BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Marx’s critics still dispute the meaning of his controversial phrase, “the idiocy of rural life,” which appears in the Communist Manifesto. Did Marx really mean that country folks were stupid, plain and simple? Or was it more complicated than that?
European society was changing dramatically in 1848, when the Communist Manifesto came out. (So was American society.) As steam-powered factories drew the rural poor to urban centers with the force of gravity, the accompanying institutions of town life–schools, offices, laws, taxes, theaters, libraries and so forth–subjected country people to certain civilizing effects. The social production of knowledge made possible by the city rescued the rural poor from the isolation and ignorance that had marked their lives for generations–the thing that Marx had termed idiocy.
One school of Marx’s interpreters gives the infamous word its usual, literal meaning. Another says the original German Idiotismus has a more nuanced connotation emphasizing the deprived social circumstances of life on the farm, not the endogenous state of mind of those who live there.
I have never felt a need to take sides in this debate. Coming from farm people, though, I have never liked the first interpretation. It stings a bit.
But recently, as I was reading Tara Westover’s Educated, a beautiful memoir of growing up a Mormon survivalist in rural Idaho in the 1990s, I felt one side of the old “idiocy” dispute rising to take hold of me. Before page 100 of Educated it becomes powerfully clear that Westover’s entire family is at risk of dying from–actually, being killed by–her father’s stupidity. And this risk seems to consist in Marx’s idea of rural idiocy, plain and simple.
An abject ignoramus who prevents his seven children from going to school and equates medicine with something he calls “socialism,” Westover’s father, Gene, repeatedly subjects his family to the cruel existential threat of his own insuprable brainlessness.
As a rule, he forbids the wearing of hardhats in the family business of junking. More to follow on this topic.
Twice Gene crashes the family van on Idaho’s icy roads having recklessly, and needlessly, chosen to drive home through the night from Arizona despite approaching winter storms. The first crash results in a serious head injury for his wife, Faye. Afterward, Gene and the kids ridicule her for her black eyes, unwittingly using the same term doctors use for the bruising pattern characteristic of traumatic brain injury–“raccoon eyes.” Even as Faye recovers (without medical care) she is less of a person from this disaster onward, which seems to suit Gene just fine. Before, she’d had her own ideas about what she wanted to do in life.
For the second crash (out of two Arizona trips, it should be said), Gene has removed the seatbelts from the family van. He accelerates to 60 mph on the icy road, loudly reassuring his family that he is driving no faster than their guardian angels can fly. When he wrecks, he scatters his wife and children across a snowy field. Tara comes to after being knocked out, but she does not tell the police of her unconsciousness for fear of being sent to a hospital.
On an earlier occasion, Gene impaled Tara’s leg on a piece of scrap iron. He had insisted she ride in a junk bin full of shifting metal he was moving with a forklift. One of Tara’s brothers suffers grievous burns (while junking) on another occasion, and Gene leaves him half submerged in a trashcan of dirty water as he returns to work.
Once, on a big job, Gene has another son, Shawn, ride a pallet balanced on the 20-foot tall boom of a forklift. (Earlier Gene declined to invest in a man-carrier for the forklift, an idea that offended his sense of divine providence.) Shawn is not wearing a hardhat, or any safety gear, for that matter, and when he falls off the pallet onto a concrete wall jutting with rebar, he suffers the first of several serious brain injuries. Weeks later, when Tara rescues Shawn from the site of a motorcycle crash, brain matter oozing from his forehead (the prohibition on hardhats seemingly extended to motorcycle helmets), Gene urges Tara to bring her brother home, where mother Faye will treat him with herbs and oils.
One day, When Gene buys a mechanical shear capable of scissoring through steel girders, the reader is roused by a sense of Chekhov’s Law: this weapon, having appeared on the scene, will draw blood. Gene’s children finally begin to sense the danger posed by their father’s galloping stupidity. But even after Luke, a son who had so far escaped serious injury, is gashed to the bone by the first trial of the Shear (wonderfully, the capitalization is Westover’s), Gene insists on persevering, sending Tara in to master it.
Like anyone raised in a tribe, the Westovers wear their identity markers with pride. They do not wash after using the bathroom, having been taught by Gene “not to piss on their hands.” At 18, Tara energetically refuses to wear a seatbelt in a friend’s car. The subject of childhood vaccinations does not come up until late in the book, and the reader can guess why.
Gene is sustained in life by two overarching beliefs. One is that angels will guard over his family. The other is that his family must constantly earn this protection by obeying the commandments of the Lord. Sundays are taken up with Gene’s droning recitations from Isaiah and other biblical books of prophecy. His only deeply felt sympathy is for the Weaver family, killed in nearby Ruby Ridge by federal agents in 1992 for doing more or less what Gene wants–defending a rural, devout family compound from outside intrusion.
