Monday, March 18, 2019

Educated by Tara Westover

Source of book: I own this.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book is definitely in that category as I would never have picked it up on my own. In this case, however, my wife had wanted to read this book, which meant that I might have read it after she did.

"In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth." ~ Tara Westover

This book was a difficult one to read at times, because it was a bit too familiar for comfort. I have spoken about my family’s time in Bill Gothard’s cult, and the damage I have had to deal with from Cultural Fundamentalism in my upbringing. There were a lot of things in this book that I recognized - and wish I didn’t.


Let me start, however, with some significant differences. My family was never as crazy as the one in this book. We never really went in completely for the lunacy, even as we flirted with it. As I would put it, we dabbled in insanity, and were “crazy-adjacent,” meaning that we knew and hung with some people who were this crazy, and believed some of the poison, but we never truly left the mainstream of normal 20th Century American life.

I also want to be clear that my parents are not mentally ill like the father (and possibly the mother) in this book, and that they were not abusive like the parents in this book. That’s an important distinction, and I believe it is why we only dabbled, rather than following through on the worst ideas. However, we knew people who did abuse their children (more about that later), and knew plenty of mentally ill and damaged people within the Fundie universe.

While we embraced a series of faddish “alternative medicine” and dietary approaches, we never rejected Western medicine - and certainly never went down the trail of “using Western medicine is rejecting God.” But still, between the carousel of diet fads (from vegetarianism to high protein) and the acceptance of long-debunked “cures” of various sorts, we dabbled in some pretty silly stuff.

Our involvement in the anti-feminist Patriarchy side of things was a bit deeper, although, again, we were more “normal” than most. It was always assumed that girls be as educated as boys, and my parents never mandated skirts. But of all the crazy ideas described in this book, I think Patriarchy has made the most inroads into white Evangelicalism, and it has had the most lingering effect on my birth family. I was also reminded by someone who kind of stepped away from our family during that time that my parents said that giving women the vote was a big mistake. So we might have gone over the cliff in some ways. Of course, now this idea has gone mainstream on Fox News, so...

Likewise, it is important to point out that my parents took academics seriously, and, even though we were homeschooled, we were not “unschooled,” and we were able to go from homeschooling to college without any more of a hiccup than any other normal kids. So the education part here was very different for us. That said, we knew people whose kids were not educated, and were - from what I could tell - significantly neglected rather than raised.

We are not Mormon. My parents are fairly conservative Evangelicals who (as far as I can tell) went part way down the rabbit hole because of our involvement in the homeschooling subculture - and with a heavy assist from conspiracy theory authors (all too popular in Evangelical subculture in the 1980s) like Larry Burkett.

Also, we didn’t know any Mormons like the Westovers. We knew ones much more like the ones the Westovers condemned as “worldly gentiles.”

So, I do not want to create the impression that we were this family. However, we did drink from the same poisoned well in a number of cases. I hope to give a better picture later in this post.


Tara Westover is the youngest child of seven, in a Mormon family living in the mountains of Idaho - kind of the “ground zero” for Survivalists. Oh, I guess I should explain what Survivalists are.

Survivalists believe that there is a coming breakdown of society and government, and that the vast unwashed masses will have no way of feeding themselves. Thus, those who wish to survive must be self sufficient, able to feed themselves, and able to stave off an invasion of those not so prepared. So basically, the zombie apocalypse, except with real human beings. To this end, they buy land that they can farm, store vast quantities of shelf-stable food and fuel, put together an arsenal and enough ammunition to defend the place from starving people (or the government in black helicopters), and focus on teaching the kids skills for an agrarian lifestyle, not the modern era.

Going along with this is typically a deep distrust of government; a distrust of modern Western medicine; a belief in conspiracy theories (particularly about Jews, multiculturalism and globalism, the Illuminati, Freemasons, Communists, the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission, and Democrats); a worship of the supposed purity of the past; suspicion of modern culture and technology; a belief that only they are the true [Christians, Mormons, intelligent people, whatever]; a vicious tribalism - hostility to outsiders; obsession with guns and other weapons; and a strong affinity for Patriarchy, White Supremacy, and neo-Nazism.

In some ways, one can see a pretty direct connection between modern Survivalists and the sort that bought fallout shelters in the 1950s - although nuclear war was definitely a possibility. And also a connection with the John Birch Society, 19th Century conspiracy theories, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and 19th Century snake oil and dietary charlatans like Kellogg. I would also note that there seems to be a lot of overlap between Survivalists and groups like Militias, cultic churches, religious fundamentalist subgroups, home birth midwives, and alternative medicine scams. I might even say that Survivalism is practically a caricature of every distinctively “American” brand of nuttiness, all rolled into one.

Tara was pretty young when her family took this turn, so, unlike some of her older siblings, she didn’t really remember life “before.” All she knew was isolation, conspiracy theories, a controlling father, a lack of education, avoidance of medical treatment, and deep rooted fears of the government.

The book appears to be based mostly on her compulsive journaling (which I have heard is a Mormon thing) combined with her memories. She notes that she considers her own memory to be flawed - the first chapter is of a “memory” she knows is obviously false - that her mother was murdered by the government in a Ruby Ridge type incident. Since her mother is alive, obviously this isn’t true - but because of the way her parents freaked out about the incident involving White Supremacist and illegal firearm seller Randy Weaver and his family, she kind of internalized the case. (She was all of 6 years old, so this is not surprising.) For many of the incidents, Westover checked with those of her family that she is still in contact with (3 of her older brothers), and has indicated throughout the text when their memories differ. To an attorney, the differences are unsurprising. After all, witness accounts often differ, particularly with regard to traumatic events.

The book follows Westover’s life from her earliest memories through age 27, when she started work on the book. A substantial part tells of her life at home, until she left to study at BYU (largely against her father’s wishes.) After a couple years of struggle to overcome her utter lack of education (she had never heard of the Holocaust, or learned more than rudimentary math, let alone learned how to write an actual essay or use a textbook), she eventually excelled, earning a PhD at Cambridge.

The education issue is rather fascinating to me. Westover’s parents appear to be quite intelligent, although deeply deluded. Out of the seven children, it appears that three, Tara included, went on to higher education and excelled. The others never made the leap, and ended up working for their parents and becoming trapped in their alternate reality. High IQ seems to run in the genes, but not necessarily good judgment.

In an interesting twist, after struggling financially for most of Tara’s childhood, her parents eventually made it fairly big time with an essential oils business. As one of our book club members noted, their success seemed to make Westover try to compete with her family in the last part of the book. There is what seems to be a bit of gratuitous bragging near the end, as if she is trying to prove that she (despite her family’s warnings and censure) turned out just as well as they did. Not surprising, considering their behavior toward her - including their attempts to “save” her from the devil. (Because she left and got an education, of course…)

There are a number of harrowing incidents in the book. Before making the essential oils their business, her parents ran a junkyard which was not (to put it very mildly) OSHA compliant. The safety risks they took were pretty appalling - with the kids too. This, as well as their cavalier approach to auto safety, led to a number of horrifying accidents. The number of serious concussions that occurred is pretty high. Mom was never right after a car accident that confined her to the basement for months and wrecked her memory. (They never sought medical care.) There were several severe burns from explosions, Tara got serious cuts and stabs as a kid from equipment and metal pieces, and everyone seemed to have major scars from avoidable injuries. As someone raised by safety conscious parents (another way they differed from this family), I found it horrifying.

But worse was the fact that the family refused to seek medical care. As the dad put it, “You can’t put your trust in a doctor, then ask the Lord to heal you.” As I noted, my family didn’t go this far - although there was an incident where a relative died of cancer, and I heard stuff about how she should have just gone with alternative medicine. (I don’t think my parents still think this way, because they have availed themselves of modern medicine...but still.)

There is also Tara’s description of her mother trying to get birth certificates for the younger children, who had been born at home. (Side note here: I was born at home, although that was before my parents’ Prepper days, so it was more a hippie thing. I got a birth certificate. However, I have done legal work for adults who lacked a birth certificate because of kooky religious beliefs like the Westovers’.) The problem was, in part, because Tara’s mom didn’t remember her exact birth date. And neither did other family members. It is both hilarious and...kind of horrifying.

The worst parts, however, involved Tara’s brother Shawn, who, perhaps partially as a result of multiple traumatic brain injuries, became violent and abusive to Tara and her older sister. Tara tells of some of the incidents, from holding her head in the toilet until she “admitted” she was a whore, to later threats to kill her for blowing the whistle on him. What Tara doesn’t say, but strongly implies, is that he sexually abused her and her sister. (There are a few incidents that go almost, but not quite, up to the line.) I wonder if she decided that she had to pull that punch because she was concerned that her now-wealthy family would sue her for defamation. In any case, she scrupulously draws a hard line before anything sexual occurs. This also includes her stories of her boyfriends. It is clear that she shared a flat with one in Europe during a period of study - so one assumes they were sexually active - but she never really lets us in on that.

Almost as bad, however, are the extended attempts she makes to reconcile - even after her parents make clear that the cost of reconciliation is that she accept their reality and agree that nothing bad ever happened. The degree of gaslighting in this book is appalling. And a bit familiar, not from my own family, but from others within the Christian Patriarchy community. (See, for one example, sexual predator Bill Gothard…) I genuinely worried throughout the last 50 or so pages that she might actually give in and go back to them. She didn’t but it was a close call.

One of the interesting things about our book club discussion is that there was one person who had difficulty believing that Westover was being truthful. And it is true, there are inconsistencies - particularly about timing and some specific events. For the most part, Westover notes that accounts differ, and she often doubts her own memories even as she reads what she wrote in her journal and compares it with her memories and those of the brothers who also escaped. For me, I found the story to be credible not just because of the way that Westover did her best to admit the inherent unreliability of memory, but because I knew people very much like this. I can say that the conspiracy theories are portrayed accurately. The subculture is portrayed accurately. The gaslighting, the denialism about genuine abuse, the suspicion of government and outsiders - she knows it personally just as I know it from those I knew. This isn’t the sort of memoir one could write from reading Wikipedia. You have to have experienced the subculture to be so fluent in its idiosyncrasies and the depths of delusion.

One thing I wanted to point out about the book is this: while Westover’s parents were over-the-top, they weren’t that far out from a certain mainstream. Specifically, a lot of these ideas - albeit in less obviously nutty forms - are endemic to white Evangelicalism. If you look at this as a continuum, the average mainstream white Evangelical subscribes to some forms of some of the nutty ideas. (Typically some combination of distrust of government, patriarchy, tribalism, and suspicion of other cultures and subcultures.) This is precisely why you get 80% voting for and supporting Trump, who kind of ran on an appeal to these less than admirable human tendencies. There is also a strong apocalyptic streak in white Evangelicals, whether it is the Premillennial Dispensationalism I was raised with (think Left Behind) or the Postmillennial Dominionism/Theocracy pushed by the Reconstructionists of the Christian Patriarchy movement - that’s the one that Gothard and Rushdoony (hugely influential in the homeschool movement) pushed. Add in a belief in phony-baloney persecution, and you get an interesting picture. So you can, unfortunately, find a lot of the roots of what this book describes within mainstream Evangelicalism. On a related note, the growing prevalence of these ideas was a contributing factor in why we left organized religion two years ago.

However, it is best to think of mainstream Evangelicalism as only a little way along the continuum of crazy. (Although it is rapidly moving in that direction since they started following the Messiah Trump and the prophet Ayn Rand…) Much further along that line is Homeschool culture. Just a quick bit here - I need a full post to tell the whole story - my family didn’t get into homeschooling for ideological reasons. I was sickly and missed so much school my principal suggested we do it. However, while there were and are many who homeschool for academic or other non-crazy reasons, there are also many who do it for very ideological reasons - to keep their children culturally, politically, sexually, and ideologically “pure.” I mentioned Rushdoony, who saw homeschoolers as his future army to “take back” America and the world from...well, liberals, advocates of human rights, abolitionists, gays, feminists...and indeed anyone who disagreed with his Talibanesque vision for re-creating the glorious past of the Iron Age.

This is where I can say that our family brushed up against the crazy.

