Core Question 2: Differing Accounts of History

As a child, Tara’s parents limited her understanding of world history through pre-approved textbooks. They also limited her understanding of her personal history through distorted and conflicting memories. Tara’s later fascination with historiography, or the study of historians, motivates her to wrestle with the concept of opposing histories. As a memoirist, Westover gives voice not only to her own version of her personal history but to contradictory memories from family members.

In a note on the text she writes, “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: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.”

What examples from Educated speak to this theme of conflicting histories? How did you react to the tension between Tara’s memories and her family’s memories? Which moments in the book seemed less like “differing memories” and more like “gaslighting”?

I find Westover’s exploration of memory to be fascinating, particularly because it seems to call into question the concept of “truth” and “authenticity.” This struck me most deeply in Westover’s attempt to reconstruct Luke’s accident and the events that followed. Westover, herself, recalls her part in the incident in Chapter 7 “The Lord Will Provide.” She indicates that she, then 10 years old, encounters Luke on the front lawn in a very poor state because of his terrible burn and springs to action to try to help him. Ultimately, she administers one of her mother’s remedies, empties a garbage can, puts a bag in it, fills it with water, and uses it to bathe Luke’s leg to try to cool him. Westover, though, realizes she has no idea how Luke manages to get from the work site to the front yard. In trying to ascertain this detail for her memoir, she ends up with several conflicting accounts of the accident and the aftermath. She explains that Richard remembers that their father had put Luke into the truck and told him to drive home and their father went on to put out the fire that had ignited in the landscape around Luke. In a footnote, Westover explains, “In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire” (75). While it would seem reasonable to assume that the person who lived through the experience is the best source for discovering the “truth” of what happened, Luke’s memory is completely at odds with his sister’s experiences. This incident raises significant questions—in what ways do our memories or perceptions alter our perspectives? How much of our remembered history is actually idealistic, formed in relation to what we wanted to happen rather than what actually happened? Is it possible to objectively reflect on one’s own life?

While Westover’s references to differing family memories certainly works to suggest that her writing is authentic or at least trying to be as authentic as possible—she’s not just relying on her perspective to attain the truth of what happened to her, but the perspectives of others—sometimes her exploration of differing memories reveals the abusive environment she lived in. Her brother Shawn’s interactions with her, specifically, highlight the ways in which he would attempt to “gaslight” her. After the incident that takes place in the Stokes parking lot in chapter 22, Westover details all the self-questioning she does in her journal. Shawn apologizes for his actions on two different occasions, which motivates Westover to “revis[e] the memory.” She claims “It was a misunderstanding . . . . If I’d asked him to stop, he would have” (196). However, for the first time she does not completely efface the original view of the situation, but writes the revised view side by side to the first. Here, we see not only differing memories from multiple people, but differing memories from the same person. In these lines, it becomes possible to see how abuse victims may justify staying with an abuser. Westover explores the dynamics of perspective and the ways in which revising memories becomes a strategy for surviving abuse.

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“We see not only differing memories from multiple people, but differing memories from the same person.” This is a perfect summary of Tara’s telling of the burn incident. It shows how faulty human memory can be and how often it is tied to emotions and other senses. Multiple people at the same event can have truly different memories of it, and as you mentioned, abusers in positions of power can use this to make others question sanity and reality.

I also know it’s been said many times that when we remember something, we don’t remember the actual incident, but the last time we thought about the incident - therefore, each time it is recalled, we remember a slightly more muddied version. As a huge and traumatic incident in their young lives, I am sure this event was something they often thought about and reflected on, and as they heard different theories, gained more info, and heard other people talk about it, their own recollections became stories in their own right.

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It is interesting to note just how little we know about the people in our lives. When we think back to a particular place or time, we do not remember the individuals who shared those moments with us as much as the roles they played.

We remember how they made us feel. We remember how they helped us, hurt us, or impacted our personal narratives in other ways. We do not see into their minds. Even their words are subject to interpretation. Meanings can be misconstrued or overlooked entirely, intentions warped or conflated, a problem compounded by time.

When our perceptions are challenged, we are forced to reconcile the role we’ve crafted for others in our minds with the individual as they were. This can occur when conflicting information about a friend or family member, a beloved teacher, or revered icon comes to light. We are forced to distinguish between reality and a conceptualization, coming to grasps with the difficult realization that we spend more time in the company of shadows than we do other human beings.

Winston Churchill once quipped that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” On a larger scale, our histories are nothing more than the compilation of countless stories–the shadows that persist through generations. Westover’s own interest in the individuals who craft these stories, defining crucial moments for generations to come, undoubtedly stemmed from her own experiences as a child. Her parent’s strict censorship of information served as a microcosm of this process (albeit an extreme one).

