Putting the Fire Out: Research and Memory in Tara Westover’s Educated
Tara Westover’s Educated tells the story of her experience growing up in a family of anti-government survivalists on a mountain in Idaho. Throughout Educated, Westover recounts many difficult experiences from her childhood from different angles, incorporating perspectives from multiple people and sources. Westover uses conflicting information and views in order to write complex characterizations of her family and depict the uncertainty and instability of her memories.
Westover opens Educated by telling the story of the Weavers, fellow Idaho fundamentalists who were attacked and killed by government agents. Westover begins with,
My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. (3)
The book opens on the note of conflict and questioning accuracy, immediately invalidating itself and prompting the reader to question what is real. Westover uses this not to undermine her own story, but to bring the reader with her on the path of questioning. She does this throughout Educated, involving her reader in the process of questioning her reality and working to find a resolution between different stories.
The family learns about the Weavers from Westover’s father, Gene, “The event was a famous one, I would later learn… but when my father first told us the story, it felt like no one in the world knew about it except us” (8). This passage acknowledges the research and reveal that will come into play later, setting the reader up to know that Westover’s experiences themselves cannot be trusted but that her word, her depiction of them, can be.
The attack on the Weavers fuels Gene to protect his family from a similar fate. He makes the family can food and prepare bags of supplies so that they can easily outlast or escape “the Feds.” Westover recalls the terror that filled her family as her father told them about the Weavers, “I’d never seen fear on Luke’s face before” (9). Westover’s depiction of her own fear is validated and amplified by her description of her brother’s fear. This adds weight to her father’s words, showing his role as the leader of the family.
There are many moments in Educated where Westover’s perception of her father is challenged. While looking at photos from her parents’ wedding, Westover struggles to see the man in photo as her father, “It is difficult for me to believe that the untroubled young man in that photograph is my father. Fearful and anxious, he comes into focus for me as a weary middle-aged man stockpiling food and ammunition” (29). This diverges from the version of her father who her older siblings know, a man unafraid and open. Westover recounts the ways that her father has changed, how he has drawn the family away from schools and hospitals, turned them toward preparing for a siege.
In this passage, Westover first introduces her belief that he father has bipolar disorder. In college, she learns of bipolar disorder in psychology class, “Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness. I knew people could go crazy… but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, and persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me” (Westover 29). Here, she first introduces a grain of doubt into the reader’s perception of her father. He is already described to be extreme in all of his measures, but the angle of mental illness shapes his portrayal for the rest of the narrative.
In his essay, “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character,” Phillip Lopate writes, “The art of characterization comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system. In this respect, building a character is a pedagogic model, because you are teaching the reader what to expect” (38). Westover is teaching her reader to expect nothing when it comes to Gene. She introduces the fact of his mental illness to prepare her audience for the truth: she doesn’t know what happened to anyone but herself and she cannot understand her father’s emotional or mental climate. We are to trust that Westover is giving us the truth as she knows it to be, even when it may seem like there is dishonesty or doubt in the story. The reader is left to question Gene’s behaviors alongside Westover as she recalls and writes them, immersing the reader in her process of speculation and research.
Immersion occurs again when Westover more fully explores the discovery of Ruby Ridge and bipolar disorder later in Educated. This is a turning point for Westover’s perception of her father, and subsequently her representation of him in the book. Westover describes her first encounter with bipolar disorder in detail,
I was sitting in Psychology 101 when the professor read the symptoms aloud from the overhead screen: depression, mania, paranoia, euphoria, delusions of grandeur and persecution. I listened with a desperate interest. This is my father, I wrote in my notes. He’s describing Dad. (207)
Westover quickly draws the reader into her head, spinning through the symptoms she sees on the screen in a short list. This moment retroactively affects Westover’s view of her father, providing potential context for him. The reader must also recall what they know about Gene, sending them reeling in tandem with Westover, forcing them to similarly run back over what they’ve learned through her depiction of him since her first mention of mental illness.
When a classmate asks about the connection between mental illness and “famous conflicts,” including one at Ruby Ridge, Westover is propelled into research. The reader follows her through her experience learning about the siege at Ruby Ridge, the infamous standoff between “the Feds” and the Weaver family that Educated opens with. Westover’s image of her father as a protector and patriarch was founded on a memory that is quickly proven false as she learns that Randy Weaver didn’t die and the siege began because he illegally sold guns at an “Aryan Nations gathering,” not because he homeschooled his children (209). In this passage, Westover ties the “delusions of… persecution” symptom of bipolar disorder directly to her now-tarnished memory of Ruby Ridge.
