It Takes Education to Recognize Abuse

Sep 24, 2019

Two different people may see the same events in a different light. Understanding experiences from an individual perspectives occurs in a memoir, but siblings and parents may not recall things similarly.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

I’m Mike Strong - in Hays with reflections on Tara Westover’s “Educated”

The seeming arc of Tara Westover’s book is the struggle to go from a childhood without formal school to a prestigious academic position with a PhD. But “Educated” is really about finding herself.

As she describes her life, she was brought up in a home which avoided as much government as possible, including schools, vaccinations and doctors. They were often in survivalist mode, stocking up supplies for various end-times, none of which happened. It could be harsh without good reason and sometimes abusive. Despite that she remained. Later she kept returning.

If I were fact-checking, the amount of detailed dialog across a span of years needs corroboration. In this case Westover wrote daily in a personal journal. It is her set of journals which forms the backbone for the dialog.

Like a reporter’s notes, her journals make the book possible and act as verification. On her last visit to the family house she packed up the box of old journals under her bed and left with them. When she modifies any entries, she states that she does so not by getting rid of the first entry, but by adding a second duplicate entry with the changes.

I tend to trust written notes, especially handwritten notes, something I learned as a reporter in upstate New York for a daily newspaper in the 1970’s. Writing notes by hand forced my brain to consolidate what was being said in order to write it down in time.

Writing by hand also aided memory and started a mental draft of the story before I sat down later at the typewriter. With handwritten notes, I had the story half written in my head before I got home. And they gave me a record as support when challenged. I brought in my notes to my editors at least a couple of times. With notes they could stand behind me.

Then, we need to look at the varied eyewitness memories.

I have video of filmed exercises from two constitutional law classes taught by Dr. Will Adams. The exercises (1957 and 1971) were designed to show flaws in eyewitness testimony.

In one exercise the driver of the get-away car was arrested, as an accomplice. He claimed he was innocent and that as he drove past a bank being robbed, he braked to avoid a woman walking in front of his car, at which point the robber, because his own car was blocked, jumped into the driver’s car, forcing him to drive away.

At the trial, every witness, including the real police officers overseeing the exercise were adamant there was no such woman. Then the film showing the getaway was projected.

The driver was telling the truth. The film clearly showed a woman walking across the car’s path, causing him to brake and providing an opportunity for the robber.

Presented with the evidence on film the witnesses had to concede but still didn’t remember the woman. This is not uncommon. Memories are not like files from a hard drive. Memories are reconstructions in the moment.

One more reflection: The behaviors Tara Westover describes are abusive. In the very early 1980’s I volunteered on two Kansas City help lines. From the first, I learned that people needed to be educated to recognize abusive behavior, including victims. 

I was amazed so many people believed they deserved ill treatment. And I was amazed so many returned to their abusers, often after their abuser suddenly seemed conciliatory. That switched behavior is typical and is not about niceness or consideration. It is a means of control and deception.

Almost four decades later we still need education to recognize both abuse and abusers. It is worth spending time with Dr. Westover’s memories. She gives us a lot to think about.

This is Mike Strong - in Hays - for HPPR’s Radio Readers Book Club, reflecting on “Educated,” by Dr. Tara Westover.