The fallibility of memory she witnessed in conflicting accounts of critical moments (Luke and her father’s injuries) and its susceptibility to selectivity (the family’s refusal to address Shawn’s behavior) prompts the deeper question regarding how our collective knowledge is handled. If history is a compilation of personal stories on a significantly larger scale, who “watches the watchmen?” Who policies veracity? How do they adjudicate between conflicting accounts?

Historical discrepancies are not uncommon. They can be the fuel for family feuds and wars between nations. But at their core, they speak to a deeper curiosity in every individual to know who they are and where they come from–a quest impeded by a competing desire to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories.

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Excellent points, Patty. The examples you’ve selected illustrate how certain moments can be more impactful than others, strengthening and perhaps even warping certain details while others fade as memories are solidified.

In the case of Luke’s injury, Tara’s initial observations and reactions are more impactful to her than the “how” behind his appearance at their doorstep. Understandably, the reverse is true for Luke, for whom the initial shock and the circumstances that initially followed might have made a greater impression. Other factors, such as pain and mental acuity relating to his injuries, likely also played a part in how he came to remember that incident as well.

I think Westover did an excellent job in acknowledging these dependencies, and was thorough in her attempts to understand how or why these difference came to be.

It is impossible to not view everything we learn or everything we experience through the lens of our past experiences. There are so many times in history where things are viewed so differently…the Civil War comes immediately to mind. Differing views of history comes into play in the book in two ways…one, in the way Tara’s father limited their education about the outside world and our collective history. While I wouldn’t call this gaslighting, I do think it was a very deliberate attempt to control his children’s growth and keep them with him, away from the world forever.

It gets a little muddier when you get into the siblings and how they interpret their families history and incidents that occurred. There are always going to be different assessments of a situation - we all view the world through our own lenses. However, in Tara’s case I feel like perhaps the people who are saying she isn’t remembering something “correctly” are doing it to discredit her. I have watched a number of interviews with Tara, and I can say honestly that I feel she tries very hard to make sure that all possible viewpoints of a situation are heard. She actively tries to hear them, rather than just saying that her assessment is right, the other wrong. I feel like that gives her a lot of credibility.

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As of this moment , I have read the posts from three different people (Patty, Amanda, and Michael) and I think they did a great job of pointing out many of the highlights, low lights, and realities of Tara’s memoir. Great reading

The prepping was very jarring to her memories. I am sure she remembers very differently now compared to in her youth. Kids usually do not see the whole truth till sometime later in life, if at all. Violence and aggressive/abusive parents are not always seen as they really were. Kids are more innocent and are really true believers until tragedy occurs. Her musings about the canning is to this point. She can. It understand why they would need to can more if they could not carry it all. Later I am sure she will reveal that now as an adult it is clearer.

Given the large family and various personalities already shared by Tara, the conflicting histories did not surprise me at all. I felt as if Tara still wanted to protect the love and happy moment from her childhood even though she finally had the courage to finally speak of her brother Shawn and his abusive behavoir.
There are a few instances that I believe there was gas lighting more than differing memories. Specifically, the stance the Father took on Shawn’s violence verses Tara’s belief is more gas lighting by her father. The mere fact that scripture was used to convince Tara she was not recalling the situation correctly is a perfect example of gas lighting.

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I read Westover’s “Educated” at the same time I read an article from the Nov 1, 2019 Christian Century titled How Christian theology and practice are being shaped by trauma studies" by Shelly Rambo. In many ways, Westover’s writings on her upbringing paralleled insights I got from this article. I will quote just one paragraph in the article, which I consider applicable to the book in its entirety. " Experiences of pain, loss, and suffering are part of the human experience, and in time many are able to integrate the suffering into their lives. But trauma refers to an experience in which the process of integration becomes stuck. Pastoral theologian Carrie Doehring identifies trauma as a “bio-psycho-spiritual approach to overwhelming life events.” In traumatic response, there is a breakdown of multiple systems we rely on to protect us from harm and to process harm." I think in much of the book “Educated” we are viewing the breakdown of these multiple systems for Tara, and observing as she attempts to recognize and then build anew . “I couldn’t articulate how the name made me feel. Shawn had meant it to humiliate me, to lock me in time, into an old idea of myself. but far from fixing me in place, that word (N…) transported me. " And even more riveting of the process is the few pages where Westover goes through the events with Shawn two days after Christmas (pg 193-196) and her journalling about such. And then the very next paragraph starts " I don’t know what you’ve done to you wrist” Dad told me" The layers and layers of trauma on all levels horizontally and vertically in her life is excruciating for me to partake in her writings.

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