With this revelation, Westover is left to confront her own image of her father and of a foundational moment in her life, “For one bitter moment, I thought Dad had lied. I remembered the fear on his face, the heavy rattling of his breath, and I felt certain that he’d really believed we were in danger” (210). This moment, especially with the influence of her father’s assumed mental illness, forces Westover to admit to herself and her reader that her father was most likely doing what he truly thought was best for his family. This view contrasts his violent actions that fill the rest of the memoir, showing Westover’s father as a man with deep convictions which he believes are justified. It wasn’t the Weavers’ standoff that influenced Westover’s father, it was his skewed but genuine perception of the event. Westover removes a layer to her father, revealing mental illness as a motivating factor to his genuine fear and isolation of their family.
The most pronounced moment of research and conflicting memories is the story of how Westover’s brother, Luke, burned his leg. Navigating the pain of the past is always difficult, but the trauma of this moment makes it especially challenging for everyone involved to tell the same story, and for Westover to create an accurate image of her experience.
In his essay, “Researching Your Own Life,” Michael Pearson describes research as “something like reliving the past,” which is certainly true for those who must entrench themselves in trauma to do so (45). Unwilling to shy away, Westover leans into trauma’s complications, even exploring through her willingness to admit she cannot know the whole story. She is open about the places where her memory fails, particularly in retelling the story of when Luke’s leg is burned.
This memory is first recalled from Westover’s ten-year-old perspective. She dives deep, not leaving out a single second between hearing her brother scream, realizing he’s been burned, and trying to help relieve his pain (Westover 69). Westover gives herself credibility through her attention to detail, including the “ropes” of Luke’s skin, her frantic search through their home for anything she could use to help him, and the “cold look in his eye that said nothing mattered except the fire burning from his leg into his brain” (70). Her father then “wanders” home and recommends that they wait for their mother to arrive. When she does, Westover’s father carries Luke into the house (71).
This is a moment that Westover explores with an excruciatingly close focus. She uses this moment to, as Hertz describes it, “provid[e] specifics that support a point the writer strives to make about a character” (158). Westover does this by using the word “wander” to describe her father’s movement, his lack of urgency in aiding Luke. This paints Gene as uncaring, a passive bystander as his young daughter struggles to save the life of his son.
Westover doesn’t leave her readers with this image alone. In retelling the story, she is unable to let the ending go, “there’s an inconsistency, a ghost in this story… Who put the fire out? A long-dormant voice says, Dad did” (73). Westover then traces back over the story, wondering why her father wasn’t with Luke when she found him.
Next, Westover consults her brother, Richard, who tells her that her father couldn’t tend to Luke because he had to put out a potential brush fire that could have swept over the mountain. Westover then discusses the process of writing this story down, “I think it over for a few days, then sit back down to write. Dad is there in the beginning – Dad with his funny jokes… Then Dad and Luke go back up the mountain…” (74). Westover’s admission of her own confusion in the present takes the reader with her, forcing us to question what role her father played in his son’s injury. Her admission that this uncertainty still plagues her allows the reader to trust Westover as she works through the information she has and realizes what is still missing.
In his essay “Researching Your Own Life,” Michael Pearson writes, “All memoir is a process of researching one’s own life. By that I mean rethinking, of course. I also mean reimagining and perhaps revising – because to see the past anew is often to view it, even at great distances, more clearly” (45). Westover allows us to work toward a clear understanding of the past with her. She exposes the research she has done, admitting her limited view. We are just as uncertain as Westover and must follow her on her path to combine the image of her “joking,” caring father with a man who would let his son burn, even if it is to save their home, their whole family.
Westover then delves into what she imagines her father may have thought in that moment, his quick decision and choice to pray for his son while taking action against the “thirsty” weeds. This chapter ends with Luke’s version of the story, which is that his father got him down the mountain, into a garbage can of cold water, and then went back to “fight the fire” on the mountain (Westover 75).
Through presenting these alternate memories, Westover makes one thing clear: her father is a complicated man. Hertz eloquently describes Westover’s craft choice to include these conflicting details, “While it is easier to paint someone in one tone, on the page as in life, few people are either pure goodness or pure evil. Stories of past actions go a long way in showing multiple layers” (158). Gene’s actions were believably any of the options Westover presents. He may have disappeared and left his son to run on a burning leg or he may have carried him, like a child, down the mountain. Even in the uncertainty of his actions, there is careful attention to the safety of his whole family.