I think, perhaps, the best way to describe it is this: eventually, as you follow this path, you come to a high cliff. You have the choice: back away, or throw yourself over it. My family approached the cliff on a few occasions, and backed away. Not always far enough in my opinion, but they backed away.


Let me talk about our “Prepper” experiences. We lived in the San Fernando Valley - part of Los Angeles - during the Rodney King beating, the trials, and the LA riots. The beating took place only a few miles from where we lived - I know that place well - and we could hear gunshots during the riots. A few days afterward, my dad was accosted by an angry African American guy, who threatened him at a gas station, and then chased him in his vehicle some 20+ miles before giving up. (You can read more of my thoughts on the riots in a long footnote to this book review.) I don’t think he was ever the same after that. I feel kind of bad about sharing this, but I think it is a key to understanding our journey.

We moved out of LA soon afterward, and it was sometime around that time (my memory of the sequence is a bit fuzzy) that we started seriously exploring Prepping. Some friends of ours from church (who weren’t exactly Preppers, I don’t think) had bought some cheap land out somewhere east of Lucerne Valley that they rode their ATVs on. We went out there to check it out. It was not, shall we say, suitable. In addition to being in the driest part of the Mojave Desert, it had what seemed like a rattlesnake for every 10 square feet of land. (I am an avid hiker and am used to sharing the trail with rattlers, but this was freaking scary.) But even worse than the rattlers were the Desert Rats - the people who lived there literally would steal anything that wasn’t bolted down - and even what was. On the plus side (if that is what you would call it), they were largely Preppers with large arsenals, so a white family like ours might have been able to fit in and survive after a fashion.

After that, we looked near one of our favorite destinations, Zion National Park in Utah. Specifically, near Kanarraville, in the Escalante Desert. (See a pattern? Cheap land is in the desert...but it isn’t exactly good for farming. Which I guess is where the 100 years of food storage comes in.) Utah had a lot to recommend it, such as towns like La Verkin, who back in the 1990s had a big “UN Free Zone” sign at the city limits. However, we weren’t Mormon, so we might have been treated with suspicion. Particularly by the FLDS people…

In what strikes me now as either a weird coincidence or possibly a case of fortunately divine interference, on the day we were set to have a realtor show us some land in Utah, our alternator went out as we reached Mesquite, Nevada. (Seriously, we broke down there several times, and I still get a bit of a flinch every time we travel through there on the way to Utah.) So, we missed our chance, and we never really tried after that, although I think we explored at least buying a food cache from a Mormon company. We stepped away from the cliff.

So that part of the book felt uncomfortably familiar. But there were others. All of the conspiracy theories involving the Jews (specifically the Rothchilds and a few others I forget), the belief in an imminent future meltdown of society, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission and the UN - all these conspiracy theories are familiar from shit my dad read during my mid to late teens. To see them in the book brought back some memories I hadn’t really thought about in a while. I think my parents don’t really believe all that crap anymore. I think. But every so often, something comes up in a conversation that makes me wonder if a bit lingers.

The firearm stuff was also familiar. I’m a gun owner (but not that kind…), and grew up - at least since my Jr. High years - with guns in the house. Some of this made sense in the neighborhood we lived in. There were some gang bangers around, and things happened. It wasn’t a bad idea to be able to defend one’s self, although we never really had to. So I am pretty dang good at the mechanics of reloading ammo, target shooting, and all that. Again, we stepped away from the cliff, but in Prepper world, you mentally prepare yourself to murder a lot of desperate people who might want your carefully hoarded food. Ultimately, that is one reason I couldn’t really buy into the Prepper lifestyle. And, I often suspect, why we stepped back from the cliff. To quote John Michael Talbot, “But when every nation has crumbled to dust / will you still reach to give the Lord’s mercy, or will you kill if you must?” (John Michael Talbot was one of the most influential musicians of my childhood - The Painter was my favorite album at age 9 - and this song really seems prophetic these days. It illuminates why Trump support is actually Anti-Christianity…)

