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January Educated

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The Ladies Book Club met on Thursday, January 2nd, at Churchill Street Recreation Center to discuss Educated by Tara Westover. We had 28 ladies, which included several guests. Some seasonal members were back and we enjoyed catching up with each other and hearing about our holidays. The book exchange table had quite a few books on it just for the taking, but no one visited it.

Peg welcomed everyone and reminded us that it was the club's 15th anniversary, then asked how many of us were original club members. Just a handful of us were with the club since its inception; the rest of us joined in subsequent years as we moved into the area or learned about the club. We had initially met at the Lynnhaven Pool before acquiring a room and timeslot in the Recreation Center. Peg added that the club is more than a book club it's a circle of friends that we look forward to seeing again each month, and she thanked us for all our kindnesses as friends. She then reminded us that we still had one book left without a discussion leader, The Giver of the Stars by JoJo Moyes in September. Joan Puleo volunteered to take it. Done! For next month, we'll be reading Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn. The following month we'll be reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (March), which is close to Giver of the Stars (September), both about reading and traveling. She is currently reading The Water Dancer (August) and she highly recommends it... it is so beautifully written. (See other books we'll be reading by clicking on Books We'll Be Reading in 2020.) 

Peg also wanted to let us know that after December's meeting, one of our guest authors Peggy Best, donated her book, Dandelion Child: A Soldier's Daughter, to the club. Thank you, Peggy. Peg hopes to line up more good local authors for this December when she attends the Central Florida BookExpo 2020 on Sunday, January 26th, 11 a.m. 4 p.m., at the Eisenhower Recreation Center, where more than 80 local authors will be displaying and selling their books. Last August's book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, has been made into a movie, so we may have a field trip coming up. (Next month's book, Woman in the Window, has also been made into a movie starring Amy Adams, due out May 15th of this year.)

With that, Peg turned to Joyce Tisovec to find out how much the club will be donating to the Sumter County Pre-K program this year? Joyce was proud to announce that club members have been especially generous this year, donating $730. Last year, club members had donated $670 through its Books for Children fund. Jeanne Harris-Lively, the Sumter County Pre-K Social Worker, will be coming next month with the pre-K program's coordinator to accept our annual donation. They will also take any donations of children's books back to the school, as well, so remember to bring any children's books you may want to get rid of with you next month.

The meeting was then turned over to Sue Laluk, our discussion leader for Educated by Tara Westover, who started with a brief summary of the author's background. She kept it brief because the book itself is the author's biography. Westover was born in rural Idaho in late September 1986. Never having been in a classroom, she undertook her own education, receiving her BA from Brigham Young University in 2008. She was subsequently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, earning a MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2009, then a visiting fellow at Harvard University that same year. She later returned to Cambridge to earn her PhD in 2014, where she stayed for several years, frequently singing with UK folk singer/song-writer John Meed on stage, as well as on two of his albums (e.g., The Hills of Arran). She now lives in London. Sue commented that she had been surprised to learn that Westover was singing professionally; she thought that the author only sang in church as mentioned in the book. There wasn't much more that Sue could glean about the author's personal life.

Educated, published in 2018, is Westover's first book, which was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller that was positively  reviewed by The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, USA Today, Vogue, The Economist and others. The book was also the American Booksellers Association's "Book of the Year", Amazon's "Best Book of 2018", and one of The New York Times' "10 Best Books of 2018"; as well as named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Oprah, Time, NPR, Good Morning America and others. The book was also recommended by President Obama and Bill Gates. However, the book is not without contention. The family has disputed some elements of the book, like her speculation that her father had bipolar disorder and her mother had a brain injury that effected her motor skills. Westover's parents claim that the book creates a distorted picture of them. Sue also read a sampling from book reviews. In spite of the many positive reviews, they didn't share the reviewers' opinions. Sue found the book to be a hard read when it came to the violence. It had the same effect on others. Joyce commented that she was reading Hillbilly Elegy, about growing up in Appalachia, which is a similar memoir, but she felt it was written much better than Educated. Mary Ann Hume had also read that book. She believed Hillbilly Elegy , but not this. Cheryl felt the same way.

