Educated, Tara Westover. New York: Random House, 2018.
Summary: A memoir a young women raised by survivalists in rural Idaho, physically abused by an older brother, self-taught until entering Brigham Young, beginning a journey taking her to Cambridge, Harvard, ultimately at the cost of severing family ties.
She holds a Ph.D from Cambridge, has studied at Harvard, as well as receiving her B.A. from Brigham Young. And before her first classes at Brigham Young she had never set foot in a school classroom. She is Tara Westover. She was one of seven children of Mormon survivalists living in a beautiful mountain setting in rural Idaho. Tara did not have a birth certificate. Her father embraces theories of the Illuminati who had pervaded the Church and all government institutions. He rejected all traditional medicine other than his wife’s herbal potions, which Tara helped mix as a child. Food, gasoline, and guns were stockpiled and Tara slept with a “head for the hills” bag in anticipation of the End Times. An older brother, “Shawn” (a pseudonym), having suffered multiple head injuries, violently and sadistically abused her, stuffing her face in a toilet, calling her “whore,” and breaking bones. No one intervened.
Westover’s memoir has been on a number of “best book” lists and has been a recommended read by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. For all that, this is a painful book to read, yet inspiring at the same time. Tara’s exposure to unsafe working conditions in her father’s scrapyard and construction projects, the verbal abuse and emotional manipulation she experiences from her father and the physical violence of her brother are horrendous.
Yet her journey, from performing in local plays, to getting jobs not dependent on her father, to the effort to teach herself enough to pass college entrance exams, and her near-miraculous admission to BYU and subsequent scholarships hint at a voice, an agency within, a sense of self not controlled by her highly controlling family.
She quickly discovers the holes in her efforts at self-education and what little schooling she received from her parents. In one of her first classes she reveals her ignorance of the Holocaust. Yet those gaps become the impetus for curiosity, and not only educational discovery but self-discovery. She discovers symptoms that match her father suggestive that he suffered some form of bi-polar illness.
Another form of inspiration comes in the form of mentors who recognize the intelligence hidden in this uneducated girl–a bishop in her church who provides financial assistance and lets her talk, a professor who encourages her by taking her on a summer at Cambridge, a Cambridge academic who affirms the quality of her scholarship, a counselor who helps her put her life back together when the tension between what her family and upbringing say she ought to be, and what her own inner voice aspires to become so great she experiences a breakdown.
Reading the book helped me understand how abuse victims who have experienced horrid abuse can blame themselves rather than their abusers. Tara internalizes their view of her and the world (including her brother’s epithet of “whore”). It shows us how even deeply dysfunctional families can still have deep bonds to and upon each other. The memoir helps us experience with Tara her struggle to come to terms with the reality that she was not the problem, and with that awakening the necessity to refuse her father’s “blessing,” which signified maintaining a relationship with her parents, indeed her identity, on their terms. It meant severing ties with her parents and some of her siblings in order to affirm her own voice, her own life.
Much like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (review), both extended family and educational mentors play an important role in Tara’s life, providing a safe space for her developing sense of self. We also see the power of education at its best as her academic work helps her understand her own experience. Some will respond critically that her education resulted in both estrangement from family and walking away from her faith. It seems to me that both family and faith as she experienced these were toxic (she is clear to distinguish this from Mormonism in an author’s note). It is also the case that there may be future chapters of this story to be written. If this book is any indication, Westover’s account will be one of strikingly compelling prose.