I have discussed at more length elsewhere the issues we have had with other political/cultural issues. I try not to talk politics too much with my extended family because there are too many land mines. Some of these definitely stem from our Gothard years, and others from the overall Fundie/Homeschooler culture. Just to name a few, a belief that Theocracy is superior to Democracy and pluralism (Hi there, Rushdoony and other Dominionists!); an opposition to Feminism (tough since me and my wife are both feminists); and suspicion of immigrants and refugees (to be fair on that one, I pretty much cannot talk racial politics with any white Evangelicals anymore. We do not share the same understanding of reality or a common morality.) I won’t get into it more here, but I have specifically blogged at length about both Modesty Culture and the worship of gender roles. These two issues have caused unnecessary conflict, and have resulted, unfortunately, in irreparable damage to relationships. Sure, my parents “stepped back from the cliff” and thus are not completely estranged from me like Tara’s are from her. But I had to draw some hard lines - and some damage just can’t be fixed.


I also want to mention something the book alludes to here and there, but isn’t always clear to those outside the subculture. Within both Prepper culture and Christian Patriarchy (and to a large degree, homeschool culture in many places), there is a strong undercurrent of White Supremacy. In the Prepper culture, here is the form it often takes: when the US government crumbles, all those “inner city” people will lose their welfare checks, and be furious, and go loot and pillage all the “real Americans” who have prepared. It’s not that difficult to see the link between this and the terror of slaveowners that their chattel might rise up and kill them. (One suspects that if we had paid real reparations in 1865 - the proverbial 5 acres and a mule - it might be the African Americans who owned our farmland today - and the whites who would starve in that scenario. )

Ditto, though, in Christian Patriarchy and Homeschool culture. The point for many in leaving the public school system is to avoid sending their kids to school with “those people.” Meaning poorer people, of course. But also brown skinned people. I remember my dad commenting on one of the Gothard seminars where a bunch of the teens did something or other about all the “clean cut, middle America” kids they represented. F-ing damn. I still remember that 25 years later, after we joined ATIA (against my wishes). It is hard to escape the conclusion that the desire to see us marry good 1950s white middle class conservative spouses was a factor in why we joined. Hmm, apparently that didn’t work out so well when I married a feminist with a career. But don’t underestimate the degree to which the Culture Wars™ are really about race. Because they are so about race. And, while obviously not all homeschoolers are that way, a heck of a lot are, which is one reason we haven’t really ever participated in our local homeschool groups. Between the patriarchy and the barely veiled racism, it’s not a good place for our kids.


One final thought here: the abuse in this book is pretty clear-cut. That much is obvious. But I very much get why it was so hard to address. First of all, the theology of Patriarchy is powerful, and it makes it really difficult for victims to break free. Tara’s psychology was all too familiar. But there is another factor. While there was sibling to sibling violence here, the parental abuse was essentially psychological and verbal abuse - not something that is easy to prove legally. I have seen this one too, including in a situation I personally experienced. When parents are not physically abusive - something which leaves evidence - but just verbally and psychologically abusive - there is often not much outsiders can really hope to do. In the situation I am speaking of, my birth family had a tough choice. Even if we thought CPS involvement would be a positive (something I am not sure of even now - and our subculture feared above all else), it is unlikely they could have done anything. Even with a mentally ill and horrible parent, I don’t think a removal would have happened. So what is one to do? Cutting off contact was an option, but that would have left the kids (and one kid in particular) with one less outside influence and respite from the abuse. What would have been the right choice? God only knows.


This has ended up a bit confessional. My intention here isn’t to throw my parents under the bus. They, like most white Evangelicals, had good intentions, but were the victims of a few hundred years of bad theology and spiritual malpractice. I am glad we have a relationship, even if things will never be the way they might have been had things been different over the last three decades. They are not and will never be Tara’s parents - or I would have left as she did. My intention, rather, is to shine an uncomfortable light on the dark and ugly corners of the subcultures that I experienced in my youth and have rejected as an adult and as a parent - even though it has cost me some degree of family relationships. The point isn’t to go after the individuals who have swallowed the poison - but to warn about the poison.  

Because, as Tara Westover shows all too well, there is a deep and deadly poison at work in these subcultures. There is a tremendous amount of denial right now in conservative religious circles about just how widespread the poison is, and how deeply they have drunk of it in recent decades. Some of us have left - and are now speaking out about about what we experienced and the damage we have sustained as a result of theological and cultural poison.

