The book-blurb version of Educated ends here, a Hillbilly Elegy-meets-Pygmalion tale of an improbable intellectual coming-of-age. However, Westover digs deeper in this memoir. She wants to tell the story of her soul, not her accomplishments, and she writes surprisingly little of her life at Cambridge. Instead, like a tongue probing a sore tooth, her narrative returns to Bucks Peak, where her identity still lies. How can she break from her family without losing herself?
The answer does not come easily. Throughout her teens and into her graduate-school years, Westover suffers tremendous physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her older brother Shawn. He rages violently, and when Tara starts to wear makeup and date, she bears the brunt of his manic outbursts, which often leave her with broken bones and bruises. Westovers encounter, in college, with early feminist thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, gives her a language to understand this experience. When she brings the abuse to her fathers attention, however, he refuses to acknowledge it, and eventually, the entire family, except for one brother, turns on her. Isolated and on the verge of psychological collapse while on a fellowship at Harvard, Westover begins to doubt her own memoryperhaps she imagined the abuse?
If we are made to mistrust our memories, how do we know who we are? Westovers entire memoir wrestles with this question. In doing so, she follows the lead of the Wests first autobiographer, St. Augustine. In Book 10 of the Confessions, he ties memory to identity and, specifically, to language:
[W]hen a true account is given of past events, what is brought forth from the memory is not the events themselves, which have passed away, but words formed from images of those events which as they happened and went on their way left some kind of traces in the mind.
It is fitting, then, that writing in her journal saves Tara Westover. After one particularly humiliating incident that involves Shawn dragging her through a parking lot, she decides, for the first time, to record the abuse in her journalnot just in the vague, shadowy language she usually uses to conceal the abuse from herself, but in terms of what actually happened. This action, she later writes, would change everything.
Even when it occurs in a private journal, writing is a communal activity, for the simple reason that language itself is. Putting her private experience into language enables Westovers subjectivity to become objectivity; she cannot erase its meaning, no matter how much she would like to. Writing the truth helps her realize that her voice might be as strong as the other ones that had narrated her life to that point.
Honesty defines Westovers voice, and redeems her book from occasional lapses into clich. When she recounts scrawling verses of Bob Marleys Redemption Song into her notebook for inspiration, readers are tempted to roll their eyes (attending a college party or two has a way of removing any illusions of Marley as a prophet). But to Westover, for whom the singer is an unknown until that point, Emancipate yourself from mental slavery is as fresh and charged with meaning as any line from Locke, Hume, or Rousseau. And though she has every reason to turn her family into villains, she tempers their faults with genuine affection, even for Shawn, whose violent paroxysms were often followed by moments of poignant tenderness.
For the ancient Greeks, education implied much more than our modern conception of receiving information or gaining experience. It meant entering into the patterns of the larger community, so that one becomes an individual only by learning from others and from the past. The Greeks called this process paideia, and it is precisely this concept that Homers Cyclopes lacked. Their caves may have granted them autonomy, but they were not individuals, because they lacked culture and community.
Educated is Tara Westovers account of becoming an individual through paideia. She ventures out into the world to discover her identity, and finds it only by making herself vulnerable to the truth, no matter where it lies or how painful it is. Her memoir provides a captivating account of her gradual discovery of an essentially Catholic truththat we exist in relation to others and to the world around us.
EducatedA MemoirTara WestoverRandom House, $28, 352 pp.
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