“Tell me, why have you placed this comma here?”
Tara Westover, improbably enough, is working with Professor Jonathan Steinberg at King’s College, Cambridge University.
“What relationship between these phrases are you hoping to establish?” he says.
That simple question and the entire scene, well into Westover’s memoir Educated, is gripping moment of an important academic exchange. (Yes, comma placement is a big deal.) Why? Because it’s so hard to imagine how far she has come, and against all odds, out of the darkness.
To think that Tara Westover is having a conversation about punctuation at one of the finest universities in the world and half-way around the world from her upbringing in a remote corner of Idaho, after being raised by a father who abhorred formal education and who trumpeted ridiculous conspiracy theories, is like a flat-earther stepping onto the surface of the moon.
In addition, Professor Steinberg is an expert on the Holocaust and Tara was raised with no knowledge of World War II.
Tara Westover’s father is a paranoid Mormon who is suspicious of everything. He makes doomsday preppers seem like regular folks. He hates hospitals and public education—really, anything to do with the government. He regularly belittles Tara’s attempts to seek “solid ground.” At first, Tara’s brother Shawn seems like an ally but he starts beating her up when she starts to expand her horizons.
What are the little things that make one child eager to leave such a fringe family, while others cling tightly to the family’s core beliefs? Tara is the youngest of seven children and pushes to get an education. She’s inspired in part by an older brother to study for a college-entrance exam and gets accepted to Brigham Young University. A fellowship leads her to Harvard University and then to England.
It’s a long way from home, where her herbalist mother and survivalist father, who works in scrap metal, channels “revelations,” and warns against the evil charms of the “the Illuminati.”
In some ways, Tara didn’t exist. Tara and three siblings didn’t have birth certificates. None of them had medical records because they were all born at home and had never seen a doctor or nurse (mom’s tinctures and herbs to the rescue). None of them had school records, either, because none of them had stepped foot in a classroom. At least, at first.
Westover’s account is harrowing. And complex. She makes progress getting out—the first engagements with real schools or starting a romance with a guy named Charles, whose appearance in Westover’s life is apparently what turns her brother against her. Despite knowing what she wants, Educated makes it clear how hard it is to shake the bonds even if chaos and danger await. (Westover recounts several harrowing traffic accidents as well as a fight with giant grinding machine.)
“Every night for a month, when I came in from the junkyard, I’d spend an hour scrubbing grime from my fingernails and dirt from my ears. I’d brush the tangles from my hair and clumsily apply makeup. I’d rub handfuls of lotion into the pads of my fingers to soften the calluses, just in case that was the night Charles touched them. When he finally did, it was early evening and we were in his jeep, driving to his house to watch a movie. We were just coming parallel to Fivemile Creek when he reached across the gearshift and rested his hand on mine. His hand was warm and I wanted to take it, but instead I jerked way as if I’d been burned. The response was involuntary, and I wished immediately that I could take it back. It happened again when he tried a second time. My body convulsed, yielding to a strange, potent instinct.”
Why the struggle? Because of her father’s equally abusive, horrific attitudes and how he raised Tara. Charles’ touch makes her think of her father uttering the word “whore,” even over an innocent interaction of human touch. Educated is a horror story in memoir form of both psychological torture and physical abuse. And in the end, when the daylight arrives, a tale of pure redemption. It’s tale of learning how the world works—including history—and it’s an education a soul. Westover does a great job of detailing the guilt and complex feelings that come from her escape.
Educated is a winner, every comma in its perfect place.