Sue's first question was, did we feel the book is an honest depiction of what happened? How objective or subjective did we think the book was? Some felt she was honest in telling us where there were discrepancies in her memory, while others thought she exaggerated a great deal and didn't find Tara's story believable. Someone said that her home was not as isolated as we are led to believe in the book. Eileen Roberta noted that people at church knew them. Another reason cited was that electricity came later in Tara's life than she said, which reminded us of when Tara's father had installed electricity and a TV set in the house. He was waiting for and wanted the power grid to go down so his warnings and preparations were validated. He was disbelieving and seemed broken when nothing happened. Someone added that when things didn't happen as he expected, he got depressed and took his family to Arizona, where he basked in the sun, then just as quickly, decided to return home no matter the time or weather conditions. Three or four people agreed that they did not find the story believable; some specifically couldn't believe the violence that was described. When some attacked the violence as being unbelievable, others felt just as strongly that it was very believable, knowing people who had lived through abuse and similar situations, if not the exact same situation. Peg says she is skeptical of memoirs because people naturally paint themselves in as favorable a light as possible. She also was skeptical of a professor telling a relatively unschooled young woman that she wrote "the best essay in 40 years." Most of us agreed that it was surprising to us when we read that, although it didn't invalidate the account's believability for many considering Westover's undisputed accomplishments.

Eileen noted that people at church knew them. They lived in a small town of less than 300 people (259 according to Wikipedia) and wondered why no one noticed or confronted the parents about the abuse? Someone brought up that small towns are especially closed and would consider saying something to be interfering. Someone else added that Tara herself hid aspects of her abuse (e.g., acted like she and her brother were just horsing around), hiding what was going on, embarrassed that someone might find out. Kathy Morey brought up that Tara's behavior and thinking is typical of abuse victims. Also, with the father being so volatile, he completely controlled everything and everyone in the family. Someone else added that later, he was an employer in the town. Who would risk losing their or a family member's job by confronting him?

Someone was confused about how many sisters Tara had, one or two? It was resolved that her parents raised two daughters, Tara being the youngest. Sue asked whether we would want to read a sequel by Westover? Joyce thought Educated is a 1-book wonder, getting it out of her system so to speak. She didn't like Westover's writing style, either. Others agreed with her. Growing up removed from the world and conventional education, she had never heard of the "holocaust". What did we think of that? Joyce wasn't surprised at that; it wasn't something most people talked about. She said that up until 7th or 8th grade, she had never heard of rape; she had to look it up. She believed that was a similar situation.

Anne Russell said she did find the book believable and she loved it. She also admired how Tara essentially self-educated herself to get into college and ended up getting a PhD from Cambridge. Many agreed that she was remarkable in that respect, but someone else added that she was smart, but so were her parents. The mother had had some college, but we weren't sure about the father. It was drilled into Tara that she was a whore, Anne also admired that she was able to get beyond that. Peg and others thought there was mental illness in the family, which may have been hereditary. There was something very wrong with Shawn and Tara had a breakdown at Harvard, but again, she questioned how reliable Tara's recollection was. Sue pointed out that we all have unreliable and biased viewpoints, but it seemed to her that Tara tried very hard to honestly point out the discrepancies between her recollection and her brothers' with her footnotes. She was writing from her perception. In at least one instance, Tara considered going back and rewriting parts of her diary, doubting her own memories and perceptions since they were so different from her brother's story, but decided against it, realizing that then she would be writing Shawn's memories and not her own. She also came to the realization that she couldn't be herself be the way she was told she was. She had to choose. Joan Puleo commented that everyone is unique, and sometimes we travel a different road to reach our own uniqueness, giving herself as an example. Because she had once been a nun, people make assumptions about how she was and she emphatically stressed that she was nothing like what they expected. She traveled a different road to get to where she is now.

