouman as the "face of the black hole project."
But then all the attention became a catalyst for a sexist backlash on social media and YouTube. It set off "what can only be described as a sexist scavenger hunt," as The Verge described it, in which an apparently small group of vociferous men questioned Bouman’s role in the project. "People began going over her work to see how much she'd really contributed to the project that skyrocketed her to unasked-for fame." 

It's easy to point to misogynist trolls as a problem; it’s also easy to write them off as just pathetic losers tweeting from their mothers’ basements. But in reality, they are the tip of the trashpile. Trolls say out loud what others think; trolls also embody the ugliest and most blatant versions of the more subtle sexisms that animate everyday life. While hundreds of petulant man-children rail against a female scientist on Twitter, there are undoubtedly a great many more men in the real world who wouldn’t call a woman the C-word (at least not in public, or at least not with their own names attached), but do think maybe there is something to the theory that men are just more mathematically and scientifically adept than women.... 
And that’s how we should understand this: not just as one of the ugliest forms of misogyny rearing its head, but as a pervasive, systematic part of a broader system that undermines women’s success and recognition at every level. 
Attacks from sexist trolls are overwhelming and destabilizing. But far worse is the slow drip of sexism that keeps women from achieving their full potential for power, success and achievement every single day.

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