18 thoughts on “Educated

  1. As I sit down to collect my thoughts about Educated, I’m wondering if I’m still too close to the material – if the emotional weight of reading it is too heavy to yet focus on craft. I have not read something as strikingly powerful and as transparent as Educated in a long time. Still, as I know from the author’s forward and the conclusion, this narrative is not solely meant for readers to take pity on Tara, nor is it meant as an expose on Mormon faith. Still, even reading “A Note on the Text,” I can’t help but let my emotional reactions affect these questions and reflections on this memoir. She writes, in an explanation on the footnotes containing conflicting information, “We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell” (355.) Though true, I can’t help but think about the content of this narrative, or at least the parts of her life she has chosen to tell, and how terrible these experiences are. The conclusion focuses on a “rebirth” of sorts, illustrating the “education” that she comes to discover in moving away (or through?) this past. How do these footnotes play into this, beyond offering a different voice?

    The New Yorker writes, “If her book is an act of defiance, a way to set the record of her own life straight, it’s also an attempt to understand, even to respect, those whom she had to break away from in order to get free.” This theme is more than present in the book, as she gives those footnotes and often reflects and shifts between ideas and memories, as if she is offering a second narrator within the text. Even throughout the violence in the text, the burns, the falls, the abuse – her language is still poetic, balancing brutal, raw action and imagery with almost gentle reflection (I’m thinking of chapter 7 in particular). Still, I find myself focused on the more visceral response, and by the end of the book, I feel angrier for her than enlightened.

    Thinking about craft, Westover’s sentence structure and language often highlight one specific sentence she wants us to focus on. She writes with an almost songlike prose, one that flows between scene and reflection almost effortlessly. There are times where her language feels more direct, having us truly take on the weight of the scene, too. I think of Chapter 25, “The Work of Sulfer,” where she balances this well.

    I was also absolutely struck at how she is playing with memory in this book. There are often times where she writes “I remember” before falling into “I imagined.” I think of Chapter 22, “What We Whispered and What We Screamed,” in which she is relaying the abuse she suffered from Shawn in the parking lot after Christmas. This is where I believe Westover is showcasing these fractures and fissures of her memory (or mindset) so well. She states that she puts away her journal, “reciting this narrative as if it is a poem I’ve decided to learn by heart.” At the end of this reflection, she goes and rewrites the event, using each detail, leaving out the “vague, shadowy language” she had previously hid behind. I find this passage particularly striking, mostly because of the way in which she directly shows us a scene in which her realities are constructed and shifted based on what she chooses to remember. Here, she is descriptive yet blunt – calling these “half knowledges” by their name. I believe this reverberates throughout the book. She is finding her truths in the midst of constructed knowledge, and using the past to thread throughout these different moments. By the end of the book, I return to these passages, knowing that the very act of writing it down in detail is both empowering and a reclaiming of the “reality” of its own.

    I have many more thoughts, though I’m beyond the word limit, so I’ll leave them here:
    • How does she use the mountain throughout the novel? I thought her sense of place was so vivid and poetic in the midst of such violent acts. She returns to these very image-heavy sections of the scenery of Beck’s Peak. (Chapter 33)
    • How do these scenes of the mountain and junkyard contrast with the cathedrals in Cambridge?
    • I also felt like her language was often tender and gentle in times when it called for otherwise – again, is this echoing back to the conclusion?
    • Thinking about her interactions with her father, I see him have less agency throughout the course of his narrative, both for her and in the context of the text. At the beginning, he is characterized through his knowledge, though by the end, many of her ruminations focus on his physical form and the aftermath of the explosion. (Chapter 36) (This also can be said of her mother, as well — who is characterized through her profession, and then through her actions and lack thereof.)
    • “If the first fall was God’s will, who’s was the second?” I’ve been thinking about this line a lot.

    • Academics vs. Education

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    1. I’m excited to talk more about nature as a metaphor in class. I confess that I spent almost an hour on Google looking at pictures of Buck’s Peak and the Indian Princess, and even some 20 minutes or so looking up archival footage of the Weaver standoff!