Another moment where Westover must consult several memories outside of her own is her brother, Shawn’s, fall from a pallet. Because she isn’t present for Shawn’s accident like she is with Luke’s, Westover can only tell this story through the accounts and memories of others. The reader gets the story just as Westover does in the moment, “The story of how Shawn fell would come to me in bits and pieces, thin lines of narrative from Luke and Benjamin, who were there… I don’t know for certain what Shawn was doing on the pallet” (127). Westover relies on the memories and interpretation of her brothers while also acknowledging what she still doesn’t know, even retelling this story from the present.
As she continues to retell the story of Shawn’s fall, Westover includes a footnote after acknowledging that there are “conflicting accounts” of why Shawn fell, “My account of Shawn’s fall is based on the story as it was told to me at the time. Tyler was told the same story; in fact, many of the details in this account come from his memory. Asked fifteen years later, others remember it differently” (128). Westover goes into the specific discrepancies, noting which members of her family were there and what they saw. She is explicit about which details are her own memories and which ones differ from her own. She continues in the body of the text, “No one has ever described to me what happened when Shawn’s head struck that second time… but it was so chilling that someone – maybe Dad, probably Benjamin – dialed 911, which no member of my family had ever done before” (Westover 129). This passage, as well as Westover’s entire recollection of Shawn’s fall, skirts around her father’s role. Some of the accounts include him, saying he moved the pallet Shawn was on. Some of the accounts say Shawn simply fell backward.
The uncertainty surrounding Gene’s involvement isn’t new for Westover and her family. There are always questions about how their father acted, whether or not he was responsible for the injury or for saving the day. Westover leaves this open as she is unsure of what happened, even fifteen years later. Westover owns the questions and her distance from the event, which is amplified by her reluctance to visit Shawn in the hospital. This incident isn’t investigated much until Westover’s note at the end of Educated.
Not long after, Shawn is in another accident. He crashes his motorcycle and Westover finds him minutes later, splayed and bleeding on the pavement. Because she was present, Westover tells this story with intense detail, writing through the scene to match her actions, “Shawn’s body was contorted, his back twisted. I had no idea how long an ambulance might take, and there was so much blood. I decided to stop the bleeding. I dug my hands under his shoulder and heaved but I couldn’t.” Westover then asks an onlooker, Dwain, to help her lift Shawn. This is a spot where she includes another note, “Asked fifteen years later, Dwain did not recall being there, vividly, in my memory” (Westover 145). Even in a story that only Westover can tell, she researches and looks for holes in her own memory. This allowed Westover to address her own credibility. She includes Dwain’s memory to give contrast to her own.
Previously, when Westover compared her memory to that of others, it was through the lens of her own lack of knowledge. In this instance, she is certain of her memories and still includes Dwain’s contradiction. This inclusion is a choice that speaks to one of Philip Lopate’s points about writing the self as a character, “There is also considerable character development in expressing your opinions, prejudices, half-baked ideas, etc., etc., provided you are willing to analyze the flaws in your thinking and to entertain arguments against your hobbyhorses and not be too solemn about it all” (43). Westover repeatedly addresses the “flaws” in her thinking and memory. This speaks to Westover’s dedication the truth and her admission of her own memory’s potential failure. This is craft choice which develops her as a narrator and a character.
One memory that Westover must rely upon herself for fully is that of the day Shawn attacked her in a parking lot. First, Westover shifts from past tense, “I forced my toe… into a steel-toed boot,” to present tense, “I pass through the main lot and turn into the open asphalt on the north side.” Next, she gives the reader “strange details” from that day, “the smell of oil floating up from our leather gloves, the sandpaper feel of dust on my fingertips. And Shawn, grinning at me from the passenger seat” (Westover 193). Westover keeps this tense and level of detail consistent as she retells this painful story. These serve to sink the reader deeper into the moment. There is no veil of clouded memory or distance from witnessing the incident, there is only Westover’s testimony.
She continues by noting that she definitely told Shawn, “Don’t touch me,” after he “grabbed” her arm, “as if he’s going to throw me over his back and carry me in fireman-style.” Westover admits, “What happens next is a blur in my memory. I see only snapshots – of the sky flipping absurdly, of fists coming at me, of a strange, savage look in the eyes of a man I don’t recognize.” She then shifts into staccato sentences, keeping the scene moving as quickly as it did in the moment, “I lose my grip. I am pulled from the car. I feel icy pavement on my back; pebbles are grinding into my skin. My jeans have slid down past my hips” (194). Westover’s fast pace is a craft choice. The speed conveys the severity, it wraps the reader into the visceral experience of having their wrist broken, their body bowed alongside Westover. There is little room for interpretation or reflection, there are no notes to take away from the moment, there is only Westover and her struggle to protect herself against her brother’s truly brutal attack.
