I’ve been away for a few wonderful days exploring the streets (and art) of Paris, a city in which I always regret I have never lived – as opposed to visited many times. One of my unfulfilled dreams was to spend a sabbatical there, but it never happened. Just a significant number of short trips associated with Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, his successor at ESPCI Jacques Prost, as well as various events associated with the L’Oreal/Unesco For Women in Science Awards; not to mention holidays such as this week but beginning with my honeymoon. It has many happy memories.
However this year the last day was marred by being struck with a migraine, and I returned feeling fairly under the weather. So I turned to some easy reading when I got home, and picked up a book I had been sent by the publishers (unsolicited) since it looked like light reading. ’Life Lessons from Remarkable Women: tales of triumph, failure and learning to love yourself’ it was grandly called. I could not get very far through these tales, which struck me as smug and clichéd. I wasn’t even sure how helpful it would be had I been many decades younger and looking for encouragement. Opening the book now at random, take a sentence like ‘I’m my own best friend. Weirdly, it’s not even a little bit scary to say that out loud any more…’ – does that make you feel any better? Or does it make you cringe? No doubt focus groups have established the market is crying out for a book like this, but it’s not for me despite what the publishers seem to have expected.
It’s a stark contrast to the rather more serious book I read while away, one of the books of the moment as it were: Educated, by Tara Westover and published by the same publishers as the lightweight book I’ve just rejected. Educated is an astonishing book of intellectual rags to riches, the personal account of a Mormon girl brought up without schooling but with severity and essentially suffering abuse (however lovingly applied), yet one who escaped. Not simply as far as the Mormon University of Brigham Young, but later to Cambridge as a Gates Scholar. How did this happen? This may sound like the kind of self-help book that might motivate the young struggler who is not on top of their exam revision – Westover had to sit exams without ever having had a formal lesson or knowing what to do with a multiple choice answer booklet – or who is trying to escape controlling parents (though few of us will have had control exercised upon us in quite such extreme ways). However, gripping – and terrifying – though I found the book, I’m not sure it will provide answers.
The great weight of the book is devoted to Westover’s early years where she was expected to help in a junkyard, doing daredevil things without, quite literally, any safety net. The accidents that befell her are relatively mild by comparison to others in her family – it’s not clear to me whether driving lessons featured in any of her sibling’s lives and car crashes were not infrequent and always horrendous. She certainly never mentioned being taught to drive yet, perhaps in the true American way, driving around became part of her life. Two of her brothers did escape to university and later PhDs, but they had been allowed some schooling. Westover herself seems not to have had a single day of that. Yet she taught herself enough to get into BYU and then, despite the kind of embarrassments that resemble those a Fanny Burney ingénue might have suffered when first going into society, she scrambled through so much more than adequately that she got scholarship funding sufficient to enable her to survive without parental support.
Many years ago I read a biography of Mary Somerville in which I faced the same frustration this book provoked in me (as I wrote about here). The crucial step of how a girl, who had no formal mathematics teaching somehow (in Somerville’s case) picked up enough maths to go on to be able to translate Laplace, was not to be found in Kathryn Neeley’s book. Fair enough, you might say, the author was not there and could not follow Somerville’s maturing brain. This is clearly not true of the author of Educated. She is the person who makes this transition and yet, other than working hard and at all hours of the day or night, how she grew to intellectual maturity remains – to me at least – a frustrating mystery. Furthermore, the maturity she demonstrated took her way beyond the confines of BYU to, ultimately and after various set-backs as she tried to square her own personal circle of family versus escape (again a moving read of breakdown and immense polarising tensions), a PhD from Cambridge and research at Harvard. If I were to hazard a guess I would say that it was the very fact that her upbringing/‘education’ had been so unusual that she could bring an extraordinarily innovative way to tackle the topic of ‘The Family, Morality and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890’ for her thesis. As she put it
‘In my account, history did not set Mormons aprat from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.’
But what of the hungry reader who wants to learn how to overcome their own specific battles? Is there any way that they can gain ‘inspiration’? I am no great fan of that word, inspiration, because
‘a person, place, experience, etc., that makes someone want to do or create something’
– to quote one definition – implies that it is external forces that inspire in an active sense. In general, you can admire others, you can wish to emulate them, but the act of creation and self-belief has to come from within. That is a lesson I have learned the hard way over many years (as some of my friends may testify). Force, of the sort Westover was subjected to by father and brother, may have kindled something within her to do something about her lot. But inspiration will not have made her or anyone else do something.
One can – and I certainly do – admire Westover for overcoming formidable obstacles. I hope her story will encourage others to think that, whatever hand of cards they’ve been dealt, there may be an escape route for them, enabling them to achieve their dreams if they look long enough and put enough effort in. Knowing others have beaten the odds may indeed provide role models to reassure you that you are not as stuck as it may currently appear. That, I know, is what some people mean by inspiration. But it is not sufficient to be inspired without putting in one’s own hard graft. For each of us, what that means will vary. Maybe for some believing you are own best friend may help, even if I found the few ‘life lessons’ I personally read by ‘remarkable women’ merely made it very easy to put that particular book back on the bookshelf and find something more congenial. Seeking to find whatever levers you can to take control, to inch forward as Westover had to do, may be a better life lesson for us all.