Monday, December 14, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 14, Bethany Maile, Exceptional Upbringings


The New York Times review of Tara Westover’s Educated begins with a comparison. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, another rural-rags-to-cultural-riches story, had already blitzed through bestseller lists. But “Westover’s new tale of escape,” they said, “makes Vance’s seem tame.” If Vance, educated in struggling schools, made it to Yale, Westover got to college (and then Cambridge and Harvard) with no formal education at all. Where Vance rose from a family stymied in substance abuse, Westover fled an ideological maniac as pious as he was paranoid. “If Vance’s memoir offered street-heroin-grade drama,” the Times said, “Westover’s is carfentanil, the stuff that tranquilizes elephants.” 
     Put another way: you ain’t never seen something like this. In the tidal wave of shock and awe, Educated is the foaming, raging crest. The very tippy top. The most extreme. 

For me, the book’s action was secondary. Westover—raised by Mormon fanatics wary of the government, public schools, and most medicine—bootstraps it to the highest towers of education. But I was in it for Idaho, a place from which Westover and I both come. And when Educated came out, I was in the process of publishing my first book, an essay collection concerned with what it means to be from that place and how place and identity are inextricably woven. To find another woman writer from here, what a delight.
     Everyone was reading that book. My neighbor. My parents. Friends from high school. A colleague who grew up Mormon not so far from Westover. One by one we finished, and each conversation became an echo of the others. What was shocking to The New York Times was familiar to us. We turned the last page and failed to fully get what all the fuss was about.
     The New York Times continued: “The extremity of Westover’s upbringing emerges gradually through her telling, which only makes the telling more alluring.” Yes, the book’s pacing is crazy good. But the more apt point is that the book’s currency is its extremity. Educated relies on one family’s recklessness, survivalism, and isolationism to captivate the reader. What does it mean, though, if the book’s currency is its oddity, but that oddity isn’t, actually, so odd?
When I was fourteen, I took driver’s ed in a dank garage on the outskirts of Boise. In a sea of camo-ed farm boys, there was just one other girl. At first, I only saw her hair—bluntly cut at the shoulders and black as a wet stone. I bee-lined to her.
     Eva and I passed notes and at the end of class traded phone numbers. That weekend, her mother dropped her for a sleepover. “Thanks for having her,” she said, her mouth a hard line. As she walked away, I noticed her hair, piled high as a mountain, on top of her head. 
     I don’t remember much about that first sleepover, but I know it was a Saturday because when I told Eva that in the morning we would go to church where her mother could pick her up—cutting the drive from forty minutes to twenty—Eva got nervous.  
     “I don’t think so,” she said. 
     Maybe it was a weird offer, but in Idaho, church was a common language. I was attending a Christian school where once a week I walked into a sanctuary and students rolled on the floor, slain in the Spirit. Teachers convulsed on the stage. Once, a girl clucked like a chicken. Always the soft call of tongues mixed around me.
     “Jesus is moving,” the worship singer would say, and I’d sit, waiting to be dismissed. 
     In the public elementary I’d attended, all the Mormon girls wore Choose the Right rings and covered their shoulders. Once a friend’s father changed his shirt and for a lightning bolt moment I saw the flash of his holy underwear. A tank top the color of wet Saltines, it turned my stomach. 
     But even the secretive Mormons, who would not let you attend their weddings or enter their temples, would have waited in another church’s parking lot. And in the church my family attended I never heard politics from the pulpit or saw the Holy Spirit tear through its chapel. It seemed—to me then, at least—relatively benign. 
     “It’s not, like, weird,” I backpedaled. “It’ll just be closer for your parents.” 
     “I’ll wait here.” 
     Eva was adamant. More than adamant, she was scared. 

