On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  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.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal.  These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.

I wouldn’t eat.  I’d order a glass of water, no more.  If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon.  If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already.  My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing.  She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.

Nope.  But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.  In his words:

gift_us_newGift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers.  In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.

Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil.  In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.

We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil.  And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.

If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.  That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.

urThe stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher.  I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.

When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward.  The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.

The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.

You hungry?” the man asked.  He was from the south, from his voice.

I’m very hungry,” Cora said.

Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites.  Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.

Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:

She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California.  A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name.  The Great War had always been between the white and the black.  It always would be.

Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:

Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.  And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America.  Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice.  It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.  All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family.  We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal.  What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.

colson_whitehead_2014The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi.  The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world.  Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”).  And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.

Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story.  By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War.  After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?

But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.

And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan).  But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.

bloodattherootThese abuses were ongoing a mere thirty years ago.  From Carol Anderson’s New York Times review of Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root:

A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta].  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters.  “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.

Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time.  Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name.  If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first.  In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.

Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past.  The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance.  And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.

But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past.  After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause.  After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,

Of course not – it’s nothing.  Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”