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  2. This was the first one I read over the summer from the list of books for this class. I was totally blown away by her style and skill in the craft of writing, in addition to how she made it out of such a traumatizing experience.
    I was struck by how the prologue was written in present tense. I think this was effective because the reader is being introduced to her world and we get pulled right in. Her descriptions in this section (as well as the rest of the piece) are amazing, and able to transport me to the actual scene near the mountain.
    I liked that she used the word “educated” in repetition throughout to show us where her education started. I think it was a conscious choice to use the word throughout the book to symbolize and prepare the reader for the changes about to occur and the ones that have occurred.
    She weaves reflection amidst the her descriptions and in her
    The craft device that stood out the most to me was her use of place. She uses place to make the reader feel at home in each chapter. She does this expertly. I was reminded continuously of Dorothy Allison’s essay “Place” as I read Westover’s memoir. Her use of descriptions, context, and emotion to build place/setting are powerful and well placed. She describes her surroundings with such precision. The mountains, the junkyard, the hills, and every part of the terrain had been characterized. The land has become a character in her memoir.
    It is powerful how she rends the scene with emotion and context, also.
    The emotion of her tale is affected, whether she writes in short, compressed sentences or when she uses a more lyrical and poetic language, to show us what it was like to live in her shoes with people who tried to keep her education pigeon-holed.
    The context of place is aptly written, also. She writes the experience and uses applicable dialogue, internal dialogue, reflection, description, and emotion to build scene upon scene, which supports whichever context she is exploring.
    She made us feel for her experience with her skillful writing.
    It is also interesting to note that her changes were braided and woven in: we see her start without understanding the world, only her dad’s version of it. Then she takes us through her education outside of that household, in increments. She never tries to tell us she abandoned her upbringing in completion; she still went to a faith-based school, she still surrounded herself with other believers as much as she could, she still wrote a thesis with a religious premise.
    Education is multi-faceted. She came to college with a whole life’s work of education, even though it was an education that cannot be graded or given scholarship for. She came to the world of classrooms by way of religious paranoia and neglect, which is how it would be described by any textbook (and legal) understanding of the word.
    This book was amazing to me. It was one of my favorites.

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    1. Your comments about place are the most specific and detailed, and it’s definitely true that place is a kind of character in this piece, one that feels almost as powerful, if not moreso than that of her family. Looking forward to discussing.

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  3. I know we’ve discussed many times before (and I believe we will continue to) that the readings in this class are full of difficult material, and I think that, so far, each writer has wrangled, sifted through, and presented their life’s difficulties in vastly different ways.

    In Educated, one of the things I repeatedly noticed was the level of detachment between Tara Westover and the difficult scenes of imminent danger and abuse she paints for the reader. Specifically, I want to reference the scene in chapter 6, in which Westover’s father asks her to climb in the scrap bin while he dumps the metal in and she gets stuck to the side with a large piece of scrap metal piercing her leg, and the scene in chapter 13, in which Westover wakes to find that her brother, Shawn, is strangling her only to have him continue to physically and verbally abuse her before she is saved by another of her brothers returning home. What made me flag these two scenes during my reading was the way that Westover details these experiences. While she uses reflection and her developed/developing understanding of her past freely throughout this memoir, Westover avoids reflection and avoids inserting her present self in telling the reader of these events. By doing this, she creates a space largely untouched by the contrast or conflict between her past and current self and allows the reader to just see, hear, feel, etc. exactly what happened in these moments. I felt that being uninterrupted in these moments created a stronger connection between myself and Westover as the narrator of her life, which only served to heighten the impact of these awful situations.

    I found that Westover also employed her skills in detaching herself from her past and her past (or present) beliefs in other areas of her writing as well, especially in those instances where she is developing another family member as a character through scene and dialogue. I found that Westover was rather intentional with how she presented her family members, mainly her father, to the reader. While I think that most (if not all of us) come to think that her father is crazy by the time we reach the end of the book, it is quite notable that Westover is able to remove her present thoughts (when necessary) while rehashing her past experiences. Often, she leaves the reader with plenty of room to see things as they were at the time, and she presents the complexities of “good people bad things” and vice versa without forcing the reader to think one way or the other.

    On the other hand, I also noticed in reading this book is, as I mentioned before, the way Westover intentionally uses reflection and points out how her (and her family’s) memories, thoughts, and opinions have changed (see page 119) or have been diluted over time (see the footnote on page 128). Sometimes this is done through seamlessly weaving her reflections through the narrative (see pages 26 & 131), through the use of white space to denote a more obvious shift in perspective or time, and sometimes through the use of her footnotes. The latter of these was particularly intriguing to me. I often found myself wondering what purpose it served Westover to use footnotes rather than simply including the reflection within the narrative (see page 75) as she had done many times before. Would it have been better, less distracting, not to use footnotes? Were each of the footnotes even necessary to our understanding of and engagement with the story?

    I have plenty more thoughts and opinion, but I’m already over the word count, so that’s all for now.

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    1. As writers, we can learn a lot by noting how reflection can work to either empower a narrative or weaken it. Your case that reflection in some of the more dramatic scenes might have weakens them is a good one. I do think, though, there are times in the narrative where
      she comes back to reflect on these harrowing moments. Perhaps at the time she wasn’t exactly in a reflective mood!

