Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
Published February, 2018 by Random House
From Goodreads: An unforgettable memoir in the tradition of The Glass Castle about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University
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. 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.
There are some books that hit you like a rock to the head– there’s the initial shock, and then you can’t think of anything else. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, but the event lingers in the mind long after the blood stops flowing. I know this because someone once threw a rock at me. Twenty-plus years later, I still have the scar. Tara Westover’s debut memoir, Educated, reminds me of that rock, and not just because Westover speaks of her own scars, both physical and mental. I’ve experienced the shock of the book, and now I can’t help but turn it over and over in my mind, wondering just how it all happened.
Tara Westover was the youngest of seven children. She did not have a birth certificate until she was nine years old, didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, and through unfathomable hard work and persistence, she earned a spot in BYU and went on to receive her PhD from Cambridge.
Westover begins her story with some of her earliest childhood memories. Her mother becoming an apprentice midwife in spite of the medical and legal dangers she faced. Her father was a religious fundamentalist who stockpiled food and fuel because he expected the End Days to come at any time. He was so convinced that the outside world was corrupt and out to brainwash him and his family that he refused to take the children to the doctor, even after car crashes and other horrid accidents. He also refused to send them to school, assuming that whatever education their mother could give them would be enough. Westover’s mother taught them to read, but not much more than that. The children were on their own of they wanted to learn more than the Bible and how to survive on the slope of the remote Idaho mountain they lived on.
Three of Westover’s brothers made it off that mountain and into lives in the wider world. Westover only just made it out thanks to one older brother’s intervention. He helped her study for her ACTs, taught her what bits of mathematics and grammar that he could, and encouraged her to try to be more than what their father wanted her to be.
Educated is not an easy book to read. It is harsh and often violent. Westover’s father is a frightening man. His disregard for his children’s needs, wants, and even their safety is hard to fathom. But while Westover’s belief that he developed a mental illness can explain why he did all these things, she cannot excuse him for putting his faith before his family’s safety. And yet the bonds of family are hard to break. In spite of everything that Westover’s family put her through, she finds herself constantly going back to them even as she changes beyond their recognition.
This is not the story of a spunky young woman who strikes out on her own and crosses oceans with ease. This is also not a condemnation of the faithful. Westover admits her own flaws, her fears, and her self-doubt. She confesses when she doubted herself so much and felt like such an impostor that she nearly gave it all up and went home. There are no angels in this story, but there are people who believe they are God’s chosen few and destroy more than a few lives because of it.
Educated is a gripping story. The writing is elegant and paints a picture of an isolated childhood that almost seems benign you realize what this isolation is doing to the family. None of them realizes, really, how skewed their perception of the outside world is, nor how truly fraught and violent their own lives truly are. As much as I might have wanted to look away at certain points, I couldn’t put the book down because I needed to know what happened next. I had to know how Westover found a way out of her circumstances. At no point was her path an easy one. This was not an entertaining book and its ending, while satisfying, has no real sense of finality. It is a turning point, when Westover realizes that in order to move forward there are some things she must leave behind forever.
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”
– Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir