photo characterizing abuse - man's fist in foreground - woman bowing head in background

Everyone knows that abuse is bad. The word itself has a terrible sound to it. Hearing it makes you want to run like hell. Why on earth would anyone put up with it?

The trouble is, abuse feels very different from the inside than from the outside. What from an outsider’s perspective looks like abuse often feels like confusion, fear, and shame from the inside. And, unfortunately, confusion, fear, and shame don’t prompt people to run like hell. They prompt people to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. But abusive storms don’t tend to pass. They tend to stick around because, from the abuser’s perspective, life is more bearable when beating someone else down.

So here is a woman who grew up in a family with certain expectations. All families, of course, have them. The specific expectations this woman was bound to were confusing to her. She was obligated to be a good, supportive family member. She was happy to try to be that! But being a good, supportive family member, according to her family, meant certain things. And, as she grew older, she started to realize more and more clearly what those things were. Here were a few of them:

  1. The information in books is part of a huge conspiracy. Why are you reading? Get back to work!
  2. Do not, ever, go to a hospital or take a family member to a hospital—even in a dire emergency.
  3. You’re a woman, so you shouldn’t roll up your sleeves, even if it’s swelteringly hot—you whore.
  4. If a male member of the household threatens you with a knife, it’s because you deserved it.
  5. If a male member of the household gives you a sprained ankle, it’s because you deserved it.
  6. If a male member of the household breaks one of your bones, it’s because you deserved it.

You love and adore that male family member who sprained your ankle, broke one of your bones, and hurt you in other physical and emotional ways. You trust him. He is, on the whole, a good man. And he probably knows more than you; so if he treats you poorly, you are probably not worthy of being treated well. You should work on yourself. You are far from perfect. You are the problem.

Fortunately, as Tara Westover recounts in her memoir Educated, she was able to educate herself through an astounding combination of advice and help from other family members, illuminating college courses, advice and help from kindhearted people she met at her university, and a whole lot of book reading. Through a slow and often painful process, she finally recognized the abuse for what it was. And she finally felt the need to avoid her family.

But she was torn. She did not want to give up on her family. She wanted to go home on a regular basis, participate in holiday gatherings, and be the good daughter and sister she always wanted to be.

Multiple friends of mine commented to me that reading Educated was a frustrating experience for them. They didn’t understand why Westover kept going home, over and over, even after she realized that her family’s treatment of her constituted abuse. But I felt that I understood her dilemma perfectly. It’s important to think about things from her perspective: the inside perspective. She clearly loves her family. She clearly wants to do everything in her power to contribute to positive family dynamics.

But she also clearly loves the sovereignty over her life that her education gave her: her newfound, spectacular ability to recognize the facts of the situation, without merely getting caught up in the emotional knots her family was tying.

Westover was so torn by her dilemma, in fact, that she wrote her PhD dissertation on it. She studied historical texts with the goal of answering this question:

“What is a person to do . . . when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations—to friends, to society, to themselves?”

And she comes to the conclusion that family obligations do not, cannot, automatically trump all other obligations. I am reminded here of the man suffering from schizophrenia who realized that he needed to estrange himself from his family in order to move toward better mental health. And so sometimes a person must sever ties so as to avoid severe damage to the self.

But there is an amazing silver lining here. Without giving away the end of Westover’s memoir—which is fabulous, by the way—I would like to note that people come out of the woodwork to support her. And back when she was attending the university, people similarly came out of the woodwork to help during times of desperation and need.

I don’t think this was just phenomenally good luck, though she did experience her share of that. I think that there are tons of good people in the world who are more than willing to help, if you are only able to recognize who they are, and that you might need it. People have come out of the woodwork in my life, and I’m sure they have in yours, as well. Sometimes it’s more about figuring out who in your life is being helpful and who is being harmful, and making decisions accordingly.

Surely we can no more condemn Westover for trying to keep up her family ties, than for ultimately letting them sever. Talk about a rock and a hard place. But this is the stuff real life is made of.

Who is in your woodwork, waiting to pop out and support you, even now?