New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “Educated: A Memoir”

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun arrived in Canada on January 13, the same day I finished reading the best seller, Educated. There is a remarkable symmetry between both stories.

The 18 year old Saudi woman was granted asylum after she fled from alleged persecution and fear for her life because of religious fundamentalism, cultural patriarchy and an abusive family. From a barricaded hotel room in Thailand, she described her desperate efforts to break free of these onerous restrictions and find a new emancipated life for herself in a different, more tolerant society.

Tara Westover has written a revelatory autobiography depicting her own struggles to be liberated from religious fundamentalism, albeit from a sect of Mormonism, not Islam, and to abandon a societal patriarchy rooted on rural Idaho, not the Middle East. It is Westover’s detailed account of her physically abusive home life which makes ‘Educated’ a most difficult read.

I confess to being rather late in discovering this New York Times one of the “Ten Best Books of 2018.” It is my custom to resist any temptation to buy current best sellers because I hope to eventually find at least one of them under my Christmas tree. This year, I was not disappointed, but never expected to encounter such a poignant story of survival, courage and a brave teenager’s growing desire to overcome her dysfunctional heritage.

The author was born in September, 1986 and raised along with her six siblings in the small Mormon farming community of Clifton. Her father owned a junk yard and earned other casual income from handy man construction. Her mother was an unlicensed midwife who gradually also developed a thriving business in selling her homemade “essential oils.” The parents were survivalists who rigorously lived according to two basic doctrines: have nothing to do with “government” and prepare for the end of the world as predicted in their understanding of Biblical prophesy.

Consequently, none of the children was enrolled in school, their births were not registered, physicians, prescriptions and hospitals were off-limits; the family toiled to set aside hidden storage tanks of gasoline, jars of preserved foods while planning a violent armed defense against future hungry intruders or snooping Federal Government agents.

Inevitable results of this lifestyle were at times humorous, but mostly sad and occasionally horrific. Dad thought Tara was “about twenty” and should be leaving home to find work when, in fact, the girl was still only sixteen. Trained to tell curious or concerned outsiders that they was being “home schooled,” Tara and her siblings were, in fact, only haphazardly educated, lacking most basic knowledge, except to read, write and do simple math. Yet somehow, and miraculously, three of them ended up earning PhDs). One child was gruesomely burned in a gasoline fire, yet was not professionally treated. Homemade remedies were the answer even for concussion-causing falls or deep, bloody wounds.

This autobiography resonated with me for reasons beyond its gripping tale. I could identify with Tara’s depiction of the worst of Fundamentalist religion. She is quick to point out that all religious faiths, like Mormonism, are composed of both good and bad adherents. Over my many years of ministry I have at times witnessed that same soul-stifling, rigidity of belief and life style which is not open to self-examination or spiritual growth toward maturity of faith.

As a Christian counsellor, I have worked with many clients, primarily women, who, like Tara, remained entangled in unhealthy destructive relationships, minimizing their violence and tending to blame themselves for any abuse they suffer. Like Tara and Rahaf, most of them eventually break free and move on to find a greater sense of self worth and autonomy. I could also easily recognize in ‘Educated’ that core of a far right constituency of the American population—holding to a simultaneous belief in guns and God.

I remain puzzled how these three youngsters lacking any foundational knowledge, and despite parental disapproval, could achieve so much academically. Until entering university (with no formal high school background,) Tara was surprised to learn that Europe was not a country. (Her family has strongly denied both the abuse and their lack of providing home-education.)

Westover’s father is described as likely suffering from either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In my humble opinion, his recurring rants and wild suspicions reflect more his religious fervor , not mental illness. Beneath his verbal and emotional abuse of the children was a father whose controlling and irrationally demanding behavior was a misguided attempt to teach, to protect and love them.

For anyone wanting to understand religious extremism and the horrific legacy of abuse, ‘Educated’ is a must read, albeit a very troubling one—a story that almost needs to carry a trigger warning. Westover’s story is also an encouraging tale of being an over-comer, a young woman who rose above those many challenges which life threw at her. May Rahaf Alqunun now find that same strength.