Every once in a while, you find a book which grabs your attention from the first page and keeps it until the last page. “Educated” by Tara Westover is such a book. Further, “Educated” provides a compelling example of ongoing and cumulative trauma which serves as an excellent tool for social work clinicians who treat those with complex trauma and social educators who teach on trauma.
Growing up with a conservative, survivalist Mormon family on an Idaho mountain, Westover is one of seven children, the youngest, and one of two girls. Westover describes a home led by her father, Val, with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder whose decisions, influenced by his paranoia of worldly influences, including doctors, hospitals and the government, impacted the family in extreme ways.
For example, Westover describes significant preparation efforts by the family in readiness for the end of the world, which required the stockpiling of food, ammunition, and supplies. Several of the family’s children, including Tara, were born at home and did not have a birth certificate in order to avoid any interaction with government agencies. Westover provides many stories which recount extreme danger and injury to family members related to her father’s decision-making, including one terrifying incident where she is impaled by metal while working with him in the family junkyard business.
Westover’s mother appears to be a combination of healer, spiritual leader, and dutiful wife. She is alternatingly supportive and emotionally unreliable, even deceptive and betraying in the account provided. A community “midwife” and herbalist with no formal training, she provides intervention and healing for the myriad of catastrophes which befall the family. Her reputation as a healer results in the family’s reliance on her herbs, oils, and salves for treating even the most extreme injuries when Val declines hospitalization for himself and others.
Of all the stories told in the manuscript, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking are those of interactions with her brother “Shawn”. A survivor of multiple severe head injuries, Shawn is unpredictable; alternatingly devoted and loving to his sister, and then on a dime, extremely violent. Westover recalls an incident when she went to the grocery store with Shawn but did not want to go in because she was dirty from working in the junkyard.
Excerpt from Educated
“I feel strong arms wrenching my legs. Something shifts in my ankle, a crack or a pop. I lose my grip. I’m pulled from the car. I feel icy pavement on my back; pebbles are grinding into my skin. My jeans have slid down past my hips. I’d felt them peeling off me, inch by inch, as Shawn yanked my legs…I want to cover myself, but Shawn has pinned my hands above my head. I lie still, feeling the cold seep into me. I hear my voice begging him to let me go, but I don’t sound like myself….I’m dragged upward and set on my feet. Then I’m 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 a little like a scream. ‘You’re going in’, Shawn says, and I feel the bone in my wrist crack.” (Westover, 2018, 194-195)
At the heart of Westover’s memoir is her father’s beliefs about formal education. The first few Westover children were allowed to attend school for a few years, then they were homeschooled by the mother for a time. However, by the time Tara was old enough for education, there were no formal educational efforts in place.
Tara learned to read from her older siblings, and two of her older brothers ultimately left the home and community for higher education. Tara struggled, but ultimately followed the path of the educated brothers. The incredible component of Tara’s story is that she evolved from a life with no formal education to having earned a Ph.D., as have two of her older brothers.
Westover’s book is an excellent example of the trauma stories that social workers often see in their clinical practice. It is sometimes difficult to articulate the complexity of trauma when in the context of a family’s belief systems, but Westover does it eloquently. She articulates the presence of love, faith, and expectations all while also describing decisions and incidences which routinely placed family members in situations of high risk physical and emotional danger. Betrayal trauma is a theme throughout as she cannot trust her parents or family to appropriately care for her.
Further, she describes the complexity of survival in the face of not being believed, an experience all too common among trauma survivors. She also experiences a common phenomenon when family trauma is confronted – the retelling of the experienced story in a manner which serves to protect abusers and to shame the victim. Her story ends with a family divided, and it appears from press releases from the family, to be an entrenchment of positions about her version.
While Westover clearly feels attachment and even love for her family and her home, it appears that the path to healing for her is one that requires distance. This type of resolution is one that social work practitioners know well.