My book club has been reading Educated, the bestseller by Tara Westover. Westover tells about her incredibly rough childhood in rural Idaho, raised by a bizarre survivalist father and a passive midwife mother. She and her siblings lived largely off the grid, stockpiling supplies for the end-times battle her dad believed was imminent. Tara never went to school, nor was she really homeschooled. Her early years were marked by horrific abuse at the hands of her brother, and a series of accidents that befell various family members, for which no one sought a doctor’s care. Tara somehow got a full scholarship to college, followed by fellowships and advanced degrees from Harvard and Cambridge.
Educated joins The Glass Castle and Tender at the Bone as non-fiction books I recently read featuring dreadful parents. In The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls tells another harrowing tale, with a shiftless father and a delusional mother, and a series of miserable moves from one ramshackle place to the next. Neither parent was acquainted with reality, and while Jeanette later became a successful journalist, her folks ended up homeless. Tender at the Bone is the story of Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl’s doozy of an early life. Ironically, Ruth’s career is all about fine dining—ironic, because her wildly eccentric mother regularly gave her family food poisoning by preparing and serving spoiled meat.
The tragedy is that untreated mental illness is at the heart of these stories. None of the parents are evil; they just cannot cope with the world in any normal way, nor can they raise their children competently. They fall into addiction, or mania/depression cycles, and it’s clear that they are incapable of taking care of anyone, including themselves. The miracle is their kids’ ability to rise up out of the ashes of their upbringings. These books were quite difficult to read, as someone living with mental illness myself. I always wonder what my fate would have been without the excellent medical care and incredible support system that I have.
It is easy to label people as dysfunctional, and distance ourselves from them, but they too are part of our human family, and we may be closer to them than we’d like to think. I give thanks that the stigma around mental illness is lifting, and that parents like those in these books can get more help now. But we still have so many miles to go in terms of access to treatment. Without insurance, I could never afford my medication, and I cry for those who struggle along without the help they desperately need.
The world itself can be a pretty dysfunctional place. But we can be part of the solution to so many of our problems, just by being aware, compassionate and involved. I pray for a world where all of the Taras and Ruths and Jeanettes can have happy childhoods, with caring, healthy parents. It’s long past time to heal the broken ones in our society. Let’s work on this, together.
|Everybody deserves a happy childhood|