Books

When Memoirs Share Too Much, Too Soon

Tara Westover (Portait: Paul Stuart)
Tara Westover’s Educated hides a deep and unsettling point.

Telling someone you were raised by survivalists in the middle of rural Idaho is an excellent conversation starter. Tara Westover needs to have a conversation about this, but perhaps not with the millions of people who read her bestselling book, Educated.

The memoir can be a problematic genre. When it is used to discuss a broad social issue, the individual perspective of the narrator can bring focus to the topic. However, many memoirs are overly self-focused, relating personal histories in excessive detail. Often, it seems that authors view the memoir as a means of either therapy or self-promotion. Behind the humor, the tangential histories, and the detailed descriptions hides a great deal of pain.

Compounding this tendency is today’s decidedly voyeuristic culture, fueled by tabloid magazines and reality television, in which we are quick to pounce on “juicy” details of other people’s lives, seeking shocking tidbits with which we can thrill listeners at our next cocktail party. The public adores memoir-style books, and they fly off the shelves and up the ranks of must-read lists.

There is much to be shocked by in Educated, Westover’s 2019 New York Times bestseller. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and Westover’s book proves it; much of her story is frighteningly brutal, featuring horrible accidents, unrelenting cycles of familial abuse, and religious fanaticism.

Westover, the youngest of seven children, was raised by Mormon survivalists and had no formal education in her childhood beyond learning to read. She spent her days helping her mother, a midwife, make herbal remedies and sorting scrap in her father’s junkyard. By teaching herself algebra, Westover was able to score high enough on the ACT to enter Brigham Young University and eventually make her way through Cambridge and Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in history.

Educated details Westover’s childhood and her unusual educational journey, but much of the story revolves around dramatic moments involving a violent older brother and painful accidents that filled her youth. It is a riveting book, drawing the reader in as Westover discovers the world outside Buck’s Peak, the rural valley where she grew up, and tries to reconcile her growing knowledge with her loyalty to family she still loves. It is raw, powerful, and moving.

While interviewing Westover at the Aspen Ideas Festival last June, The Atlantic editor Jeffery Goldberg said he had been worried, while reading the book, that she wouldn’t make it out alive at the end — even though, of course, he knew she did. I felt the same way, growing nervous each time Westover returned to Buck’s Peak, and I wished she’d stay away.

But she can’t.

The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. I do not doubt the truth of her story or her personal experiences. She is careful to explain memories, footnoting them to point out which siblings she talked to in order to clarify details. She uses paraphrases of emails to emphasize moments in the story. Her portrayal of Mormonism, and religion in general, is evenhanded. But, in the end, the manner in which she wrote — focusing heavily on catastrophes and abuse — suggests a deeper and more unsettling point.

This is a woman dealing with a very traumatic upbringing, an upbringing that will take her many years to fully come to terms with. She’s been through more in 33 years than many have in a lifetime, has graduated from esteemed institutions, and continues her climb in the academic world — all without ever gaining her high-school diploma. It’s sensational, yes, and heartrending and painful.

But Westover’s memoir never comes full circle. She never explains the purpose of sharing these deeply personal details, perhaps because she’s still wrestling with the implications of her own conclusions and decisions, despite insisting in the end that she’s made her peace with them. Her book is styled as a way of explaining her unconventional (oh, for a stronger word!) path, but was this the right time for her to tell her story? The book’s jarring tone and lack of clarity in its end goal suggest perhaps it wasn’t.

If not, then her agent and editors did her a disservice despite the book’s runaway success. Readers can and should cheer her on as she overcomes obstacles in pursuing education and independence. But the book’s intense focus on her upbringing and interactions with her family illustrates a different kind of education than the one she set out to tell readers she obtained. Her higher-education story is unique, but in the telling of her tale, it takes a backseat to the larger problem of her struggle to integrate her newfound knowledge with her upbringing, her family’s lifestyle, and her desire to be accepted and loved by them.

Education is about experiences, but most important, it is about learning how to learn, how to wrestle with universal ideas and hone critical-thinking skills. Based on the story Westover tells, her primary education was less about learning facts and ideas than it was about coming to recognize the ugly cycles of abuse permitted and promoted by her family and her fight to escape them. This is far more of a reflection on the mental illness that seems to be behind some of her family members’ actions and beliefs than on education. Educated in heavy manual labor, herbal healing, and a twisted view of womanhood, she seems to be caught in a personal struggle for survival as she tries to come to grips with her past.

Dredging up those deep feelings and traumatic experiences for a best-selling book likely isn’t the best way to heal.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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