Eva’s family, I later learned, did attend church, but not like any I’d encountered. Hers was a place that believed in being neither in this world or of it.
     I do not remember the first time she used the word cult, but, having spent more time with her, I wasn’t surprised. When I met her sister we were at the county fair. Ruth stood by a fountain and hair the color of a field mouse fell past her rear, all wisp at the tips. For the first time I saw their mother’s hair released from its clip. Thick and black like Eva’s, but even longer than Ruth’s. A curtain. A weight.
     “We’re not allowed to cut it—ever,” Eva said later as we waited for the Ferris Wheel.
     “But yours is short.”
     “I did it right before driver’s ed. My dad still hasn’t talked to me.”  
     There were no doctors. No medicine. “Not so much as a Tylenol,” she said.
     “What about babies?” I asked. We were high in the sky now, Boise a carpet beneath us.
     When a baby came, women hopped in coughing station wagons and rushed to each other. Eva watched as infants slid into faded towels and women sewed up other women, speedy as darning a sock. 
     Once, painting her toes in my bedroom, she cried because her cousin, a girl our age, had died. I didn’t ask how, but I knew that whatever had happened no one called a doctor or 9-1-1, and Eva’s parents wouldn’t have done any differently. Across her ankle ran a white stripe thick as my finger.
     “I was on the back of my brother’s bike and my foot caught in the spokes. My mom thought it was going to fall off,” she said, shrugging. These were people who, in Westover’s words, put “faith before safety.”
     There were other things. Her grandfather had been a snake handler, baiting rattlers to show the power of the Holy Spirit’s protection. At an early age, Eva suspected the church of inbreeding. 
     “Sometimes we’d drive out to Picabo because there was another church there,” Eva said. “Once I said the Simpson boys out there were pretty cute.” 
     “Oh, honey,” her aunt said. “Those are your cousins. And we need some chlorine in this gene pool.”
Eva thought of her father’s arms, how they lumped with fatty tissue, warped and wavy as old glass. How her grandmother’s arms looked the same. And all of her father’s fifteen siblings. 
     But what struck me most was the wariness that fogged her house when I entered it. The way her mother went quiet and her father left the room. I, who met Eva at driver’s ed and invited her to church, set them on edge. I was all outside threat. All otherworld danger. 
     But it was an isolation and paranoia I’d seen before.

Our neighbor had an old cow shed that hugged our property. Mrs. Meyer lived in a tiny, pale blue farmhouse, and when her daughter and son-in-law and four grandkids hit hard times, she did not have room in the cottage. But she did have the shed. 
     Every night, I rode bikes with the new kids, each carrying deep-cut Bible names: Nehemiah. Ezekiel, Elisha, Rebekah. They did not go to school. They hardly ever left the road. But I’d climb trees with the two oldest and put the toddlers in a wheelbarrow and zoom them through cheatgrass. Sometimes we fought because somebody cheated at a bike race or gave a party-foul dead leg, which is to say we chased and climbed and stomped home like all neighbor kids do. 
     I only went in their house once. Light fell through cracks. Rusted nails poked through planks. Barnwood grayed with age and rot. Bare mattresses crowded what had been the hay loft. An extension cord made a TV glow. On the floor, one hot plate. As for a bathroom, they must have used their grandmother’s.  
     I never asked questions. Maybe I sensed there was a tenderness here. Or, more likely, I did not need to be told their family—like Westover’s—distrusted the government and believed the Bible was the only book worth reading. I could already tell. 
     Three fields over lived my father’s hunting buddy. He had four kids, another set of homeschoolers we only saw at 4-H. 
     “Jim’s got a whole bunker,” my father said once. “Never seen that many guns. I think he’s burying money, too.” There was no alarm in my father’s voice. No shock of novelty. He might have been saying The Robinsons planted more hydrangeas. 
     One night at the dinner table, I asked my parents how we could help Mrs. Meyer’s grandkids. They looked at each other. My father cleared his throat. It was a conversation they had already had. 
     “A lot of times you get the government involved, it just gets worse.”
     And then we were quiet, save the sound of pie being spooned into bowls.  

On the page, Westover seems the odd girl in town. Once, she asked the gas station owner if she could put up a babysitting flyer. When Westover explained she was available during the day, the woman cocked her head in alarm. 
Another woman, also worried by her homeschooling, asked, “Do you meet other people? Do you have friends?” 
These interactions work to establish that she is a rare and unnerving breed, even in rural Idaho. But I could’ve pointed any direction and found a family who homeschooled—often as minimally as Westover’s. Never did folks ask follow-up questions. It wasn’t even a speed bump in conversations.  
     And if I, who grew up just outside Boise, knew countless families like Westover’s (even saw occasional traces of my own family in hers), then I suspect that she—living in the shadow of a mountain—maybe also knew other kids whose fathers stockpiled ammo and prayed instead of medicated (although when injuries were bad enough the Westovers at least went to the ER, unlike Eva’s family). If this extremism felt rampant in the most mainstream part of the state, I can only imagine how prevalent it was in the far reaches. 

