Fanmail – Tara Westover

Memoir

Dear Tara Westover,

 

For three months, I have started, struggled, then stopped writing this letter about your recently published memoir, Educated. It is easy to note your stunning prose, which is vivid, clear, and utterly captivating, and the remarkable ways with which you have rendered such difficult material regarding your family and unconventional journey to gaining an education, particularly your generosity, openness, a sustained metaphor, and painstaking honesty. It is harder, however, to put my finger on, then articulate, how deeply this book moved me, and why.

 

Every once in a while, we are lucky enough to encounter writing that pushes beyond beauty, beyond entertainment, beyond thoughtfulness, to pierce our inner hearts. For me, your book has done that. The story stuck with me, even when I wasn’t reading it. Immediately after I finished, I urged my friends to read it, then my book club, then my husband, who then had his own book club read it. The urgency and emotion on each page radiated with importance and sparked much needed conversations about mental illness, abuse, religiosity (even though I know you clearly state “this story is not about Mormonism”), the nature of memory, and family loyalty.

 

Without imposing my own life onto yours, we share some uncanny parallels. I also grew up in a predominately Mormon community in the Intermountain West. Though my parents did not have anything close to a “head to the hills” bag, I remember gathering as a family at the turn of the millennium, unsure what would happen, as I kept an eye on the moon to see if it would turn blood red. Our basement was filled with thousands of food storage items like bucketed wheat, canned milk, and powdered eggs, which we would have to eat with our noses plugged when it came time to “rotate” through the goods that were about to expire. The Second Coming, I was taught, would occur in my lifetime. We had to be ready. This was commonplace for the suburb where I grew up.

 

I am also a BYU humanities graduate, and I recognized many people you mention in Part Two of the book. I saw many of the mixed characters from your story in my own BYU days. This was clear in the exchange with Josh, the law school student in training, who said, “If I were a woman . . . I wouldn’t want to study it.” Then, when challenged, continued to assert that if he did want to study, “I’d know something was wrong with me.” The comment was, unfortunately, not unfamiliar to me, but no less disappointing.

 

This, of course, is juxtaposed by Dr. Kerry and the advocates you encounter. Much as the Cambridge, Pembroke-King’s Programme became a turning point in your own educational journey, I found the BYU Field Studies Program to be a door opener in mine. I can trace my current job, my current educational path, to the BYU professors who took notice of me and encouraged me to reach for things outside my comfort zone, or, perhaps the comfort zone I felt projected onto me as a woman.

 

You paint a balanced picture of your experience at BYU with nuanced brush strokes, and I appreciate how you bring this approach when you mention Mormonism as well. This is apparent when you are discussing your dissertation, which was “neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age.” This fair treatment extends to all your subjects. The use of footnotes to invite contradictory recollections, bringing in your historian lens, only adds more to your credibility to tell a complex story as true as possible.

 

Part Three, I sensed, was the rawest section of the book; there is less distance between the writer and the narrator. The scene where the narrator is standing outside at two in the morning, “screaming, a long, steady holler” and “standing in the middle of Oxford Street” in pajamas becomes a critical moment in this book, a breakdown moment in which this is all building towards, one that continues to haunt me. There is a brokenness, a true, complicated, gut-wrenching loss, and no satisfying closure. As you put it, this was the true cost of your education.

 

I cannot imagine the book without Part Three, and I am glad this version, and not the book you could have written ten years later, exists. Perhaps what most resonates with me in this section is the sense of exile you describe, as it was, in a smaller way, my own experience. I too had a mentally ill parent (my mother) who often conflated religious teachings with delusional thinking to the detriment of those around her. I appreciate the moment when you say that “the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me” until college. This realization also came to me later in life.

 

When I was fifteen, my mother’s paranoid delusions destroyed our relationship. She told horrendous lies about me to the sympathetic neighbors and our extended family. No one believed me. I had to live with my dad, and ever since, my relationship with my mom has been almost nonexistent. Returning to my childhood neighborhood remains fraught. Even now, when my mother’s illness has been diagnosed and deemed severe enough for me to have become her legal guardian, I feel the intense burning inside me of what it feels like to not be believed, to be rejected by loved ones out of what might feel akin to tribalism. Sometimes I fear I am still proving that I’m “not bad,” ever scrutinizing my motivations. This came through clear to me when you are talking with you Grandpa and say you “doubted whether, in the years he had left, I would be able to prove to him that I was not what my father said I was, that I was not a wicked thing.”

 

Thank you for writing this memoir. I can only imagine the unfathomable courage it took. I am sorry for what you have gone through, sorry for your losses, but so grateful you shared Educated with us, how it made its way into my life and into the hands of my friends. As an aspiring writer, I thank you for making more space for these kinds of stories. It has added to my own education. Only a person as resilient as the narrator, guiding us through the pages, could have written such a book.

 

With Gratitude,

 

Rachel Rueckert

 

 

Rachel Rueckert holds an M.Ed from Boston University and is an MFA candidate at Columbia University with a concentration in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Carolina QuarterlyRoads & KingdomsExponent II, and others. Her latest project is a memoir about travel and marriage.
 

 … return to Issue 11.2 Table of Contents.