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  4. Like the title might suggest, throughout the novel the word educated takes on multiple forms. Tara uses her family’s background and belief system as an example of the practicality of experience as a form of education as well as its short comings. This is demonstrated through her family’s intimacy with the land (including her mother’s herbal knowledge), her brother’s trucking work, Tara’s experience when her brother uses a racial slur, and Tara’s initial struggles at BYU (among others). (Consequently, the only one who is truly ignorant is her father, who makes no effort to educate himself in anything).

    One thing that stuck out to me while reading Educated was how Tara Westover was able to articulate and incorporate the relationship between her family (humans) and the environment around them (Buck’s Peak). While the environment is not the main focus of Educated, it’s nevertheless a major factor. From her father working a scrap junkyard and survivalist tendencies, her mother’s education into the world of herbalism/ holistic medicine, the injured great horned owl in “Blood and Feathers”, to the Cambridge campus being described as a stone mountain, the environment plays a role in Tara and her family’s lives, both big and small. I was pleasantly surprised by this and while reading, I was reminded of Jannise Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, where the similarities of both girls growing up with a junkyard scrapping father struck me. While Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is more of a nature memoir than Educated, I’m still intrigued by the idea of incorporating and blending elements from the natural world in unconventional ways.

    Something else which stuck out to me while reading was the attention paid to color throughout the novel, including in relation to Tara herself. I thought it was interesting that for much of the book, Tara and her family are colorless, shapeless and drab and color is assigned to other people and things. (Or if Tara does assign color to herself or family they are not exciting, either ash-colored or black etc.). For example, the amber lighting on something from the sun, the crimson of family member’s blood, or Charles’s red jeep, or her Grandmother’s (I think it’s Grandma over in town) house and clothing. Especially other people’s clothing. Because Tara mainly describes the color of things she sees as being “other” or separate from her and her family, the colored objects jump out of the page, highlighting the difference between the mainstream world and Tara’s own life.

    I’d like to ask the class two questions. The first: Do you think that humor is a tool a writer can use when writing about those that have wronged them? If so, do you think that Tara did this effectively when it comes to her family?

    The reason I ask, is because I found myself laughing throughout a lot of the novel. Definitely any time the father brought up the Illuminati but also during parts I thought Tara was aiming for a more serious tone. (The most poignant example I can think of is when she describes her father’s butt being the only orifice not burned—because her father had been talking out of his butt for years.) Also, if Tara is using humor, I found that it made me very detached from her family and her own plight—I felt no compassion for any of them.

    The second: What is your overall opinion of Tara’s use of bolded words and sentences? Do you think it is effective or distracting?

    I’ve always wondered about this as a writer, whether it was appropriate to use the bold word command in a piece of writing. It’s always felt weird and somewhat childish to me, so I shied away from it. Reading Educated has definitely solidified this for me. I don’t think Tara’s use of bold was in any way effective and I think it only served to distract the reader. While I’m appreciative that we were exposed to something so obviously different in a published work, I can now say I’d never use bolded words or sentences so ubiquitously in my own writing.

    • Third small question: Do you guys think she even needs the disclaimer at the beginning of the book? I don’t. Not once did I think her experience was indicative of what Mormonism was like. I don’t consider her family Mormons, they’re survivalists. Reading Educated will give you as much insight into Mormon religion as the actual play Book of Mormon will. Also, while it might make her feel better, I don’t think she needed to use Pseudonyms for her siblings either. I don’t care what their actual names are—to me those are their names.

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    1. Hi Jessica, I totally agree with you about author Westover’s use of (bolded) caps. In my humble opinion, I believe that they were a bit excessive (I’m guilty of this too in my poetry). On another note* I am in total agreement with the author’s disclaimer at the beginning of her book. I believe when you are an author, airing out your family’s “dirty laundry,” there are innocent family members who will ultimately suffer behind the writings as well. I love what you wrote. Thank you for sharing, Renee’ Drummond-Brown.

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    2. I actually found myself laughing a handful of times too! The first time is the scene where Tyler is drinking tacos. However, there is maybe only a handful of these moments (maybe even less) that I can recall and so it didn’t even register as a device until I read your post. In fact, it seemed to me that Westover was very careful with her depictions of her family members, even when it concerned her father’s Illuminati conspiracy theories. I don’t think she was trying to be funny at all, but perhaps I didn’t see the humor as much because I identified this with the bipolar disorder.

