Educated, Tara Westover

The inspiration for this essay comes from a wonderful event organized by the American Corner in Nis and teacher Maja. This event, called the Book Club, provides Anglo-American literature enthusiasts with the opportunity to improve their communication skills in English. We were given a task by teacher Maja to write an account of the novel that we liked the most out of the ones we covered in the previous period. The book Educated was read at the Book Club and served as the inspiration for this text.

Conflict between the urban and rural areas of the USA

If we focus our attention on the perception of the American literary tradition since colonial literature, we will notice that the main motifs in the novels were based of the conflict between the urban and rural areas of the USA. This conflict provided fertile ground for the creation of numerous masterpieces and the variation of motifs through the synchronic and diachronic axis of observation of the entire literary heritage of America. So if we start from the first American poet Anne Bradstreet, through Mary Rowlandson (author of the first bestseller in the USA, The Sovereignty and Kindness of God), through Emily Dickinson, Willa Kader, Hemingway, Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison, through Kerouac and all the way to Franzen , we will face varying rural and urban motifs. We should not be surprised that in the neighboring Canada, in the end, with Margaret Atwood, this motif received its own variation, which was transposed from the colonial period into the science-fiction genre and led to a completely radical variant realized in the story of June Osborne in The Handmaid’s Tale.

I will leave the sci-fi genre aside and return to the literary synchronic-diachronic axis that gave birth to a new literary hope – Tara Westover, who also surpassed Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, the memoirs of Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, who spoke about the Appalachian values ​​of his family in Kentucky, as well as about the social and socio-economic problems of the city of Middletown, where his parents moved at a young age.

In the novel, we will read about the efforts of a girl to overcome her difficult childhood in Idaho and save herself from the fundamentalism of her family. The first part of the novel brings us the story from the perspective of a girl who is raised by religious fanatics. Her life takes place in the rural part of the USA, the economic and social periphery of the most powerful country in the world.  We are presented with the characters of the desperate and the poor, who, in addition to the initial empathy, cause the readers to be appalled by their brutality and superstition. On the literary pages in front of us, it’s as if Lars von Trier’s heroes from Dogville come to life. The main character in the novel  – Tara, was born into one such family.

Father Jean is a self-proclaimed prophet who suffers from serious mental disorders. He is convinced that the apocalypse will arrive at the beginning of the new millennium. When it doesn’t happen, he experiences such a  disappointment that Tara herself will at one point think how God could have denied it to him. This will take  him into an even deeper psychoses and bipolar disorder. He does not believe in education and the achievements of the modern state. He forbids his children to go to school, even avoids local industrial food products. Everything around him conveys direct messages from God, which leads his family to a series of unfathomable consequences that will make us shudder at the fate of literary heroes (real people).

„Isaiah doesn’t say which is evil, butter or honey,“ is how he delivers the good news. „But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!“

Mother Fay is a woman who obeys her husband to the point of depravity. Although at times the reader feels the worm of her doubt about the authenticity of her husband’s divine providence. She finds some form of independence in the roles of healer and practitioner of alternative medicine, as well as in the work of a doula in families that do not believe in official medical institutions. Eventually he would become a producer of essential oils used for therapeutic purposes and begin to  engage in dubious healing using positive energy transference. Faye will see this aspect of her therapeutic practice as God speaking through her fingers. Although this will be in direct conflict with traditional Mormon religious principles, the author will not mention it on any page until the end, so that the reader will have the image of seriously deranged religious fanatics in front of him all the time. We can justify this to some extent by the fact that the author, as in her childhood, fails to leave the perspective of the girl and until the very end shows the consequences of post-traumatic stress caused by torture and accepts all her mother’s explanations unquestioningly. Fay grew up in a family where social conformity was highly valued. Her rebellion went in the opposite direction from her daughter’s.  Married as a young woman to a religious fanatic. At times, Faye will seem like a person who is ready to stand up for herself. She finds cunning ways to support Tara by going behind her husband’s back. However, her loyalty to her husband remains unquestioned until the very end.

The family will completely dispute Tara’s version of events of the life circumstances in which she grew up.

“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.”

