COVID-19 kept me from my graduate studies in Japan from February to October 2020. Every day, I was locked at home in Chengdu, China. I did not have any freedom to go out. My family is traditional. For example, my parents believe that girls should be cute and beautiful, and that girls should not be too busy because they ought to spend most of their time at home. During that time, I began to read books in bed. Tara Westover’s autobiography, Educated, immediately caught my attention. It is the story of her journey from a childhood dominated by her extreme anti-government, anti-science, Mormon fundamentalist parents, to becoming a scholar, holding a PhD, who studied at both Cambridge and Harvard. Her story inspired me immediately: I got up from bed and started studying. Then, I began to communicate more with my parents. But this book inspired me in many other ways as well.
During my time in lock down, I was saddened by the lives of people who I had never even met. I saw the despair of the citizens of Wuhan over the internet; many people who had caught the disease couldn’t be treated because there were not enough supplies. To prevent the spread of the disease, people couldn’t go home to their families. The hotels and hospitals were full. I saw videos of them crying and begging for help. I couldn’t believe that I was living in the midst of a global pandemic. Although I can understand this despair, I don’t think that I will ever be able to comprehend the agony of Westover’s life. Until the age of 16, she was forbidden to make her own decisions, being forced to follow her father’s rigid beliefs.
The Chinese Title
The Chinese translation of this book is excellent. For instance, the title Educated is a concise and powerful word in English, but it’s literal Chinese equivalent, 肝싱搗 (shou jiao yu), would be lost in crowded bookstore shelves. As a Chinese student majoring in language and literature, such a title would have implied to me an inspirational story about how to enter Cambridge University. However, Westover’s intention is not merely to showcase her academic success.
The memoir’s Chinese title was rendered beautifully as 콱뎠獗쿰령鞏콱돨 (ni dang xiang niao fei wang ni de shan) meaning, “To flee as a bird to your mountain.” This expression was borrowed from The Book of Psalms, a collection of sacred songs from the Old Testament of the Bible. The title implies two meanings—escape, or, to find a new faith. This complements the story of the author escaping like a bird from the mountains of her hometown in order to seek education. It also matches the cover of the book, the image of a pencil shaved into the shape of a mountain (see figure 1). Let’s open this book cover and turn to the first page of the memoir. There are three parts to this story. Part 1 is about her tragic childhood. Part 2 is about how she escaped her family. Part 3 is about her gains and losses in the process.
Part 1. Tragic Childhood
Westover was born in a small town in the mountains of Idaho, USA. Her father, Gene, believed that public schools were tools of the “Socialist” American government aimed at “brainwashing” people. Thus, he had his wife homeschool their children. Gene was also deeply hostile to what he termed the “Medical Establishment.” As a result, the family used homemade medicine to treat bruises, burns, and even severe cuts and concussions. When she was a teenager, she began to be abused by her older brother Shawn. He dragged her across rooms by her hair, and forced her face into the toilet. Her parents turned a blind eye to Shawn’s violence and refused their daughter’s requests to intervene or protect her.
Part 2. Escape
By 16, Westover could see that her home was unsafe. Thankfully, she was accepted into Brigham Young University, despite having no formal education. As a student, she began to learn just how deep her ignorance ran. In one class discussion, she inadvertently revealed that she had never heard of The Holocaust:
The professor called on me, and I read the sentence aloud. When I came to the word, I paused. “I don’t know this word,” I said. “What does it mean?” There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence. No papers shuffled, nope I was a freak, and I knew it, but I didn’t understand how they knew it. (p. 176)
She felt out of place everywhere. She lacked even basic knowledge about hygiene. For example, she had never been taught to wash her hands after using the toilet. Although she was in college, some parts of her were still trapped in her hometown. It would take time for her to break away from the so-called “truth” of her parents, and to start a new life. With her unremitting efforts, she started to get A’s and B’s in her courses. She began to shed the ideological baggage of her father’s beliefs. She began to dress as her peers, whose outfits her father would still call “frivolous” or even “whorish.” Eventually, she became Dr. Westover.
Part 3. Gain and loss
During her graduate studies, she discovered that her brother had other victims. She decided to tell everything to her parents. No one believed her. They accused her of lying and of attempting to destroy the family. Ultimately, she was left with no choice but to break off contact with her family. She knew that she needed to sever ties with them in order to break the cycle of abuse, paranoia, and control. Now she understood. Her education had been more than the acquisition of titles and degrees. It was a revolution. It was self-emancipation. It was liberation from the bonds of ignorance and control.
Westover’s mother was an educated woman. She wanted her children to be educated. She had her own story of struggle, overcoming her fear of childbirth to becoming a well-known midwife. She built all of the family businesses. Several times, she nearly escaped from the family. However, in the end, nothing changed. She remained as she was.
In our lives, we often face two roads. One is easy, but unfulfilling; the other is difficult, but fulfilling. Westover’s mother’s choice is an agonizing one. To break free of her constraints, she would need to separate herself from her family and community. The alternative is to remain in her simpler, brainwashed, existence, forcing herself to be content. During my time locked at home in Chengdu, this tragic story motivated me to study.
Westover’s life, as presented to us in three stages in Educated, affords the opportunity to question the meaning of education. Once, this woman lived under her father’s strict rules and actively sought education to discover herself. In this education, she discovered that the world was not black and white, nor was it merely shades of gray. It is vibrant and colorful. Although Westover’s experience is unique to her, her story reflects universal queries. What does education mean? What is the proper balance between self-will and family responsibilities? By writing her own story, she found an answer. Education, she says, means self-creation. “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.” (p. 356)
Although governments may brainwash students through education, I believe that by studying, people can find truth. As for me, my brother suggested to me that life is not about how to avoid the rain, but learning to dance in the rain. So, the story of Westover’s mother motivated me to choose the way which is difficult. I pray that every difficult choice promotes my growth. And it wasn’t until I educated myself and read more that I was able to see things with my own eyes, and not through the eyes of my parents. This may be the re-creation of education for me.
Westover, T. (2018). Educated. Random House.