Book Review

Educated by Tara Westover

Publisher: Random House | Genre: Memoir, coming-of-age tale

It's an anguished story about growing up in the mountains of Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon/survivalist family led by a father convinced that the socialist government in every respect was evil.

Title: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Memoir, coming-of-age tale

First Publication: 2018

Language: English

Major Characters: Tara Westover, Gene Westover (Her Dad), Faye Westover (Her Mother), Shawn Westover, Charles, Professor Steinberg

Theme: Memory, History, and Subjectivity; Learning and Education; Devoutness and Delusion; Family, Abuse, and Entrapment

Setting: Idaho, Utah, Cambridge

Narration: First person


Book Summary: Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention of Tara Westover. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Book Review - Educated by Tara Westover

Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover is an anguished story about growing up in the mountains of Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon/survivalist family led by a father convinced that the socialist government in every respect was evil. As a family they prepared for “The Days of Abomination” and saw the opposition as The Illuminati. They lived pretty much “off the grid” for a long time—birthing at home (Tara’s mom is a midwife and herbalist; her Dad ran a junkyard). They had no birth certificates, no social security numbers, went to no doctors, had no contact with any media, and had no public schooling at all.

In the mountains she was defined largely by her father and brother, Sean, who were abusive, and throughout she painfully struggles with how to honor her father and his narrow, paranoid version of the world as she learned everything that was largely denied her.

“I believed then–and part of me will always believe–that my father’s words ought to be my own.”

This was a well-written, gripping story, and I never read these kinds of stories but it was highly reviewed and much awarded so I thought I would try it and am glad I did. But it was also really uncomfortable to read. It weighed on me as I read it. I thought of largely discredited memoirs and wondered if this would become one of those, as her story is hard to fathom–both the horrific parts and the successful parts–her escape is almost unbelievable.

She also has what she describes as a nervous breakdown at one point as her family thought she was evil and dangerous for not following her father’s dictates to live in the home and (dangerously) work for him as a scrapper. Her father is crazy and her brother Sean is crazy-violent, threatening to kill her, and no one agrees with her side of the story. A nightmare. And though she escapes this world, she never is entirely happy, as she loses her family—such as it is–in the process.

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

In her view, her mother, forced to become an unlicensed midwife by her husband, was a tower of womanly strength, devoted to her bipolar, authoritarian husband. The family had to bow to his will, paralysed by his delusions, or leave, and she eventually left. One trigger for Westover’s father, as it was for many survivalists then, was a paranoid interpretation of the Ruby Ridge “killing” of Randy Weaver, another survivalist. Early on, Dad interpreted the Holy Bible as telling him that, for instance, milk was sinful and they only used molasses and honey thereafter. He was crazy in so many ways, and only Tara had the strength to finally tell the truth about him and her brother. Everyone else in her family bowed down to him.

Tara Westover, almost unbelievably not only graduated from BYU, but went on to graduate with a PhD in History from Cambridge, becoming truly “educated” about herself, her family, and the world. At Cambridge a Dr. Kerry attempts to cure her of her impostor syndrome, recognizing her special talents and writer and thinker.

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

This book resonates with present time in the world where white supremacism, separatism, survivalism, fundamentalism, sexism, and mental derangement seem to be ascendant. At the university, in her first class she only had heard the name—Shakespeare, but had to drop it because it was a senior level course. She learned from a roommate that the reason she failed the midterm in Art History is that she had to actually read the textbook. She had never been in school of any kind!

In the university she learned of the Holocaust and slavery, really for the first time; she learned of bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, she learned of antibiotics and went to a doctor for the first time, she accepted a student grant from the government, all socialist acts her family knew the university and the government would corrupt her with. That she keeps going home where she has been threatened and hurt and lied to resonates with familiar abuse scenarios. But ultimately she finds the courage to go with her new life and not her old one.

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

I thought that The Glass Castle was the ultimate memoir for dangerous and negligent parenting, but Westover has managed to swipe that unwanted crown. Westover has a uniquely compelling, incredibly harrowing survival story – survival of religious fundamentalism, survival of emotional and physical abuse, survival of being thrown like a fish onto dry land into a world about which she knew nothing. That she not only survived but excelled in this world, studying at Harvard and receiving a Ph.D. from Cambridge, is a testament to her intellectual gifts as well as her courage. And as this memoir makes clear, an inborn talent for exceptional writing doesn’t hurt either.

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