But so what if I watched other kids grow up in similarly dangerous settings, with parents who feared federal invasion and mistrusted medicine and public education, who delivered babies on tarps? Maybe none of that makes Westover’s accounting less powerful. 
     There’s a lot to praise in Educated. All through it I underlined sentences for their loveliness (“I sat wordless as a brick,” for one). There’s an insightfulness at work, too (“He had defined me to myself,” she says of her abusive brother, “And there’s no greater power than that”). And in handling her family, she tried to write it fair. But this is not what people discuss when they discuss Educated. They mention the essential oils. The gasoline kegs buried underground. The minimal education. The physical danger. 
     The National Review said this: “There is much to be shocked by…Truth is often stranger than fiction, and Westover’s book proves it.” For these critics, it’s the seemingly singular extremism of Westover’s youth that reaches them. And I’m first to note she is telling her story. Educated is not a piece of longform journalism about survivalism and religious extremism in Idaho. She cannot be faulted for writing her life. That reviewers focus more on action than craft might say more about who we are as an audience than who she is as a writer. 
     But how does the writer reach you if the action doesn’t strike you as particularly superlative? I wanted Westover to broaden, even in tiny measure, her scope. To speak, if only briefly, to the way experiences like hers have been lived out by many around her. Because even memoir must zoom out. Even memoir must situate itself in its broader context. Or maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe that’s just something I want.
     Commonality can be just as, if not more, powerful than exceptionalism. In plumbing a shared experience, the memoirist can ask larger questions about what it is to live inside an entire culture—not just a family—that reveres individualism, liberty, and faith over community, regulation, and science. She can acknowledge how hardship can be an echo, a thing that happens elsewhere—maybe even in alarming proportions. When the memoirist zooms out, the stakes get higher, the takeaways broader. And aren’t stories stronger for that acknowledgement? By using the personal to interrogate something larger than the self, don’t our stories become dynamic, accessible?
     There’s nothing wrong with a familiar story, to find inside of it yourself or the people you love. We want to be seen. We want our experiences recognized. Story is often a means of connection, identification, validation. But—as evidenced in these reviews—Westover’s book can read like the wild exception. It eschews any overture to the cultural trends that surround it. It never acknowledges that Idaho, for a long time, has been a place littered with Westovers. 
     Did Westover have to branch out in this way? No. (Clearly. Her book is an incredible commercial and critical success.) But when I imagine Educated calling out the troubling trends Westover’s childhood mirrored, I see all gain, no loss.
     The fact that childhoods like Westover’s happen all over Idaho does not make them less disturbing, and it doesn’t make Westover’s account less essential. In fact, it makes stories like hers dire. But maybe with broader awareness comes broader change. And maybe for a single story to do that large-scale work, it needs to acknowledge its universality. It cannot present itself as an exception because if it is exceptional, then readers believe it is singular. And if it is singular, there is no more work to be done. Once the girl forges her way, the crisis is over. We are in full denouement. Believing all is resolved, we let the curtain fall. 

I’m sure there are Idahoans—perhaps in the suburbs or downtown Boise or maybe even in rural stretches—who found Educated otherworldly. But even though my childhood—lacquered in privilege (see my parents’ insistence on higher education, their affection for modern medicine)— varied from Westover’s, I still saw her world around me. When I read Educated, I was asked to understand her experience not as a microcosm but as an anomaly. That zeroing-in created a stage upon which only the Westovers could stand.
     The New York Times described Westover’s youth as an “unsurpassably exceptional upbringing.” There is a risk in staking a book’s claim on the extremity of its action. On positioning itself as “unsurpassably exceptional.” It invites readers to one-up. To think, “Well, I’ve seen worse, heard worse, lived worse.” And what a disservice. Because Westover wrote a book that is, without argument, well paced and laced with fresh language. And hers is a story that matters, in the way all of ours do. But in its choice to not push outside of itself and broaden its circle, it might have excluded the people who needed it most.
Eva is still one of my dearest friends. Part of this might have to do with coming from a place we never belonged in. Like Westover, we were girls who needed to leave. Mine was the easiest trajectory. College was expected. But Eva cut her hair and drove herself to a pediatrician and a dentist and then moved out of Idaho and stayed gone. She became a lawyer and moved to New York. She flies herself to Turkey and Portugal and Greece. She sends me photos of her toes buried in hot sand. She hardly looks back. 
     When I bought Educated, I asked if she wanted to read it with me.
     “Girl grows up with religious extremists in Idaho? I think I’m good.” 
     “It might be therapeutic,” I said. 
     “Maybe. Tell me when you’re done.”
     By the time I finished, I did not say a thing.

Sometimes I imagine that Westover grew up in the same dry patch of desert as Eva and me. That we all ran in the fields until a late summer sun dropped. That we sat on porches together pulling cheatgrass from our socks. It is easy for me to imagine all of us today, riding the deep groove of our Idaho youths, talking about where we’re from and where we’ve gone. I read Educated and I felt the same pride in watching Westover break free as I did watching Eva print college applications in my father’s office. The same awe I felt sleeping on the floor of her tiny back East apartment, law school books piled everywhere. When I read Educated, I was not dissatisfied, but unsatisfied. I felt it still had more to give. I only wanted more.  


Bethany Maile is the author of Anything Will Be Easy After This: A Western Identity Crisis. Three times her essays have been notable selections in The Best American Essays series and once in The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. She teaches and lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and daughters. 


  1. This essay articulates what many of us who love Idaho (despite its fierce flaws) innately felt about Westover's lovely book. It's the same unease we also feel about attempts at reforming the place we choose to live and Westover chose to leave. Thank you for causing us to ponder what more can and should be done.