The ultimate problems go a lot deeper than just the lunatic fringe of conservatism, Evangelicalism, the homeschool movement, and Prepperism. The problems are more endemic. A belief in Authoritarianism, an opposition to tolerance of other viewpoints, a paranoia complex, a deep hatred for those outside the tribe, a pathological lack of empathy, and a willingness to accept delusion as a substitute for objective truth have so putrefied American white religion and white conservatism that it is nearly impossible to have a meaningful dialogue anymore. Looking back, the fact that otherwise intelligent and decent people like my parents actually approached the cliff of Prepperism and all that entails is worrisome. In fact, I can see now that there was a straight line from Prepperism (and the racial fears that fed it) to our embrace of Gothardism immediately thereafter. They were different facets of the same fears and hopes. The inability to engage with modern society, the unwillingness to face the consequences of centuries of white supremacy, and the desire to protect the next generation from the world as it actually exists, with all its complexity and messiness, the quest for certainty and formulaic answers.

Chris Stroop has written some great stuff lately about the “exvangelical” phenomenon - those of us who have left (white) Evangelicalism as we have realize just how toxic and hateful the theology, culture, and politics of that subculture truly is. One point he makes is one that is illustrated by Educated: no more will these various authoritarian religious subcultures be given a free pass. People like Tara Westover and others (including me) will be there to shine that uncomfortable light of truth on the toxicity and abusive nature of these philosophies. I know this had made people (including those in my extended family) deeply uncomfortable - but this is necessary. We can no longer afford to let this evil go unchallenged.

As we have seen all too often in the last few years, there are a lot of angry paranoid white guys with guns who see those outside their subculture to be a threat - and then go shoot people up. As the world continues to become more global and less white-dominated, I am concerned that this will accelerate - and it will be the Preppers and the adjacent subcultures all too willing to kill in the name of their delusions.

Prepperism and violence are just symptoms, however. The root cause has been a long time in the making. The need to theologically justify genocide, colonialism, conquest, slavery, segregation, and social darwinism has made it necessary to create and protect a theology which is wholly divorced from empathy, reason, and even reality itself. In that kind of environment, where paranoia, authoritarianism, and tribalism are cultivated, that kind of strange fruit will inevitably grow.  


There are two quotes from the book that I definitely want to mention. Westover is a good writer - she didn’t end up a Gates Scholar accidentally. I found these two particular insights to be perceptive.

These come when Tara is at Cambridge, and is discovering ideas that were considered evil anathema by her parents. One of these is Feminism - the early feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill.

“I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.”

In her case (as in my wife’s), she was a smart and strong female - and capable of making her own decisions - and even leading. And this was viewed as a defect within Patriarchy.

Going beyond the specifics of Feminism, however, I really resonated with her description of finding a vocabulary to describe her uneasiness. It has been a long deprogramming process for me since my Fundie days. As a first born who was so square my violin teacher teased me about it, I really wanted to make my parents happy. I tried so hard to believe as they did, and to embrace what they wanted for me. I am embarrassed by a lot of the things I said back then, and the things I convinced myself were truth. The uneasiness remained, though, and I pushed back in little ways since I couldn’t on the big ones. Looking back, I realize that much of my uneasiness was the result of doing violence to my better nature, trying to silence that part of me that doubted all women liked being wives and stay at home moms, or that poverty was the result of people having sex.

When I moved out and started exploring other viewpoints, discussing things with those dreaded “liberals,” and - this was a crucial step - working at Legal Aid assisting low income people - I started to find a vocabulary for my uneasiness. This process continued through marriage to a strong leader who happened to be a woman, parenthood of strong willed and skeptical children, and continued reading, of course.

This leads me to the next one, which I think encapsulates the problems I have outlined with the religious tradition I was raised in.

Westover describes learning about Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. The book greatly simplifies the concepts (for obvious reasons - it isn’t a philosophical treatise), but she distills them down pretty well. We are all familiar with “negative liberty,” which is a freedom from external obstacles or restraints.