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    3. On color, I also noticed it was leveraged as a device throughout. In fact, the first powerful connection I made was where Grandmother-over-in-town’s house is described as “a yellow house with a white picket fence lined with purple irises.” Prior to that, Westover describes the house her father built as a “shabby yellow house.” After the accident, the “deep purple” of her mother’s eyes made me think of the chapter on “Cream Shoes.”

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    4. We’ll talk more in class about the ethics and liability of using real names in a work of nonfiction, but I doubt any reputable publisher would have let her use real names of her family members without their permission because of liability–the press as well as the author could be sued. Sometimes one chooses to use pseudonyms to protect someone’s privacy as well.

      I was interested in your comparison to Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. It may be that narratives such as Ray’s and Westover’s can be seen as a welcome challenge to the idea that any such thing as “pure” nature actually exists. It’s a corrective to the notion that humans are merely observers and not participants in creating the natural world, and also offers examples of the myriad of ways we connect with the natural world via work.

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  5. Renee’ Drummond-Brown
    Educated A Memoir by: Tara Westover

    Author Tara Westover’s book cover, Educated, touts a large pencil with the silhouette of a girl standing on top of what appears to be a picture within a picture of a mountain and black birds flying about. After further investigation of the table of contents and inspecting the various titles, the books structure stood out as having a preachy vein flowing throughout. For example: CHOOSE THE GOOD, SHEILD AND BUCKLER, THE LORD WILL PROVIDE, SILENCE OF THE CHURCHES, TO KEEP IT HOLY, IN THE BEGINNING, RECITALS OF THE FATHERS, HAND OF THE ALMIGHTY, THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS and finally, somewhat out of sort the title EDUCATED.
    Based on those titles and the synopsis of Westover’s Mormon background, shared with our class by Dr. St. Germain, Westover’s, cover led me to look at the word education in both a biblical and secular sense. The scripture defines education in this manner “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV). In the secular, education can be formal, informal and non-formal and because education provides knowledge and knowledge provides power, it gives segue to the authors’ intended meaning behind the title. Both educational experiences combined with disappointments, heartaches, loss and suffering assisted the author in channeling her writings from a place of revelation. This spoke volume to the title of her book.
    Although, Westover notes that the book is not about Mormonism or religious beliefs, her writings, like author Joy Castro’s, Island of Bones, refrains their familial places. In both instances it was their educational pursuit that empowered them to overcome abuse and their personal testimony’s leeway established the backdrop for writing their wrongs. Westover’s prologue is finely crafted with refrains such as: hill, hillside, the peak and mountains, which gives insight to the books cover and the author’s personal ambitions to elevate herself through education.
    In the first chapter, the author opens her book with a contradicting sentence “MY STRONGEST MEMORY IS NOT A MEMORY.” The sentence was bold and commanded attention because of her use of all caps. However, it held absolutely no weight because she immediately follows with “It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened.” Furthermore, she diminishes the first paragraph in the book by ending it with “but like I said, none of this happened.” I appreciate the fact that the author is willing to take chances within her writings, however, at times it appears to be an excessive use of play on words.
    Although, the book holds interest, I must admit, after that, it was difficult keeping track of the author’s imaginations and/or what was believed (by her) to be truth. This author uses a great deal of imagery throughout the book, but complicates her storylines when
    writing in this fashion: “I do not exist” then begins the very next sentence with “Of course I did exist” (p.xiv). On another instance she writes “we kept on bottling peaches. I don’t remember how many days passed or how many jars…” (p.10). “Some part of me wanted the Feds to come, had craved the adventure. Now I feel fear” (p.10). Because Educated is an account of the writer overcoming serious issues of abuse, in my opinion, she needed not to complicate her writings and make it difficult for the reader to cogitate about her intended thoughts. A straight forward writing approach would have been more concrete and indisputable from the perspective of the reader.
    The author’s use of space and imagery enabled me to see her storylines through the perspective of her eyes. She was brilliant in capturing the moments throughout her book. For example, Westover writes “WHEN JANUARY 1 DAWNED LIKE ANY OTHER MORNING, IT BROKE Dad’s spirit” (p.92). Another illustration in the book lends credence to the author’s voice “OUR NIGGER’S BACK!” (p.179) Westover, often called a “nigger” earlier in the book by her brother, Shawn, used to take pleasure with her family in hearing that derogatory slur because of ignorance and limited education. However, the author’s educational journey afforded both her voice and writings to grow as she confidently states “I could not have articulated this, not as I sweated through those seating afternoons in the forklift. I did not have the language I have now. But I understood this one fact: that a thousand times I had been called Nigger, and laughed, and now I could not laugh. The word and the way Shawn said it hadn’t changed; only my eras were different (pg180). Profound! Furthermore, the author’s writing style as it relates to imagery adds dimension to her craft.

