Educated

Educated

 

“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.” Educated, by Tara Westover

 

Educated is, truly, an astounding memoir.

Tara Westover grew up on a remote mountain in Idaho, the youngest daughter in an extreme Mormon survivalist family cut off from mainstream society. She and her siblings, born at home, had no birth certificates, so in the eyes of the US government they did not exist.

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”

Tara and her siblings did not attend public school because public education was a government plot to lure children away from God. Tara wasn’t home schooled, either: When they weren’t stockpiling food and amassing an arsenal, Tara’s father salvaged metal in his junkyard while Tara’s mother, an uncertified midwife, practiced healing and herbalism as an alternative to established medical care.  The family avoided professional medical care altogether, no matter how serious their injuries – and some of them were catastrophic. For one thing, Tara’s older brother was violent, and she often bore the brunt of his terrifying outbursts.

Tara’s family lived according to the dictates of her paranoid father as they prepared for the Days of Abomination. (In addition to religious fanaticism, there is, of course, mental illness at work here.) Someday, the Feds would come for them as they had for the family at Ruby Ridge. The Westovers had to be ready to defend themselves.

(I had to refresh my memory as to what Ruby Ridge was about, hence my link in case you want a refresher, too.) Some historians and sociologists believe overkill by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge led to the beginning of the militia movement in the US and a growing belief in conspiracy theories.

Tara needed to escape from her family, and college was a way to do that, but could she be accepted anywhere when she’d been denied an education? At sixteen, Tara taught herself just enough grammar, math, and science to pass the ACT. Off she went to Brigham Young University where, for the first time, she learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and other major events in US and world history.

Ten years after entering Brigham Young, with enormous effort and persistence, Tara completed a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University in England. Along the way, she constructed a new “self,” almost from scratch. A reckoning with her family was inevitable.

“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”

Here, she writes about her relationship with her mother:

“I knew what unspoken pact I would be making as I walked through the door. I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms, the same terms they had offered me three years before; that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.

My mother’s message amounted to an ultimatum: I could see her and my father, or I would never see her again. She has never recanted.”

The quality of Tara’s writing and her psychological insights are enough to recommend this memoir, but there is much more to her complex story. In separating from her family, Tara, the budding historian, explored the conflict between obligation to family and culture and the need to individuate. This layer of Tara’s journey is fascinating. In her memoir, she charted her own breaking away while, in her thesis, she explored four intellectual movements from the 19th century – including Mormonism – and how they “struggled with the question of family obligation.”

“My dissertation gave a different shape to history, one that was neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age. Instead, it treated the Mormon ideology as a chapter in the larger human story. In my account, history did not set Mormons apart from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.”

I’m quoting a lot of text here, but I want to show you how Tara writes of her maturing as an intellectual and how she found her calling as a scholar:

“I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, ‘Who writes history?’ on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”

And this:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.” 

Memoir is about the personal and specific and how transformation manifests in a life. If done well, the story becomes both universal and familiar to the reader. Tara writes eloquently about a key moment in her journey of change. Who hasn’t recognized the split between our younger self and the older, wiser person we’ve become?

“Until that moment she [my sixteen-year-old self] had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.

That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. 

I call it an education.”

 

Have you read Education by Tara Westover? What do you think? Which memoirs have you read that you feel are extraordinary?

 

My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

********

“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall

Livingston“The Italian word for gypsy, zingaro, is perhaps a better word. [The word] “heart” is merely a convenience, a sort of shorthand for what’s contained within the cautious body–the spark that thrives on wonder, that which is flung wide or ratcheted shut until it seems all but sealed but remains open, if only just a touch; the thing that moves and changes even as we seek to know it, that which stalks and stalks but cannot be satisfied. Not fully. Not permanently. The part of us that continues to yearn, to try, and to dream, despite the fact that there’s a certain space within us incapable of being filled, and that learning to live with this is a part of our humanity. But what does the heart know? Zingaro cuore. So great are some hungers, so unrelenting, that whatever even halfway fills them must be tried–miniature orange trees and birdhouses and homemade ukuleles. What can we do but feed, then feed again, the tender shoots within us?    Sonja Livingston, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses (University of Nebraska Press)

If you want to read something different and magical, try  Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses by Sonja Livingston.