Because she is the only source she can consult about Shawn’s attack, Westover turns to her journals. She cites her own words, written that same day, for proof of her memories, “It was like getting beaten by a zombie, I write. Like he couldn’t hear me… Was it really fun and games?... Could he not tell he was hurting me? I don’t know. I just don’t know.” (Westover 195). Unable to ask another person for their memories, Westover must ask a past self. She turns to this girl and her words as the proof she needs, that she has previously held herself to finding from others.
Even though Westover presents her memories of this violence as a truth to be honored, she also shows her struggle to accept the attack on the day it happened. Westover tries to revise her own history as she is processing it, “I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed?” (195). Westover admits to questioning herself as part of processing, stating that it was a means of feeling in control after being so violated and betrayed.
Westover is unable to convince herself of her own wrongdoing as the traumatic memory of Shawn’s face “invades” her mind. She then repeats images of her body, contorted on the ground, forcing the reader to replay them alongside her. Westover is not only experiencing this pain in the past, but as she is writing it in the present. There are layers of repeated pain which she embodies in the repetition of images. Her past self cannot suppress these memories, and so she chooses not to. She writes every detail, which her current self incorporates into the text, uninterrupted.
Allowing her present self a space for reflection, Westover looks into her old journal entries and her inability to pick one narrative, the true one. She writes, “The words of the second entry would not obscure the words of the first. Both would remain my memories set down alongside his. There was a boldness in not editing for consistency” (Westover 197). The choice to include her initial inability to accept Shawn’s behavior gives the reader insight into how complicated it was for Westover to understand how her family could hurt her. This is something she struggles with throughout Educated, doubting not only the honesty of her memories but the validity of her feelings about them.
In the final chapters of Educated, Westover compiles memories again, this time to remember her grandmother after her death. Westover connects with her mother’s family, especially her Aunt Angie, while looking for somewhere to stay while she attends the funeral. This side of her family takes her in without questions, and they even attempt to reconcile with Westover’s mother. When she rebuffs their offers, Westover is left with people who are nearly strangers. Of this, she recalls,
I soon realized that my not knowing [my grandmother] was wonderful for her children, who were bursting with remembrances and loved answering questions about her. With every story my grandmother came into sharper focus, but the woman taking shape from their collective memories was nothing like the woman I remembered. It was then I realized how cruelly I had judged her, how my perception had been distorted, because I’d been looking at her through my father’s harsh lens. (325)
Westover has previously delved into research for proof of her father’s actions, looking in the gaps between memories for his love and dedication his children. Here, she sees the wall he has built to keep his family “safe.” There is blame in this passage, Westover notes that it is her father’s lens which is responsible for the distortion. This blame is tempered with Westover’s loss of the grandmother she didn’t know, but who she could have. What Westover gains in this moment when she is forced to face the loss of family is a part of her family that had she has previously been denied. She closes the story of her grandmother’s funeral by telling the reader that her next trip to Idaho is to visit her Aunt Angie, not her mother.
The last chapter of the memoir opens with Westover revealing that her grandmother’s funeral was her last contact with the majority of her family. Her contact is limited to the voices of a few of her brothers, chiming in to tell her “the ongoing drama on the mountain – the injuries, violence, and shifting loyalties. But it comes to [her] now as limited hearsay” (Westover 327). The voices of her parents, the trust she had in them, have been silenced. Westover relied on multiple, shifting voices to understand her past, but she can now relinquish control of the narrative. She has admitted, time and again, that she cannot be sure of the past. What she does have is the understanding that her father drove her from her family and tried to cut off her right to her own story.
Westover ends Educated on a note of acceptance for the father has she has lost in her struggle to find herself outside of Buck’s Peak. Westover writes, “The peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws… as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life” (Westover 327). Westover’s choice to include “real and imagined cruelty” adds to her own credibility as an author as well as someone who is researching, listening. She accepts her own responsibility in some ways, which she is simply alluding to here. This instills readers with the same sense of trust that Westover weaves into the entirety of Educated, starting with recognizing what she’s imagined in place of memory and including the memories she gives us several versions of.
In stating her difficulty to “enumerate” her father’s crimes against her, Westover summarizes grappling with the broken, traumatic memories of her father. She was forced to first acknowledge the “flaws” of her father, and then to acknowledge his humanity. Westover also indicates that this “enumerating” continued after her decision to remove her father from her life. There was no clean break or easy decision. While he isn’t part of her life in the present, he cannot be removed from her past she is still working to make sense of. About this, Westover is clear, “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her” (328). This is the central point of Educated, that Westover has forever been ingrained with her upbringing, she is both beholden to its beauty and restrained by the lingering pain and uncertainty. Educated isn’t just the story of how she left her childhood behind, but the story of how it follows her.