Family legacy – Only the second part of the novel brings readers a story told from the perspective of a girl who, by moving to an urban environment, embarks on the path of her salvation and healing from the serious psychological consequences caused by growing up among religious fanatics. The perspective of rural life through the prism of urban America is presented bleakly. The poor economic position of peasants and their constant struggle for money is a daily occurrence. Children work on waste landfill, processing secondary raw materials from metal. That is not enough for them to survive. A crazed father and mother who do not seem to notice the basic needs of children will lead them to traffic accidents caused by psychoses and paranoia. Hospitals and medicine are off limits to Tara’s family. In front of us  there are lined up pictures of injured family members whose wounds persist, fester and produce superhuman pain. Ignorance and fundamentalism will lead the male characters in the novel to a series of injuries (cuts, bleeding, burns). The image of the psychopathic abuse of Tara by her brother Sean will be Tara’s everyday life. These pictures will show the hierarchy in the family of religious fanatics, as well as the position of women. Readers will be stunned by the descriptions of Sean’s brother, who, in the mental disorder of a psychopath, breaks into his sister’s room while she sleeps. Grabbing her tightly around the throat, he tries to strangle her while in an ecstasy of undisguised pleasure, the psychopath calls her a whore because of her friendship with the young man next door. Sean also shows violence towards various other women he dates, including his wife Emily. In addition to violence, Shawn is a skilled liar and manipulator.

“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.”

Education as salvation – the story of urban heritage.

Tara’s salvation will begin the moment America’s urban heritage flows into her life.

“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.”

She will first be introduced to art by her brother Tyler, who lets her stay in his room while they listen to records of spiritual music. The sound from Nina Simone’s song I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good seems to come alive before the readers; Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood who, like the trumpets of angels, will begin to enlighten this young and deluded mind. Even as a child, Brother Tyler showed an intention towards education. He secretly studied mathematics from books lost in the basement and indulged in the charms of music. He is the first to leave his mentally disturbed family and go to university. He eventually gets a doctorate and marries a girl who is much more liberal than the family he grew up in. Tyler is Tara’s ally and always tries to help his sister. He is the first person to suggest that she move out and go to college. Tyler believes Tara when she tells him that Shawn abused her. She is a kind and compassionate person and knows how to find  balance between maintaining her relationship with her family and standing up for Tara.

“I carried the books to my room and read through the night. I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft, but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, the world moved: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” “

The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.

“Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are a woman.”

Thanks to him, Tara will gradually begin to heal. Although without formal education, with his superhuman effort and talent, he will reach through the urban heritage what America itself will call a transformation, and rural America a betrayal. The author herself will call it education.

“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.”

Narrative style – The techniques used in the narration are episodic style, meditative and repetitive observations.  Melodrama is avoided, although there are shortcomings in some storylines. For me, this shortcoming can be seen in the author’s unwillingness to bare her character to the extreme. In a way, it is as if she hidden behind all her hard-earned diplomas and certificates, unwilling to use all the literary postulates that the collision of rural and urban brings.

Mega power contexts – What should certainly not be ignored in looking at this work is the context of the USA. The pages say something important about the US and its context. It is not just a place that we see on canvases in the scenography of gentrified cities. It is a place where, despite the countless opportunities that this modern country offers, you can grow up without any idea of ​​how man and the world around him are structured. Through the lines of this novel, the reader moves through a universal story about how religious bigotry can be defeated and how education can be a way to outgrow your bad family roots.

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.

If we only remember Trump’s appointment as president and all the support that came from rural areas and strong conservative strongholds, as well as the right-wing intentions in the migrant policy of his cabinet, we will understand that this collision is not final and can go in both directions, so today Margaret Atwood’s fiction does not seem so impossible. Looking at the context will help us justify the literary shortcomings and the author’s restraint in deepening the characters. This can allow us to see the work as a story about sick family loyalty and grief caused by the psychological breakdown that brings about a break with the family, even when that break is salutary. The main message that emerges from these pages will be that the aspiration to be educated brings us the possibility to look at our life with different eyes and not agree to traditional patterns that introduce us to the lack of freedom and indolence in the struggle for change.

Marko Radulović


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