If you grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, as I did, you may be shocked by Tara Westover‘s Educated, an account of her childhood and adolescence in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. I was. Again and again, I found my jaw dropping at the cruelty, ignorance, and superstition surrounding her. Yet Westover did far more than survive survivalists. Despite never attending school and receiving virtually no home-schooling, she has secured a PhD in intellectual history and political thought from Cambridge University. And two of her six siblings have PhDs as well. Her memoir, Educated, is an astonishing testament to the power of human potential.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018) 336 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
A remarkably candid memoir about growing up among survivalists
As memoir, Educated is unusually honest. Westover portrays her father as what I would call a raving lunatic. The man would hold out for hour after hour about the evils of the government, the Illuminati, and the Medical Establishment. On one occasion one of his bad decisions led to a tragic car crash that grievously wounded Tara’s mother. On another, his stubborn refusal to follow simple safety procedures with dangerous machinery nearly killed Tara and one of her brothers. Much later, he caused an explosion that nearly killed him. In fact, she notes that his behavior suggests he is bipolar—and that couldn’t be more obvious from her account.
Here is what Westover’s father told her one evening about her decision to go to college. “‘The Lord has called me to testify,’ he said. ‘He is displeased. You have cast aside his blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming.'”
But it’s not just her father who’s nuts. She details one incident after another involving one of her older brothers that make him out to be not just cruel and sadistic but dangerously violent as well.
A long, slow learning curve
Yet Westover is equally candid about her own failings. And her education into the ways of the world came slowly. She was sixteen before she began to learn much from any books other than the Book of Mormon and the Bible. In college at Brigham Young University, it was years before she learned to wash her hands after using the toilet. (“‘I teach them not to piss on their hands,'” her father said.) And even as a graduate student at Cambridge she was still learning how to relate successfully to other people.
Westover remained captive to the faith of her father even in college. “Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself,” Westover writes. “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.”
“Learning in our family was entirely self-directed,” she explains. “[Y]ou could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so that by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it.” He had somehow persuaded himself (and his family) that after civilization collapsed, they would be the only people capable of communicating. It wasn’t evident with whom they would communicate.
A powerful attraction to the land
In Educated, Tara Westover makes clear that her experience growing up was by no means all negative. For many years, and presumably to this day, she felt a powerful attraction to the land. “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain,” she writes, “a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”
Westover wrote this book at age twenty-nine. She was remarkably young to display such penetrating self-awareness. And her performance as a student both at Brigham Young University and at Cambridge makes clear that she is brilliant. That’s obvious in the book itself. She reveals, too, that she is a gifted singer. (One of the few ways she escaped total immersion in her family as a teenager was as a star in musical productions at a local theater.)
Educated was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review and one of the best books of the year by many other publications. It is definitely that.
For additional reading
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19.
You may also care to take a look at my post, 14 excellent memoirs reviewed here. Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up) and 10 enlightening books about poverty in America might also be of interest.
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