But positive liberty means a freedom from internal restraints. Specifically, as Westover describes the lecture she attended, “To have positive liberty is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions, and all other forms of self-coercion.”

These two concepts of liberty are both vitally important to understanding Fundamentalism and why it is such a force for evil in the world. As anyone who spent time in Dominionist circles knows, the goal is theocracy. Plain and simple. And the totalitarian power to eliminate the freedom to disagree with the Fundies. So Fundies most assuredly do not believe in external freedom for anyone else.

The other part is important too. The goal of all the isolation, the endless culture wars, the paranoia, the fears of outsiders, the whole edifice - is to prevent people from exercising positive liberty. From actually thinking for themselves and coming to their own conclusions rather than endlessly defending the theological edifice. Tara was specifically raised to guard her mind from any true inquiry or questioning of the dogma. And it is in this that I recognize my own upbringing the most. (This goes for a LOT of us ex-fundie homeschoolers, by the way. We were raised to be that Dominionist army - except we were given the tools to think for ourselves...and we did.) We were trained that we couldn’t trust our minds or our hearts - they were irredeemably evil - so we had to believe the dogma NO MATTER WHAT. Thus we were hardened against empathy - don’t trust your heart. We were hardened against reason and evidence - that was just worldly wisdom. We were hardened against listening to those outside our tribe - they were of the devil because they didn’t share our beliefs. We were hardened against listening to other Christians - we were the only ones with “true” doctrine. We were hardened against participating in our own culture - modernity was all of the devil, and the past was when people were truly “godly.” We were hardened against reality itself - only those of us with correct theology could understand reality correctly.

The problem is that reality doesn’t give a shit about your theology. Faced with reality, there are really only two choices. One can reimagine one’s theology in light of new information and understanding. Or one can, as Adam Savage says, “reject...reality and substitute your own.” As reality and modernity kept pushing ever harder, it became harder and harder to live in denial. Hence the increasing paranoia, denialism, tribalism - and the ever more draconian attempts to control the behavior - and thoughts - of the next generation. Charlatans like Gothard, Ken Ham, and David Barton, along with others, fed on this paranoia, denialism, and tribalism and sold it to my parents’ generation, who ate it up. Prepperism is just the most extreme expression of this. As is Trump - the inevitable result of the belief system. And thus, it what I hope is the last gasp of political power for white Evangelicals, they are doing their best to burn our democracy to the ground as they cling to power with bleeding fingernails.

Tara wavered between going back and leaving for good numerous times in this book. She finally knew, when her parents came out for their final “intervention” - the attempt to save her. She finally looked them in the eyes and said “I love you. But I can’t.”

I have been there a few times. I have looked over that cliff and felt the pull of gravity. At that point, the question has been, will the other person or faith tradition back away from the cliff? Or charge on over into oblivion? Ultimately, Tara and her parents remain estranged. And my family has left Evangelicalism for good. Denial of reality and ever more draconian attempts to isolate one’s family from it will eventually backfire in most cases, sooner or later. Educated is one of an increasing number of voices unmasking the disease that lies beneath the surface of these movements, and those voices will continue to increase as Millennials find their own voices. It’s time to listen.  


  1. Thanks for this insightful, passionate, and informative review. I feel like I missed a very important Book Club discussion and am so glad you guys have joined. I'm sure everyone at Book Club appreciated your particular comments and views on this sensitive and volatile subject.

  2. I read "Educated" a few months ago, and felt grateful that my own family never dived off the cliff. My own experience with the homeschooling community was less extreme than yours (we probably seemed insanely liberal to many of the homeschoolers we knew), but there were still aspects of the community and the textbooks that were available that affected me which I would later have to work through (purity culture, for example - my parents' attitude was that they wanted us to wait until we got married but otherwise were happy to let us date and manage our own relationships, particularly once we hit eighteen - I, on the other hand, made the mistake of reading Josh Harris' books and buying into them a little too much for a few years). My parents chose homeschooling for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because they had concerns about the local school district, and how that might affect my brother with ADD and me with what turned out to be an anxiety disorder, and felt that homeschooling would be a better fit for us. And mostly it was.