The memories of her father, both good and bad, linger with Westover, and resurface in the last pages of Educated, “When my father was in my life… I could not make out his tender qualities… I can only remember those things now, with a span of miles between us” (328). Westover leaves her readers with this complex view of her father, refusing to indict him or write him off. She makes it clear that the people who bring the most harm are often also the most endearing. There are good memories that Westover has struggled to blend into the image of her brutal father.
Westover could have portrayed her father only as the cold and cruel man who pushed her family into isolation and ignorance to maintain his control. This is the certainly the impression of who her father is at the end of the book, but there are so many notes of tenderness, of his drive to protect his family – even if their enemies are products of his mental illness. Westover’s choice to lean into complexity shows the reader her path from obedient and loving daughter to a woman who has had to pluck the shards of her family out of herself so she can survive. Educated is her examination of these shards, of the light they still refract.
Westover concludes Educated with a note that, “Certain footnotes have been included to give a voice to memories that differ from mine… Take Luke’s burn. Everyone who was there that day either saw someone who wasn’t there, or failed to see someone who was… what is one to make of such a carousel of contradiction?” (333). In this section of the note, Westover distances herself from the confusion by using the phrase “what is one to make” instead of addressing the reader herself. Westover uses the distance, once again, as a tool of immersion. She asks this question not to save herself, but to compel the reader to ask the same question of themselves, what am I to make of what Westover has told me? She ends this section of the note by saying Luke was only person there that everyone agrees on.
Westover then moves into discussing Shawn’s fall, calling it “bewildering” before stating, “I was not there. I heard my account from others, but was confident it was true because I’d heard it told that way for years, by many people… Then this other story appeared” (333). Because she cannot piece the details together, Westover doesn’t pretend to. She admits what she does not know, once again, and brings light to those empty spaces,
I’d be lying if I said these details are unimportant, that the “big picture” is the same no matter which version you believe. These details matter… a different father, a different man, is born from those details… What I take from this is a correction, not to my memory, but to my understanding. We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families… Maybe the real tragedy is that [our father] could live in our minds this way… because his response in other moments… had led us to see him in that role. (Westover 333-334)
Just as Westover gives room for her father’s gentleness, she cannot ignore the painful moments that fall under his responsibility. It is tempting to damn her father for the lack of those details, for her inability to capture an outright refusal of malicious intent, but Westover leaves this space open, simply pointing to the man her father might be in the many versions of these stories. She leaves this for the reader to decide what she will not.
The final paragraph of Educated is Westover’s own examination of the ramifications of including so many painful stories, especially the ones which have been contested by members of her family,
We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: Tell that other story next to the one I remember. Of a summer day, a fire, the smell of charred flesh, and a father helping his son down the mountain. (334)
In the last moment, the last line of the book, Westover moves toward compassion. Among the frantic snapshots of Luke’s burning, the image the reader is left with is of Gene as a hero, the father Westover wants him to be and her reader to remember him as. There is no negating his violence and violations toward his family, especially Westover, but there is space to be held for his compassion, for his love as a father.
Educated is a far richer, far more realistic account of Westover’s life because she chooses to openly explore doubt and take her reader through this process alongside her. She chooses to include the memories of others, jeopardizing her own credibility for the sake of reaching truth. Ultimately, Westover combines conflicting narratives in a deliberate effort to show her family as accurately as possible. She also, undeniably though perhaps less intentionally, underscores the pain and fear of her tumultuous childhood. These craft choices combine to show not only a rich image of Westover’s family, but of her own compassion and grief. The truth that is uncovered is not one of empirical facts, who was where and when, but the reality of the loss Westover faces for getting an education she was nearly denied, for the act of telling these stories– her stories – at all.
Why is that Westover concludes her memoir with a call to herself, to her education, and yet must leave a note on the truth? Westover does not let Educated rest at its end, she pushes the text and the reader further, making space for the complications which she has already devoted so much time to. The place she chooses to close the door of this narrative on is her search for the truth, not necessarily the truth as she sees it.
Hertz, Sue. Write Choices: Elements of Nonfiction Storytelling. SAGE/CQ Press, 2016.
Lopate, Phillip. “Writing Personal Essays, On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip, Story Press, 2001, pp. 38–44.
Pearson, Michael. “Researching Your Own Life.” Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip, Story Press, 2001, pp. 45–49.
Westover, Tara. Educated: a Memoir. Random House, 2018.