Educating Ourselves about Violence

IMG_2992I’m at a loss to say whether Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover’s highly-celebrated account of her escape from a fundamentalist, survivalist, home-schooled upbringing in Idaho to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a good book. What I can say without hesitation is that it’s a disturbing book. It took me awhile to get through it, actually. I was reading it at night before I went to sleep. I had barely started it when I was overcome one morning by dizziness and nausea as I got out of bed. The feeling subsided as the day wore on, but it returned the next morning, and if anything, was even worse.

I don’t remember now how long it took me to figure out what the problem was, and I still can’t be certain that I was correct. I believe, however, that the problem was that I was reading Westover’s extended and graphic descriptions of serious head injuries just before going to sleep and hence planting the suggestion in my mind that I had suffered a similar injury.

Whether my guess was correct or not, the dizziness and nausea, disappeared when I stopped reading the book. I was afraid to pick it up again and didn’t for a long time.  I wouldn’t have picked it up again except that it was the selection of a reading group I was hoping to join. The thing is, there isn’t much to it but these extended, graphic descriptions of injuries. It is essentially a collection of such descriptions strung together with accounts of Westover’s physical and emotional abuse by various family members, and, toward the end, thin filaments of hope as she gradually extricates herself from a web of nightmarish familial relationships.

The book assaults the reader. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I hope never to read anything like it again. I couldn’t get through even a few pages without feeling as if I had been physically throttled, or worse. Here’s just a brief snippet of the one of the many descriptions of head injuries. The Westover family, at the father’s insistence, had set out after dinner on a twelve-hour drive from Arizona, where they had been visiting, back to their home in Idaho. It isn’t clear how the accident happened, as Westover had fallen asleep.

I looked around. Tyler had twisted his upper body so that he was practically climbing into the backseat, his eyes bulging as he took in every cut, every bruise, every pair of wide eyes. I could see his face but it didn’t look like his face. Blood gushed from his mouth and down his shirt. I closed my eyes, trying to forget the twisted angles of his bloodstained teeth. When I opened them again, it was to check everyone else. Richard was holding his head, a hand over each ear like he was trying to block out a noise. Audrey’s nose was strangely hooked and blood was streaming from it down her arm. Luke was shaking but I couldn’t see any blood. I had a gash on my forearm from where the seat’s frame had caught hold of me” (pp. 50-51.)

….

I don’t know how we got home, or when, … Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.

Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey [Westover’s sister], even after I corrected her twice.

Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives. (pp. 52-53).

There’s a lot more of this stuff. There’s a second car accident under almost identical circumstances, with equally serious injuries described at similar length and in similar detail.

Westover and her brothers are repeatedly injured in their capacity as employees of their father’s scrap metal business and their injuries are described at similar length and in similarly graphic detail. Westover’s father isn’t cavalier about occupational safety. That would be putting it too mildly. He is outright contemptuous of it. He seems, in fact, diabolically to court disaster.

One of Westover’s brothers, and then later, her father, accidentally sets himself on fire. We get extended graphic descriptions of both those injuries as well. Here is just a little snippet:

I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory. (p. 281.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I say the book is little more than such descriptions of injuries. I’m not. There are so many violent incidents in the book it’s impossible to keep track of them. There are car accidents, motorcycle accidents, falls, impalements, immolations, assaults. The variety of accidents and injuries staggers the imagination.

Westover’s father never carried any of the heavy pieces of metal that littered his scrap yard to a sorting bin. He just “chucked” them “with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing” (71) … . He orders Westover into a bin of scrap iron that he’s about to dump in order that she can help to “settle it” — as he’s dumping it… ! There’s the “Shear” that Westover’s father acquired for cutting large pieces of scrap metal that was so obviously “lethal” that one of Westover’s brothers called it “a death machine”… . There’s the forklift and “old cheese pallet” that Westover’s father insists on using instead of a “man lift with a basket” (157)… .

The book is generally well written. But why write such a thing? Westover can’t possibly have wanted to relive those experiences. Did an editor put her up to larding the book with gore on the assumption that readers would like it? I was happy for her at the end after it was clear that the rest of her life was going to be better than the portion she had shared in her memoir. Yet I found the book as a whole deeply disturbing

Clearly, it resonates with many readers, however. It was a best seller and has catapulted its author to fame and fortune. It was nominated for numerous awards. The New York Times listed it as one of the ten best books of 2018. Time magazine named Westover one of the most influential people of 2019. President Obama included it in his summer reading list.

Part of the reason for the book’s success is undoubtedly that it dovetails so neatly with the liberal-elite world view. Young woman caught in a world of violence, racism, sexism, separatism and religious extremism, extricates herself from these evils through — education!

There isn’t much in the book, however, about Westover’s education, and what there is runs like a parallel narrative that rarely seems to connect in any meaningful way with the story of Westover’s violent and abusive childhood and adolescence. Westover’s story deserves telling. It could have been told, however, in much less graphic detail. A couple of extended descriptions of accidents would have sufficed. An account, for example, of the first car accident could have been followed by “…and then later, there was a second accident.” The fist burn description could have been followed by “…and then later my father also accidentally set himself on fire, only this time, the burns were even worse than those my brother had suffered.”

It is almost as disturbing to me as reading the book itself to realize that, based on the book’s success, the public clearly has a taste for such gore. Of course I’ve known Americans love violence. The whole world knows that. I had naively assumed, however, that intellectuals were in the minority of consumers of violent entertainment.

James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on violence, writes in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic that all the serial killers he has worked with were abused, either emotionally, or physically, or both, as children. This abuse was so severe, he argues, that their only defense was to deaden themselves emotionally. They feel very little. “This absence of feeling,” he writes, “is described consistently by murderers throughout the world and throughout history….Many murderers,” he explains, “find that the only way to feel alive, since they cannot feel anything emotionally, is to feel physical pain. So they attempt to induce such feelings by cutting or otherwise injuring their bodies” (p. 39).

Well, that’s us, isn’t it? That’s the U.S. Our culture is so bullying, so punitive, so insensitive, so inhumane, even for those in its upper echelon, it has reduced our capacity to feel. We use violent entertainment to shock ourselves into feeling something, anything, even fear and revulsion, just to reassure ourselves that we are alive and capable of feeling. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the success of Westover’s relentless horrific memoir.

Westover may be a great writer, but Educated is not a great book. There’s too little in it that is edifying and too much that’s profoundly disturbing. Westover was ultimately very lucky. If you persevere through the book, you’ll be happy for her. I can’t recommend you do that, though. My recommendation, contrary to President Obama’s, is that you don’t read the book at all.

If you have a taste for violent reading, read Gilligan, and in particular, his Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow). There’s plenty of gore there, but lots of humanity and wisdom as well. More importantly, while Westover’s book is an account of how one woman escaped from an intolerably violent environment, Gilligan’s books offer a way out for all of us from our intolerably violent culture.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the online political journal Counterpunch.)