Book review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Educated imgThis book caused something of a sensation when it was published last year. It is the extraordinary memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho, as part of a large Mormon family. Nothing too outlandish there until the author begins telling you about the father’s survivalist beliefs (he hoards supplies of food and fuel in their bunker for when catastrophe strikes, as he believes it inevitably will), his Christian fundamentalism (quite extreme beliefs about, for example, what women should wear, that even their fellow Church members find uncomfortable) and the obsessive control he exerts over the rest of the family. The unconventional nature of the family would be enough to make this a fascinating read, but what makes it shocking is the level of violence, of almost sadistic cruelty. Some of is quite hard to read and at times I found myself gasping out loud.

Tara, the author, is the youngest of seven children. The family lives in an isolated area, below Buck’s Peak mountain in Idaho, far from town and the influence of ordinary society. Her father runs his own business making money from scrap metal. He is a powerful patriarchal figure whose word must be obeyed and who has strong conspiracy theory beliefs. He distrusts all figures of authority and all institutions, including the police, doctors and nurses, public officials, banks and school teachers. His children are “home-schooled” (in the loosest sense of the term, since he also believes there is little need for an academic education), have no official records (neither of her parents can be sure exactly how old Tara is or of her birthdate) and never attend a hospital. Tara’s mother becomes a “midwife”; more accurately she is self-educated and self-appointed to attend births in other families with similar distrust of conventional medicine. (Later in the book she begins to develop her own homeopathic remedies which will make the family’s fortune.)

The book is a largely chronological account of Tara’s growing up and her increasing scepticism about her family’s views. She is an intelligent and curious child and inevitably questions some of the beliefs and assumptions underpinning her parents’ beliefs. As she gets occasional glimpses into the lives of others she determines that what she desires most of all is an education in a proper school or college. When one of her brothers manages to achieve this, and encourages her to seek it out for herself also, she makes the necessary arrangements. What seems to me to fuel Tara’s gradual withdrawal from the family, however, is not the desire for an education but an increasing intolerance of the violence experienced by her brothers, at the hands of their father, and that meted out to Tara herself by her brother Shawn, a deeply disturbed individual. The terrible ‘accidents’ that they all endure (even Tara’s mother sustains a head injury in a car crash that leaves her with unspecified brain damage) are the direct result of wilful neglect of normal standards of safety (her father removes all the seatbelts from the family car). Make no mistake, this level of violence and cruelty is all about control and ruling through fear.

Slight spoiler alert: Tara does eventually break free from her family, though it is a difficult journey for her, and she finds herself torn many times between her attachment to her parents and siblings, in spite of everything she has had to endure from them, and her academic ambitions which see her winning scholarships to Cambridge and to Harvard. Her achievements are extraordinary given her background and her lack of formal education. She realises how sheltered her life has been when she stuns a lecture room into dumbstruck silence by asking the teacher what is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’. Adapting to life ‘in the outside world’ is extraordinarily difficult and she often wonders whether it might just have been easier to stay where she was.

I found this both a shocking and a moving read. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the book; the family has closed ranks around itself and some members have contradicted Tara’s account of events. The author alludes to some of these differences in the notes section and also states at several points throughout that her memory of an event is vague and she is relying on others’ recollections. I felt at times uncomfortable reading the book, it felt voyeuristic. At other times I found myself disbelieving – how could Tara even think about going back to her family after all they had done. It was hard to imagine how she could not see through the lies and the control. But then, on the other hand, this is an account, you could say, of abuse, and of how the victim can be drawn back to the perpetrator. Especially where those perpetrators are her closest family. Without them she has no-one.

Recommended, but not the easiest of reads.

How do you rate Educated?

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Book Review: “Harvesting” by Lisa Harding

This book was given to me by a family member as a Secret Santa gift last year. I have been dying to read it for ages but it seemed to keeping slipping down the TBR list (does that happen to you too?) I determined to read it on my summer holiday, although in many ways it was rather a strange choice; not your traditional beach read! The subject matter is child sex trafficking and the author, a well-known actor in Ireland, came up with the idea after she became involved with a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in 2012.

Harvesting img

The book tells the parallel stories of two young girls, Nico and Sammy. Nico is from Moldova. She lives in a deprived rural setting, her family is poor and her father and two of her brothers are cruel and misogynistic. They have become brutalised by their poverty and by the systemic corruption and organised crime in their society. Nico’s mother is oppressed and powerless to stop the terrible fate that awaits her daughter. Nico has another brother, Luca, who disagrees with the family’s plans for her and wants to protect her, but he also cannot stand in their way. Lacking money for even a basic standard of living, Nico’s father sells his daughter for marriage to an older man, as soon as she starts her periods (so she is around 13). As far as the prevailing culture is concerned, she is a woman now and the family see no reason why they should continue to support her, so they seek to profit from her. Nico’s father believes that Petre, Nico’s future ‘husband’, will give Nico a good life in London and buy her all the things her family have been unable to give her. The two men are colluding in a mutual self-deception, one assumes because this is the only way that Nico’s father can justify selling his child in this way.

Nico is effectively kidnapped and it becomes very quickly apparent that she along with a number of other girls, is to be prepared for life as a prostitute. Nico is particularly valuable because she is so young and a virgin. The girls are drugged, abused, beaten and then trafficked across European borders until eventually they reach Ireland. Petre’s girlfriend Magda is the only person able to protect Nico even a little from the worst excesses of the gangsters and she is only able to do so on the basis that Nico is worth more if they treat her less cruelly than if she becomes ill through mistreatment. It is the only fragment of protection that Nico has.

The other main protagonist in the book is Sammy, a young Irish girl, of around 16, who represents a different side of sex slavery. She falls into a life of prostitution almost by accident. Problems at home (her mother is an alcoholic and her father can only cope by separating himself) and at school lead to her leaving home and falling into the hands of adults who exploit and abuse her. Sammy presents a more challenging character, firstly because, at a superficial level, her problems seem to be of her own making; she is rebellious, uncooperative and undisciplined. She puts herself in dangerous situations which have been interpreted as attention-seeking acts. She is a child out of control and has sacrificed the sympathy of those who might (should!) help her, such as the school authorities. What Harding does skilfully, though, is show us that, despite the fact that she is sassy and street-wise, Sammy is a child and no less deserving of protection than the more ‘innocent’ Nico.

What is also particularly chilling about Sammy’s story is that in a modern democratic western society, with liberal traditions, social services and proper policies and procedures in place to protect young people, even a young girl from a middle-class background can fall through the cracks and, worse, some of those who should be protecting her, are part of the problem.

The two girls eventually meet when they find themselves in the same suburban brothel and their fates become intertwined. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and some readers may find they are unable to bear the sex scenes. It is hard-hitting. Some aspects of it are almost unbelievable; as a frequent visitor to Ireland for many years now I find it difficult to accept that there is a huge underground network providing children for an illicit sex trade in a city I know and love. But the author has clearly researched the story extensively, and fact-checked with people who work and campaign in this field. This lends the book a shocking credibility. And we know from child sexual abuse cases of recent years that the worst perpetrators are often hiding in plain sight, and that the collective disbelief that people could act in such ways can blind us to the realities. This book will definitely shake you out of any complacency.

I recommend this book – it is hard to say it’s enjoyable, more that it is an important book, that is compelling, thought-provoking and necessarily shocking. It is well-written with strong characters.

Can you recommend any similarly hard-hitting but important books?

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