Tara Westover’s acclaimed memoir, Educated, is about many things: growing up in an extreme fundamentalist family under the thrall of a paranoid father, in an environment both idyllic and abusive; her attempts to break free; and education in both the sense of formal learning and its more expansive meaning–the process of self-discovery.
I happened to listen to Educated after finishing a monthly case conference led by Dr. Jane Rubin about working as a psychotherapist with developmental trauma. The memoir is a compelling example of the complexities we explored: the traumas themselves; the additional and more severe consequences of misattuned responsiveness from a child’s primary caregivers; and the terror of change that makes the dread not to repeat as powerful as the dread to repeat.
A reviewer summarizes Westover’s dilemma: “Will she come home? Can she come home? Or will home be more damaging to her spirit than the broader dangerous world her father fears?”
A better question is can she leave home? Educated illustrates repeatedly the psychological difficulty and cost of doing so.
In “To Free the Spirit from its Cell,” Bernard Brandschaft (1993) writes of the danger change poses to attachment, and the pathological accommodations necessary to preserve “emotionally enslaving early ties.”
Therapists encounter these dimensions of trauma all the time. Patients who have seemingly progressed but who cannot go further remain, in Brandschaft’s words, “imprisoned in the gulags of their minds.” What might seem a baffling resistance is an expression of identity grounded in fierce loyalty and love.
In a Fresh Air interview, Westover says, “Abuse is foremost an assault on the mind. If you’re going to abuse someone, you have to invade their reality and you have to distort it.” She describes how abuse is normalized and depicted as deserved, how shame is internalized. She was only able to break away after she had “grown her own mind,” become a different self—one who still hopes for, but no longer awaits, signs that her family has changed.
A patient once gave me “The City,’ by C.P. Cavafy (1894), which reads in part:
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong . . .
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. . .
As Educated so beautifully attests, it is not impossible to free the spirit from its cell, but it is heartbreakingly difficult.