Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is a tough book to read, not because the form of the text itself is complicated, but because of the uncomfortable, sometimes disturbing, abusive situations we experience through Tara’s eyes. However, this also makes it very inspiring and hopeful when we see her flourish and grow up against all odds. As the title says, the book is nonfiction and deals with the author’s life growing up in a (mostly) secluded Mormon family in Idaho. Homeschooled and sheltered, Tara does not get to know the “real world” until she goes to college, after overcoming her family’s wishes. She has to ultimately face the difficult choice of following the path her family wants for her or creating her own.

From the get go, Tara makes it is clear that this family’s way of life heavily revolves around religious teachings and these ideals are to be followed and cherished above all else. Tara’s father is the unquestionable patriarch of the family and his beliefs shape the lives of his wife and children to a sometimes dangerous degree. One of the first things we learn about them is that before the year 2000, the family is constantly reminded of the incoming end of the world and that they should prepare for it by saving up food. After New Year, though, the paranoia ends abruptly when the world doesn’t actually end, and the previously foreboding issue is never mentioned again. Reality is malleable for Tara, her father bends and shapes her world and she, not knowing better, willingly follows.

Modern medicine and medical are is strictly forbidden by Tara’s father and this leads to disturbing consequences. A car crash where her mother suffers a severe head injury is particularly upsetting to read.  Even when she finally leaves home, Tara’s internal monologue makes it clear that her trauma and emotional wounds still haunt her. She has been conditioned to accept and endure pain and suffering.

Mormon girls are not supposed to want anything other than to be housewives and have lots of children. Women are taught to surrender to men and males get the privilege to order and subjugate their wives or even other female relatives. When Tara reaches puberty, her brother Shawn becomes a constant threat, with their interactions reading like a horror story. Misogynistic and cruel, he bullies and abuses Tara physically and psychologically whenever he has the chance. Him acting kind from time to time leaves Tara confused and unable to completely hate him. Her parents won’t believe or acknowledge the situation and thus Tara is gaslighted into thinking it’s her fault. She undeservingly gets called a “whore” and a “slut” but she cannot complain. Westover describes this dynamic of abuse in such a detailed way that we understand why she bottles up and prefers to keep quiet.

Through curiosity and sheer will, Westover realizes she deserves a better life. She sneakily reads science and math books and even gets to take dance lessons (using clothes that cover her up completely), but she is always questioning if she deserves to do what she wants. This is the frustrating main theme of the story. Emotional abuse is something that you carry with you through all your life and growing out of it is a painful, constant process.

Tara eventually gets into college and studies abroad, but her family is always on her mind in one way or another. A phone call or an email from them has the power to reawaken feelings of self-deprecation and shame. She sees herself as an impostor, undeserving of being around other more well-adjusted students. Her achievements are not something her family approve or are proud of, but are rather actually used to shame her from straying away from her loving home and religion. What makes it all more complicated is that she truly, really loves her family, but they are not good for her. Fortunately, two of her brothers who also left home come to support her eventually.

It is satisfying to learn Tara has come very far from where she began, but there is no true happy ending to the story. Growing up and finding yourself is an ongoing process. Our upbringing shapes us, but does not ultimately define us. We cannot let others dictate our path because happiness and life fulfillment come from knowing and nurturing our true self, even if it is irreconcilable with others’ beliefs. Sometimes there is no middle ground and we may have to decide if the people that love us but restrain us from achieving happiness are worth to keep around.

Flowers for Algernon

Is intelligence linked to happiness or lack thereof? Can greater knowledge of the world make us better persons? How much does emotional trauma from early in our life affect our present behavior?

Daniel Keyes tackled these themes (among others) poignantly in his 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. I had learned from Reddit that the book is considered a classic, having multiple movie and TV adaptations, and even a Simpsons episode inspired by it (HOMR). After reading the book, I can say that it is trully a (science fiction) masterpiece.

The premise is quite fascinating: an intelectually disabled man called Charlie Gordon is the first human subject of a scientific experiment that enhances his IQ to that of a super genius. The story follows his personal journey, written in his own journal entries, recording the joy and pain of gaining self-awareness of the world around him.

Charlie starts out as a pretty simple-minded man. He works at a bakery and attends to special education classes for adults to improve himself. After being recommended by his teacher, he is chosen as the first subject of an intelligence enhancing procedure, previously succesful with Algernon, a common lab mouse.

Keyes masterfully takes us inside Charlie’s mind through the use of journal entries, justified in the story as part of the records needed to document the effects of the procedure on the individual. Charlie starts out with a pretty bad writing, resembling that of a kid, but by the time the experiment’s effects sink in, he now has a wide vocabulary and precise writing to express his emotions.

And this is where his emotional conflict begins. Charlie now has access to a wide arrange of knowledge, including the capacity to form thoughts and give name to emotions and events from his past. He recalls the times he was abused by his family for not being a normal boy, the bullying he suffered at work, and even the ethics of using a human being, who cannot give well-reasoned consent, as an object of scientific study. All this takes a toll on his mental and emotional state, morphing his previously naive demeanor into a bitter, self-absorbed one.

Halfway through the story, Charlie falls in love with a woman and his sexual needs flourish too. He is totally unprepared for this and cannot form a mature relationship with her. Later on, he has to confront his family (who had estranged him) and is overwhelmed by the emotions that come back to him. Even with all the knowledge in the world, he doesn’t have the emotional tools to handle these kinds of interactions and situations. Charlie thought his intelligence would be enough to thrive in the world, but he soon realizes it’s not enough.

This, to me, is the most well realised part of the novel. Keyes makes us live as Charlie as he tries to make sense of a cruel and difficult world. Charlie reflects on how times used to be simpler, how he didn’t have to worry about thinking too much, and how rapidly he forgot the wrong done to him, even cruelty. Basically, how many of us, as adults, recall our childhood.

When Algernon’s intelligence begins to decline, Charlie knows his time will come too, and the result is heartbreaking.

I would greatly encourage anyone and especially people who don’t read science fiction to try this book.

P.D. I had pet mice when I was younger and reading about dying mice adds an extra layer of sadness to the story.