All the harm, superstition and callousness visited on Tara by Gene’s blighted mindset might be chalked up to mere bad luck. Maybe the shuttering of Gene’s mind is the result of a generational difference, of being “old fashioned” or “temperamental.” This illusion evaporates one night when Shawn, an elder son, takes up the authority wrought for him by Gene’s religious extremism. Outraged that Tara, at 15, wants to attend school, Shawn tries to choke her in bed. After suffocating her nearly to the point of unconsciousness (“I awoke with needles in my brain,” she recalls.), Shawn pinions Tara into a painful position of submission. He will let her go, he says, when “she admits she’s a whore.”
It is the first of several such incidents.
In a moment of self-reflection one night, the pubescent Tara is trying to calculate the correct snugness of women’s clothing. Too tight and you show your contours, too loose and you flash decolletage as you bend to pick up a hymnal. Gene had recently remarked that a whorish woman in church whose blouse was too loose seemed to be flashing him on purpose. As Tara weighs such hazards of fashion, she worries she “might be growing into the wrong sort of woman.”
Even after Tara miraculously makes it into Brigham Young University–she lies that she had been home-schooled and ekes out a good ACT score–and shows signs of achieving escape velocity, she is once again visited by the sadistic, masculine, rural idiocy that has defined her life so far. Elder brother Shawn assaults and batters her in a supermarket parking lot, spraining her wrists and an ankle. (This episode occurs just days after Shawn has dragged Tara by the hair to plunge her head in a toilet for the effrontery of bringing a date home.) In the parking lot struggle, Tara’s outer clothes are tugged from her body. Shawn stands triumphantly astride her, her bra and panties exposed to the world.
Westover clearly relates this humiliating image of her underclothes for a reason. The scene would have conveyed Shawn’s cruelty without this detail. Tara’s wrist bones snap audibly. There is loud shouting and scuffling. Westover leaves the whiff of a near-rape in the episode, I believe to delineate the full scope of the threat that every woman faces just by living in the real world. When one’s own brother comes within a millimeter of committing sexual assault to assuage his own wrath, what cruel madness does the rest of the (unfamiliar) male world hold in store? Every woman goes out into the world with her agency already diminished by the need to guard against this horror.
Late in the book, Westover reveals that Shawn had also terrorized her older sister Audrey throughout her childhood, using similar methods. But ultimately Audrey, her father and mother, and, of course, Shawn justify this abusive behavior as the necessary disciplining of girls who might otherwise get out of line. This Bronze Age code was thriving in Idaho in 2000, and it likely thrives in your street today. It incubates in its worst form, one must believe, in the countryside, wherever the absence of social life permits violent fools to regard themselves as holy men.
These horrible considerations bring home what patriarchy is for. It is a deliberate, structured, reinforced choice, not the mere byproduct of whim, luck or a “difficult” personality. Patriarchy exists so that fathers may transmit to their sons the prerogative to bully, coerce and command their women. Shawn is simply claiming the sadistic “right” to rule that Gene has prepared for him. Tara, at least for a while, accepts the presumptive right of men to define what the “wrong sort” of woman is. Tragically, mother Faye never seriously challenges this right.
Eventually, Tara does achieve escape velocity. She finishes a history degree at BYU and wins a doctoral scholarship to Cambridge. Her ascending flight into orbit around her old world is not smooth, though. Even as she takes two steps forward, leading her through Rome and Paris, to a health clinic to be vaccinated, to a psychological counselor, she repeatedly takes a step back by trying to reconcile with her family in Idaho. It never ends well.
As Tara starts to become her new self, her family settles deeper into old patterns. Her father nearly self-immolates in a foolish junkyard accident (rehearsed, it must be said by the son who had been burned and “treated” with garbage-can water). Physically disfigured, Gene emerges with what Orwell would have aptly called the face he deserved¹–a cross between carrion fowl and Biblical prophet. He proclaims that all the accidents visited on him and his family over the years were a divine rebuke to the idols of medicine and public health. He tries to lead his daughter back to salvation, but she has a new self now, formed by the indelible habit of being able to imagine others’ perspectives. Reading does that to a person.
Cruelty is the worst thing humans do. This is the liberal creed. If it seems like a no-brainer, Westover’s Educated is proof that it is not. Humanity is still haunted by the terrifyingly bad idea of holiness–that one owes primary allegiance to a god or a religious vision or a tribe that claims special access to the sacred. Put that idea in the minds of men isolated from the civilizing effects of town life, and you have precisely what Marx derided as the idiocy of rural life. And you have the terrors that Westover ran from.
Westover’s memoir is a glorious one that reflects the powers of self-creation. But it is no accident that the closing lines of her account reflect, not glory but the bitterness of rebellion–the spark that started her liberation struggle. She has a new self at the end of her book, but it has placed her beyond the reach of her family–the very thing that formed her early on: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
Here’s to education then.
- In one of his essays, possibly “The Art of Donald Mcgill,” Orwell remarked that at the age of 50 everyone has the face they deserve. He meant that we have had just enough control of our vanity and life experiences to reflect our character in our midlife face.