Overcoming childhood trauma is a frequent focus for clients in therapy. When someone grows up in an abusive household, it is quite common that harmful dynamics feel normal and difficult to see or address, even as children grow and embark on adulthood. Many therapy clients ask questions like:

“How can I get over my childhood?”
“I know my parents shouldn’t have been violent, but how to I deal with that now?”
“I understand why the abuse was a problem, so why can’t I just move past it?

Journaling can be an effective and even cathartic strategy for working through difficult feelings about the past. Tara Westover’s stunning memoir, Educated, shines a reading light on the healing power of writing. Educated is based on Westover’s childhood journals and reads like a carefully crafted diary processing an unconventional childhood way off the grid in Idaho:

I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school. Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we have never set foot in a classroom.

As the title alludes, Tara’s ultimate salvation is her determination to become educated. But this absorbing memoir highlights the unconscious conflicts that can compromise success. If abusive dynamics are familiar, they will be consciously and unconsciously more comfortable:

I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was poison to me; I choked on it. I wanted the professor to shout at me, wanted it so deeply I felt dizzy from the deprivation. The ugliness of me had to be given expression. If it was not expressed in his voice, I would need to express it in mine.

As Tara’s complicated trajectory unfolds and family members unravel, the reader will notice the protagonist finding solace as she retreats into her written words. When tensions become escalated, Tara is determined to retrieve her journals from her childhood home despite the fact that entering the household means placing herself at risk of physical harm. Her journals represent her salvation and determination to grow. Her writing is descriptive, provocative, honest and real. There’s an awareness of her effort to create the narrative that implies the therapeutic value of her work:

Now, at age twenty-nine, I sit down to write, to reconstruct the incident from the echoes and shouts of a tired memory. I scratch it out. When I get to the end, I pause. There’s an inconsistency, a ghost in this story.

Tara understands the subjective nature of memory and alludes to the floating ghosts of memory that cloud her recall. The self-consciousness of her writing, her conscientiousness, and her willingness to question certain crevasses of her memory give the story greater therapeutic value. We root for Tara to grow, to become educated, to survive and to triumph. But her wounds and scars continue to surface in both surprising and predictable ways. She describes the decision to enter therapy as a turning point. But it is clear throughout her narrative, that journaling is the primary source of her salvation.

For readers who are struggling to overcoming a traumatic family history, Educated will inspire through its celebration the human capacity for growth and change.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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