    1. Does anyone else think that the author’s imagination refrains throughout the books adds speculations to her philosophical approach of getting her point across at times?

    2. Did it appear somewhat attention seeking of the author’s use of caps beginning in each chapter?

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    1. I look forward to our discussing the sometimes paradoxical way the author presents herself and her conflicting emotions. I understand why it might seem difficult, but I would ask whether or not her situation demands that she show conflicting sides of her personality. I’m not sure I understand your first question: do you mean to ask whether or not the ways in which she uses her imagination complicates the thrust of the narrative? Would this be related to the issue of her showing conflicts in her beliefs?

      I believe the use of caps beginning each chapter is a stylist choice made by the designer of the book, and it’s a standard way of often beginning chapters.


      1. Yes, Dr. St Germain, that is exactly what I meant by that question? The way you addressed my question, made me take a second look at what I was attempting to say. I can see the confusion in my wording, however, the way you answered, made me take another look from the author’s point of view in her memoir…I didn’t take her young age in account when she was reflecting on so many issues. At her tender teenage years, certainly, a lot of imaginations run wild. Thank you for helping me to clear that up. Renee’.

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  6. What doesn’t kill you makes you a best-selling author

    As I read Tara Westover’s Educated, I could not help but reflect on my own story of estrangement and what my loved ones will one day deem a crime against the family. Although Westover was raised by Mormon survivalists in Idaho, a far cry from the consumer-centric South Florida of my youth, we both experienced an awakening that reshaped our sense of reality. For me, it was losing my mother to cancer at 21. For Westover, it was getting a formal education at 17.

    As stated in the Boston Review: “Education becomes a metaphor for consciousness, and Educated the story of how a woman woke cannot unlearn this knowledge.” And yet, for all the painful truths that Westover has to grapple with, she delivers her account of life on that “jagged little patch of Idaho” dripping with empathy.

    A key craft element used throughout Educated, which provides readers with ample room to forgive the characters, is the use of conditionals. In many of the extraordinary accounts depicting instances of neglect, child endangerment and/or abuse, Westover plays with misremembering to not immediately overwhelm the reader. The first instance of this is after the car accident that takes place on the drive back to Idaho in “Apache Women.” Westover imagines that her mother asked to be taken home, after thinking she heard her father ask if they should call an ambulance. By not outright claiming any of these facts to be undeniably true, Westover sets a scene where it’s not clear who is to blame for what. In this way, the reader can enjoy the “beautiful mountain face glowing orange in the morning light” and not get bogged down by what just occurred, as the family somehow arrives home, in who knows which way—after totaling their car.

    The next powerful moment, where a fuzzy memory removes culpability, is the day Luke’s jeans catch on fire in “The Lord Will Provide.” While reflecting back on that day, Westover depicts her dad “praying aloud, his eyes drawn heavenward, as he carries his son to the truck and sets him in the driver’s seat.” In this scene, Westover does not condemn her father for leaving her injured brother to fend for himself. Instead, she imagines her dad thinking that the “Lord will provide. God left him conscious.” With this powerful image, the reader is gently coaxed into forgiving this man’s ignorance as a result of blind faith, which completely distracts from the fact that a 13 year-old had to treat the burn wounds of a 17 year-old because there was not a single adult in sight.

    In “What We Whispered and What We Screamed,” a violent altercation on Thanksgiving “happens so quickly” that the writer isn’t able to provide some details. Westover doesn’t remember how Shawn got her on the floor or the moments after tumbling back into the bathtub, before Charles steps in to lift her up. In fact, many things are not clear, specifically where the parents are during this entire scene. What the reader can infer is that the violence was jarring enough for Charles, who later cried in an empty parking lot. Misremembering in this instance, although a natural reaction to trauma, allows Westover to gloss over the actuality of the event and shift the focus entirely to her internal struggle. This makes the moment somewhat palatable for the reader.

    Westover shows a lot of compassion and understanding, throughout her memoir and it’s easy to understand why she would not be as accusatory in her portrayal. In a Barnes & Noble interview, Westover states that a lot of the narrative focuses on estrangement and becoming estranged and that she didn’t want to impose a final narrative on what reconciliation or the terms of reconciliation might look like. It is clear that she is holding out for reconciliation, or perhaps she would not have been so merciful.

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  7. The issue of memory is so important here, and I like the way you talk about her “playing” with memory as a kind of craft device. It’s a difficult dance to make, ethically. See Lauren Slater’s Lying: a Metaphorical Memoir for one that takes memory even farther in terms of playing with it and using as an important craft device.


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