Sue asked how hard it was to stay in touch with part of her family? It was very hard. When she was home, she reverted to her previous role in the family, being told what she should do, who she was. They wouldn't accept her version of events and chose to believe their son over their daughter. Kathy added that family doesn't talk about certain things, and Anne reminded us that Tara was surprised when she learned that Shawn had done the same things to her sister and that Shawn's old girlfriend's and Tara's perception were similar. Someone commented that the saddest part was that when Tara wanted to see her mother, her mother refused to come without her husband; she chose Tara's father over her. Most of us shared sadness over this rejection.

Which family member had the greatest influence over Tara's decision to go to college? Her brother Tyler urged her to go, to study for the ACT like he did. Her then boyfriend Charles also encouraged her to get away from her brother, helped influence how she dressed, introduced her to medicine. Her professor encouraged her to apply to Cambridge, telling her that she had to learn what she was capable of before she could figure out who she was. We recalled that she was a very poor roommate, not bathing, not doing her share of the cleaning, not cleaning up after herself, etc. Sue said she was curious and looked up Tara's mother and learned that her mother's real name is LaRee and her father's is Val. The family's essential oils business Is pretty successful and well known, too. Mary Jo Johnson seemed very knowledgeable about it. The name of the company is Butterfly Expressions Empowering Yourself and said it employs about 30 people.

Linda Roth was talking to her husband about the book and his evaluation was that extremism in any form is bad. Sue commented on how interesting it was when the professor and students were up on the roof at Cambridge and everyone was looking at Tara. They were all leaning against the wind and Tara was the only one who didn't think anything of it; she was used to walking on high beams and had learned to adjust so she wouldn't be affected by the wind. Sue also brought up the subject of positive and negative liberty, the concept that some obstacles that prevent people from doing things are external and others are internal. It was a concept founded by Isaiah Berlin. He had cancer of the toe and was told that the toe had to be removed or he'd die. His belief in the whole body made him refuse to get the surgery, and he subsequently died while quite young. Tara had stopped believing that doctors were evil, but it dawned on her that she still hadn't gotten her vaccinations and came to the conclusion that you think you can change your belief, but your behavior often takes a lot longer. It took Tara a long time for her behavior to catch up with her brain.

How about the title of the book, Educated? What does it refer to? Some thought it referred how the author came into her own through education and being self-educated. It may have been that through her education, she started questioning her upbringing. The more she read, the more she became aware of the gaps in her learning and set about correcting it. Someone else thought that maybe it referred to her getting a perspective different from everything she had been told about the world. Someone else commented that her whole life was indoctrination. Peg questioned whether Tara had been sexually abused as well as emotionally and physically abused. She felt that Westover was holding back something about her brother. We thought it might be possible. In 2009, while a graduate student at Cambridge, Westover told her parents that for many years (since age 15) she had been physically and psychologically abused by an older brother. Her parents responded by denying the violence and suggesting that Westover was under the influence of Satan, and a family schism occurred. The estrangement, and her unusual path to and through a university education, is the subject of her 2018 memoir, Educated.

Someone else questioned all Shawn's accidents. They thought once was an accident, the second time, maybe not. A final thought brought us back to the discussion of the believability at the beginning. One woman shared that she knew a woman who was raised just like Tara. That woman was raised in an evangelical household, but without the physical abuse, and she wrote the same thesis. Interesting....

Someone said she knew someone who was raised in an evangelical family, who did not experience the violence that Tara described, but aside from that, she had the same upbringing and wrote the same thesis as Tara. As for the discrepancies in memory between Tara and her brothers, it reminds me of multiple perspective movies and TV shows, where each character sees and interprets the same event from their own perspective (e.g., Vantage Point, Citizen Kane, Courage Under Fire, etc.).

As always, much more was discussed than what I was able to cover here. It was a good discussion, prompting a lot of discussion, eliciting some strong opinions, with some comments coming in rapid succession or triggering side comments... and the claw can only write so fast (LOL). Good job, Sue!

For next month, we'll be reading Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn and Eileen Roberta will be leading our discussion. To get a head start on  reading, see Books We'll Be Reading in 2020 for what books we'll be discussing at each meeting.

See you next month, and keep on reading....

Educated by Tara Westover

A memoir about a young girl, kept out of school by her survivalist family, who goes on to earn her PhD from Cambridge University, even though she never set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old.

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