Thursday, July 5, 2018

Educated A Memoir

Book:     Educated A Memoir
Author: Tara Tara
Edition: Hardcover, Random House 2018

I read Educated in just a few sittings, the words tumbling over one another as the author's life tumbled chaotically through childhood and into adulthood. The writing is stellar, the story harrowing and revealing, showing the reader graphically the ambivalence Westover feels toward her family. Readers see love, pain, and Westover’s realization of the incongruity of her upbringing. She is raised so near others who learn mathematics and history along with self-advocacy and ambition, while she is told her place as a female and daughter of a fanatic. I was both captivated by the writing and repulsed by the conflict.

Westover is unbelievably courageous in both her actions and in her writing. I appreciate her revealing her painful memories to shed light on the secrets and suffering hidden in families, and of the shame associated with being found out. Sharing our stories opens doors through which we can rescue one another and heal wounds.

On the flip side, clearly we each have our own view of the past. Some of Westover’s family (through their lawyer) disagree with Westover’s recounting. While the book rings true, you as the reader need to work to determine what you believe is true.

The book is an excellent choice for book groups.

Internet Resources 

By definition this memoir is about Westover’s memories. However, memory can be very fluid. Often many eyewitnesses to the same event have very different accounts. Even one individual’s memory can change significantly over time. Malcolm Gladwell has a pair of podcasts on memory, A Polite Word for Liar and Free Brian Williams, that present how memory evolves and finding that truth isn’t always in the memory. I recommend listening to both.

Not surprisingly, some of Westover’s family share very different memories. Read 'Educated should be read with a grain of salt', to hear their response to the memoire through their lawyer.

Family Members [many of these names are pseudonyms]

Tara: author and youngest of seven siblings [note I use Tara’s first name throughout as all of the family members have the same last name]
Gene: Tara’s father
Faye: Tara’s mother
Tony: oldest brother
Shawn: second oldest and Tara’s abusive brother
Tyler: third oldest
Luke: fourth oldest
Audrey: fifth oldest, Tara’s sister
Richard: sixth oldest
Emily: Shawn’s wife
Benjamin: Audrey’s husband
Stefanie: Tyler’s wife
Kami: Richard’s wife
Drew: Tara’s boyfriend and first boyfriend she tells about the truth of her family

Discussion Topics 

Home 

Tara reflects on how she changes what she views as 'home',
“I wonder now if the day I set out to steal that tax return wasn’t the first time I left home to go to Buck’s Peak. That night I had entered my father’s house as an intruder. It was a shift in mental language, a surrendering of where I was from.” page 206
At what points in your life has what you call home changed? At what point in your transition from your birth home to your adult home did “home” change? What are the essential elements that make someplace a home for you now? as a child? as a young adult?

The Brooklyn discussion guide also encompasses the theme of 'home' from a very different perspective and could be a good pairing with Educated.

Memory 

Memory is very malleable. Every time we recall a memory, we are actually changing its shape and restoring it in our brains. In addition, technology is advancing so rapidly that even images cannot be relied up to display the truth. So how do we know what actually happened?

In Educated, Tara is clear that these are her memories and openly acknowledges that there exists disagreements in who was where, and when. In the stories of Luke’s burn (page 75), Shawn’s fall off the pallet (page 128), Shawn’s motorcycle accident (page 145), and the timeline of her father’s burn (page 219), Tara openly acknowledges that there are differing memories from different people. She discusses this in her note at the end of the book (page 333) emphasizing that what actually happened in two of these cases would change how she and likely the reader viewed the motives of the participants.

When she journals after Shawn drags her from the car and across the gravel parking lot, Tara says she does,
“something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestions. I write what I remember.” page 196 

Writing can record events to keep a memory constant. Whether the original writing reflected the event is in the eyes and pen of the writer.

How has your understanding of memory evolved? What events do you believe you recall precisely and have found evidence that they didn’t unfold in the way you recall?

Malcolm Gladwell has a pair of podcasts on memory, A Polite Word for Liar and Free Brian Williams that present how memory evolves and finding that truth isn’t always in the memory.

Check out The Trouble with Goats and Sheep discussion guide for a very different book that also can guide your book group in a discussion of memory.

Abuse 

The core of the memoir recounts Tara’s abuse, both physical and mental, and she lays out the facts and her emotions as she recalls them without sugar-coating.

When Tyler witnesses the abuse Tara reflects,
“The only thing worse than being dragged through the house by my hair was Tyler’s having seen it.” page 119 
And Tara often covers up her abuse by laughing and pretending Shawn is just joking around even as he is nearly killing her. When Charles sees Shawn yanking Tara, he comes to her defense and when he asks if she is okay, Tara responds with a laugh and that Shawn is being funny, and slaps playfully at Shawn page 189.

After Shawn drags Tara through the parking lot, Tara writes in her journal and reflects,
"I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.” page 195 

When Audrey hears in Tara’s words, a phrase she had heard from Shawn as her abuser, she emails Tara,

“I should have helped you, Audrey wrote. But when my own mother didn’t believe me, I stopped believing myself.” page 269 
As an adult reflecting back on the abuse, Tara realizes,
“In it [my memory] I saw myself as unbreakable, as tender as stone. At first I merely believed this, until one day it became truth... How I had hollowed myself out. ...that its not affecting me, that was its effect.” page 111 

 In many ways individuals who are abused hide the abuse from others and from themselves. Sometimes for safety, real or perceived, sometimes due to being embarrassed by others seeing the abuse, sometimes to lie to themselves, along with a myriad of other reasons.

Why do we as humans so often feel the need to keep abuse secret? How does hiding the abuse keep the abused sane? How does hiding abuse help the abused feel in control? How can a family member support someone who has suffered abuse? How can a friend be supportive?

How can the cycle of abuse be broken?  How can we as a society bring abuse out from the shadows and confront it directly?

Beartown is a novel that also deals with abuse and whether to keep the secret or bring it out in the open. If your book group wants to delve into this topic more deeply, Beartown is an excellent book for discussion.

Secrets and Family 

“Tyler was an outsider now. He’d been gone for so long, he’d been shifted to that category of people who we kept secrets from. Who we kept this from.” page 117 
Tara recounts in an interview with the Guardian,
“What broke us was not me going to college against my father’s will or even leaving home to go to Cambridge. It was me speaking openly about my brother Shawn being violent and abusive to me. My parents couldn’t deal with that so they turned the other way and made me look like the bad person. In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth.” 

In a CBS This Morning interview  Tara says, “One of the reasons I wrote the book is because of the gaslighting I experienced from my parents… I think the tragedy here isn’t that bad people do bad things. I think the tragedy is what good people do keep secrets.”

Have you known families like this? How do secrets hold families together and how have you seen secrets tear families apart?

Many novels have secrets at their core. Here are a few that may encourage your group to weave together a very rich discussion on secrets across your book choices:

Education 

The book jacket offers this view of what an education is and what it offers:
 “the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.” 
What is education to you?

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