Mysteries Within Us All

Sep 25, 2019

Escher Circle Limit III
Credit M. C. Escher, 1959 / Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

HPPR listeners will remember last spring when I said that I normally find the mysteries of real life intriguing enough for my reading tastes. Although Sherlock Holmes won me over—and yes, I am a true mystery convert now—I must confess that it’s still the mysteries of the real human experience that buzz in my head.

The latest for me is Tara Westover and her memoir, Educated. It is the true story of Tara, who was raised quote-unquote “unschooled” in Idaho, the youngest daughter to fervently religious parents who hated the government, thought that most of the women in their Mormon congregation behaved like harlots, and who tragically—and purposefully—turned a blind eye to the bizarre terror and abuse that Tara endured from her brother.

Eventually Tara yearns for more. She is deeply loyal to her family, and a believer in their beliefs. But she craves the life of the mind and wants to go to college. Through encouragement from another brother who has also broken free and excelled in college, Tara studies for the ACT. She inherently knows that the way she is treated at home is not just, but as with most children, she doesn’t see what’s normal and what is wrong and immoral. It’s her friends from town who start pointing this out. And yet.

So where is the mystery? To me it’s not her blustering and domineering father. I have known a few men like him throughout my life: Zealots who leave no room for another voice in the room, who are so cock-sure of their interpretation that doubt is a completely foreign concept. There’s no mystery in him. Honestly, he’s barely even interesting. Tara’s mother is fascinating because she has crossed classes—raised prim and proper, she has allowed herself into a supposedly free life of chaos. She’s traded one set of strict societal rules for another—those of her husband’s. Westover glimpses inside this dynamic a little.

No, to me the true mystery is How? How does Tara teach herself algebra from a textbook? How does Tara, with no tools to succeed in this hierarchical life, excel and eventually earn a PhD? Although her storytelling is a bit dry at times, it is also clear and honest, and her narrative pace is perfection. Westover seems, by all accounts, to be a reliable and fearless narrator.

She acknowledges the kindness of her church bishop, and her college roommate, and her teenage friend Charles, and how they so gently guided her toward her potential. She acknowledges that once she no longer needed to worry about money every day, her mind blossomed and she was able to learn and excel in her classes.

To me, the mystery of Educated is the power of Tara’s searing intellect. Think of all the people we encounter through our day—the workers at your kids’ school, the aides at the hospital, the teenagers around us. Even our own parents. I like to consider that we all have this potential to soar like Tara Westover has done, if only we are shown the path and choose to work relentlessly to stay the course. When I think of the mysteries of life, that is the most fascinating: the ability to unlock unexpected potential in one another. How do some people do it, and others are not able? This is one of life’s questions that sticks with me.

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, hoping you’ll join us in reading Educated by Tara Westover. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.