Posts Tagged ‘Tara Westover’

Chapter 22, “What We Whispered and What We Screamed,” marks a change in Tara Westover‘s journal writing.

Reread the final pages of the chapter, 195-97, and write a short response that describes that change.

Post your response of twenty-five words or more as a reply. Next week we will turn back to your responses as a starting point for our conversations about Educated and the craft of writing.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Wherever you are in your reading of Educated, I encourage you to look back at the pages where Tara Westover recounts her first days on campus at Brigham Young University (155-58). Stepping into the unfamiliar–as she was then and we are now–is always difficult.

As we continue our study of Educated, consider not only what Tara Westover’s memoir reveals about the craft of writing but also how her resiliency can serve as a model for us in this time of uncertainty.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

We will get through these days.

This post serves as both a welcome back note and a blog entry on the writer’s craft, the second one I’ve written with you. (I posted the first one on January 22.)

I’m always grateful when I discover that readings and assignments in my various courses dovetail. It reminds me that although the particulars of the courses differ, communicating effectively in writing and closely examining written texts are fundamentals they all share.

Two dovetail discoveries occurred earlier this semester. The first one happened when I was reading the composition students’ weekly assignment in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It was in the chapter devoted to description. There the textbook’s authors include excerpts from two pieces of writing about multiple sclerosis that together illustrate lucidly the differences between the general description of objective nonfiction and the concrete, significant details and voice that bring creative nonfiction to life. Read the two excerpts that follow and consider both the differences between the words and how the words in each excerpt affect you.

First, a description from a brochure published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, spinal cord). It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system incorrectly attacks a person’s healthy tissue.

MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness. These problems may be permanent, or they may come and go. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 444)

Second, an excerpt from “On Being a Cripple,” by Nancy Mairs, a writer with MS:

During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements–the list of possibilities is lengthy and yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane, and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 443-44)

Another dovetail discovery occurred when my composition students were studying Chapter 11 of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The latter half of that chapter, “Instinct,” depicts Westover’s brother Shawn reining in the frightened gelding, Bud, preventing him from throwing Tara.

As my composition students and I examined the series of conflicts that propel the chapter forward, it occurred to me that the concluding pages of Chapter 11 would serve as an ideal segue from our study, in English 126, of creative nonfiction to our study of fiction. That scene exemplifies the structural similarities between fiction and memoirs, such Westover’s, that follow the same narrative arc.

In the span of only two and a half pages, Westover presents five conflicts: (1) Bud, the gelding, in conflict with the angry mare, (2) Tara in conflict with the frightened Bud, (3) Tara in conflict with herself (Should she let go of the saddle horn?), (4) Shawn in conflict with the mare, and (5) Shawn in conflict with–and ultimately prevailing over–Bud. Thanks to Brennan for pointing out the fourth conflict, which I had overlooked earlier.

Lastly, I’ll address our final in-class reading on March 12, Christopher Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Not only did Durang’s play let us exit laughing, it also showed us how quirky, well-wrought parody can pull readers into a play regardless of their knowledge of the source. When Lawrence says: “I call this [cocktail stirrer] Q-tip because I realized it looks like a Q-tip” (19), readers will laugh even if they don’t know that he’s a spoof of Laura Wingfield.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments. We will get through these days–and exit laughing again, I hope.


Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 42: “Describing.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 5th ed., 2019. pp. 443-44.

Durang, Christopher. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Christopher Durang: Twenty-Seven Short Plays. Smith and Krauss, 1995. pp. 12-27.

What makes a book a page-turner? If it’s fiction, it’s the narrative arc. If it’s nonfiction, it’s the same arc imposed on truths that are stranger than the lies of novels. Tara Westover’s Educated is a case in point. In the chapter where she recounts performing the title role in the musical Annie, the prevailing image of the teenage Tara is not one of herself, but rather Tara as the iconic orphan, her “brown hair [dyed] cherry red” (86). By depicting herself as that fictional heroine in a chapter that ends with Y2K, Westover creates a rags-to-riches narrative in miniature, a nesting doll within the larger Cinderella story of the memoir.

At the beginning of the chapter, as Tara rehearses for Annie, the source of tension that drives the narrative is her father’s obsession with preparing for what he proclaims will be the post-Y2K chaos that will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Gene Westover’s adherence to Y2K conspiracy theories and his distrust of doctors and public schools set Tara apart from the other teenagers in rehearsal. The Worm Creek Opera House, like the ball in Cinderella, is another world, where the words people spoke “seemed ripped from another reality” (86).

From her father’s obsession with Y2K, the source of tension in the chapter shifts to the obstacle that presents itself when Tara learns from the director that she must provide her own costumes. The old, tattered clothes that Annie wears as an orphan in Act I are a cinch to find in the Westovers’ basement, but in Act II Tara must take the stage in the beautiful dresses that Daddy Warbucks, Annie’s millionaire benefactor, buys for her. Lacking the dresses that she needs sends Tara and her mother on a search—a heroine’s quest—for suitable ones. Westover recounts that she and her mother drive one-hundred miles round-trip, scouring every second-hand store to no avail. It seems that Tara will have no gown for the ball, but her mother devises another plan as a last resort: She drives Tara to Aunt Angie’s house, where Angie loans Tara some of her daughter’s Sunday dresses. Helping Tara try on the fancy dresses, “knotting the sashes, fastening the buttons, plumping the bows” (87), Aunt Angie becomes the fairy godmother of the moment, setting Tara back on her path.

Annie isn’t the only stage role Tara plays, but it’s the only one Westover describes in her memoir; she doesn’t even mention the others by name. They remain the unnamed characters in “the next play” and “the one after that” (87). By limiting the depiction of her theatre life to Little Orphan Annie, Westover leaves readers with the image of her as the scrappy heroine whose rags-to-riches narrative parallels her own story as well as Cinderella’s. And the last pages of the chapter present another link to the girl with the glass slipper. In both stories, the heroine believes that the world will change at midnight. But in Educated Gene Westover’s delusions are the real fairy tale. After 2000 arrives without incident, Tara looks at her father watching television in the dark, noting that “[h]e seemed smaller to me than he had that morning” (91).

In Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of fairy tales, he observes that “[i]f Cinderella is to become master of her own fate, her parents’ authority must be diminished” (257). Readers of Educated see that parental authority diminish as Tara watches her father become smaller in her eyes—as parents, both real and imagined, often do. Westover’s readers enter the terrain of Buck’s Peak knowing that the perils of an abusive brother, a paranoid, delusional father, and a three-ton pair of scissors aren’t the exaggerated obstacles of a fairy tale or comic strip. Instead they’re genuine threats in a hard-knock life that Tara only narrowly escapes. She doesn’t live happily ever after, but she does achieve an education and a sense of self—if not a sense of peace.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. Knopf, 1977.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.