A Dysfunctional Family

“I am dragged upwards and set on my feet. I claw at my clothes. Then I am doubled over and my wrist is being folded back, bending, bent as far as it will go and bending still. My nose is near the pavement when the bone begins to bow. I try to regain my balance, to use the strength in my legs to push back, but when my ankle takes weight, it buckles. I scream. Heads turn in our direction. People crane to see what the commotion is. Immediately I begin to laugh-a wild, hysterical cackle that despite all my efforts still sounds like a scream.”

From our common understanding of domestic violence one would assume that such violence on a woman is wife-beating, perpetrated by a husband on his wife. This is the description of the mildest version of violence on her described in Tara Westover’s memoir titled “Educated”. But the perpetrator is not her husband. In fact she is not married, only a child entering her teens, when this violence begins or at least she remembers. It is her brother Shawn who is a complex violent character in need of help. What is more disconcerting is her behaviour on being observed in public. Trying to ‘normalize’ the event, pretending that nothing out the ordinary happened, what kind of mental stress she must have undergone as a child?

I am getting ahead of myself here. The memoir is about a Mormon family from Idaho in the United States living in the foothills of a mountain under the shadow of ‘Buck Peak’. Her father owns a junkyard and is a fundamentalist. He believed that the world was going to end and only his family will be saved as they practice all the tenets of the fundamentalist religion. He kept his family away from the government authority. Four of his children including Tara had no birth certificates so that to the state of Idaho, they did not exist. The children were not allowed to go to school as that would corrupt their minds. Satan operated through the formal medical system so none of the family members were taken to hospital no matter how grave the injury or illness. Her mother becomes a mid-wife by chance while assisting in home deliveries and later becomes a healer manufacturing indigenous medicine.

The father was also afraid that the government would raid them one day and kill them. So they spend their lives collecting and storing all they would need in case of such an event. The children were trained for the eventuality when they would flee into the mountains behind their home. The delusional father had stocked all that was required, including fuel, in various points on the hills behind their home. Such was the life Tara led. She grew up with no friends and she met no one who believed differently. The church that they went to had people of the same belief but less fundamentalist than her father.

Growing up in this ‘dysfunctional’ family Tara was unaware that this was not normal. What struck me the most was the violence perpetrated on her and her siblings by her brother Shawn. There did not seem to be any real reason for his turning his anger on Tara. As she grew older, every time she had a boyfriend or tried to dress normally, he called her a whore and wrecked violence on her. The father and mother chose to turn a blind eye. The father figure is dominant and this extraordinary dis-functionality in the family is ‘normalized’.

Most of the reviews of the book say that the story is about the ‘transformative’ power of education. Somehow that was not my take on the book. I did not feel that the power of education was the focus of the book. Education was for Tara the escape route out of the unbearable violent situation in the family. One by one the sensible bigger brothers leave the house and set up on their own. Her sister gets married and leaves too. All the focus of the violence turns on her. She loves books, she loves reading. It is her escape from the reality around her when she is young, though she has limited access to books. She is home schooled. One of her brothers encouraged her to give the entrance exams to the local university. She realizes that if she studied hard enough she might stand a chance though her self-confidence is so low and she does not rate her chances very high. Finally her love for books and her clear vision overtime that this is the only way she can walk out of the house and live a ‘normal’ life helps her to move out. Later when she does get to college and university she finds it very difficult to be ‘normal’. The thoughts, ideas and way of life, including not consulting a doctor, are so ingrained in her that she finds it difficult to behave as other students did.

Though she is able to get a Gates Fellowship to go to Cambridge, she is
unable to handle the situation and take the call to stay away from her family. She is somehow riddled with guilt. She is torn between not being able to follow the traditions and practices of her family and wanting to lead a ‘normal’ life that she now sees her companions live. She goes back repeatedly, and gets the same treatment again from her father and brother. A review in the Sunday Express called it “intoxicating pull of dis-functional families”.

Her father wanted her to continue working in his scrapyard as he needed every hand he could get. Her elder brothers had left and Shawn and her father were handling the business.  She noticed that he ill-treats his wife. One review noted that ‘leaving a family is not a moment, but takes a lifetime’. I disagree with what really happened to Tara. She did not leave the family, but she was actually pushed out of the family. She realized some time while in college that this violence was not really her fault, but was because Shawn has a problem and needed to be treated. So she tried to enlist her married sister to talk to her parents. When her sister tries to tell her parents, the reaction is violent, like ‘are you with us or are you with her?’ Her sister backtracks. She tried to speak to one of her brothers. He tries to speak to their parents and gets the same reaction. She soon realizes that she is alone. Her family sees her as a threat to their established idiosyncratic way of life. Eventually she is ‘pushed out’ of the family. Or at least that is my reading of the book.

The book is moving.  It is almost unbelievable that such disaster can be brought about by a delusional father. Various members of the family, her brother, herself and the entire family were all involved in accidents due to the crazed decisions and madness of her father. Eventually the father himself was involved in an accident which almost killed him and disfigured his face and body for life. Still he does not allow himself to be admitted to hospital and her mother uses her indigenous medicine and tactics to bring him back to some form of normal life. This was seen as an act of God. In fact all events were an act of God and had to be accepted as it was. Tara recalls all these incidents with the help of her brothers. Each sibling has his version of what happened at these various accidents. She pieces together what she can of a credible story of what actually happened in each of these episodes. What is remarkable is that she is able to tell this story without blaming anyone or without malice. It truly is a memoir for all times to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s