This collection of linked essays, the 2016 choice for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book sponsored by Writers & Books, is a wonderful example of how powerful and poetic the essay can be and how inventive the form.

(Despite the subtitle, this is a collection of essays–memoir-ish, rather than a true memoir.)

Sonja writes about how the term “essay” conjures visions of tedious school assignments. But the essay is actually an elastic form of literary exploration that can be novel and beautiful. If done well, an essay tantalizes, catching the reader up in an unfolding.

The author has dedicated Queen of the Fall to the memory of Judith Kitchen, a teacher and mentor who passed away in 2014. I wrote last week about how Sonja, who grew up in the Rochester area, took Judith Kitchen’s essay writing class at SUNY Brockport twice. (I took Judith’s class also, several years ago.) While she was enrolled in Judith’s classes, Sonja was inspired to give up her career as a school counselor and become a writer.

Her essays share the themes of womanhood, fertility, and poverty, which have been central to her own life–hence the term “memoir” in the book’s subtitle. Each essay stands on its own, but I found myself so captured by their momentum that I read several in one sitting, as though I were reading a novel or memoir.

When I was in graduate school at Syracuse University many years ago, two classmates and I made a documentary about rural poverty in New York State. I’d just moved here from New York City, and I loved the landscape of glacier-made Finger Lakes, deep gorges, and waterfalls. I had no idea that, hidden in all this rural beauty, many families lived in poverty.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Sonja Livingston, her mother, and her six siblings were among them. Though there were five fathers among the seven children, no father was present in their lives. They moved from place to place: a rural town, a Native American reservation, an urban slum in inner city Rochester.

In Queen of the Fall, (which refers to the apples Sonja and her siblings picked during a stint as farm workers), Livingston explores the lives of various women and girls, including the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony who lived in Rochester (“The Lady With the Alligator Purse”), the troubled young girls (and a boy) Sonja met as a school counselor (“One for Sorrow”), and the television character Ally McBeal  (“The Lonely Hunters.”) They are some of my favorite essays, as well as “World Without End,” “What the Body Wants,” and “The Last American Virgin.”

Livingston casts the lives of women, especially disadvantaged and/or obscure women, in a new and dignifying light. Throughout, Sonja weaves in moments from her life as a teen taking risks yet hoping to avoid pregnancy, as a woman confronting infertility, and as the aunt of a young, unmarried niece who finds herself pregnant.

GhostbreadIf you’d like the full story of Sonja’s remarkable life as a backdrop to her essays in Queen of the Fall, you could read her remarkable 2009 memoir, Ghostbread, first. After devouring her essays, I found a copy of the memoir at my local library.

Sonja will have a newly published collection of essays this month that has been described as a hidden history of women’s lives: Ladies’ Night at the Dreamland. (I believe the Dreamland refers to Seabreeze, a Rochester amusement park.)

I’m looking forward to reading about little-known and obscure women from the area where I live–among them, a woman who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and the Fox sisters, who became well-known Spiritualists and mediums. Western and upstate New York has always been known for its progressive spirit and energetic spirituality, a hotbed of abolitionism, women’s rights, religiosity, spiritualism, and utopianism.

Declaration of SentimentsHere, for example, is a link to the Women’s Declaration of Sentiments, written and signed in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. It is inscribed on a wall there, and I remember being very moved on my visit several years ago.

From Livington’s upcoming book:

“Women understand how to overlook or wait until next time, can spend years holding their tongues in the face of the thing that most wants letting. No, I need no convincing of the strength of women, but it’s too often a matter of restraint. I do not often see us standing bold or brazen before a crowd. I do not mean to belittle cheerleaders and fashion models and television weather women—though theirs seems a case of the body going through a series of prescribed and pleasant motions. Where are our wild women? Those with open mouths and muscled legs, who flare and flame, whose actions shock, and whose bodies defy gravity, whose every step rivets the eye so that we can’t look away?”

Ladies Night

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