Book review: Educated by Tara Westover
Days later, I am still processing this book.
You’ve probably heard of it by now; Educated was recommended by former president Barack Obama himself and continues on the New York Times best sellers list. It’s the story of a girl raised on a mountain by parents who were religious extremists and survivalists. Tara Westover was born at home and never saw a doctor or nurse. She had no birth certificate. She never went to school. Her father stockpiled rifles, food, fuel, and military gear on their property, preparing for the day that he and his family would have to stand up to the “the Feds” and also survive the apocalypse (or “Days of Abomination,” as he called it). The father preached an extreme, fundamentalist, and decidedly idiosyncratic personal version of Mormonism which his wife and children all accepted. And yet in spite of violence, neglect, and ignorance, Tara Westover decided to go to college. She studied for the ACT on her own, from a book, and when she walked into the testing center she didn’t even know what a bubble sheet was. But she scored high enough to earn admittance to Brigham Young University, where she would later win a scholarship. Educated is her extraordinary story of journeying from that lonely mountain in Idaho to college and then the halls of Cambridge University and Harvard; from a child who unthinkingly accepted what her father told her to someone who questioned and pushed back on the world-narrative she’d been given. It’s a painful story of family and trauma, and also a tender story of family. It’s infuriating, inspiring, heartbreaking, breathtaking, and beautiful.
What also strikes me is how compassionate and generous this memoir is. Despite all the neglect and violence, the sheer lunacy, in their lives, it is clear that there was love in the Westover household as well. There were close family meals together, and laughter. Through neglect and an absolutely willful, delusional disregard of danger, the father allows horrific injuries to repeatedly happen to his family. (“I’m not driving faster than angels can fly,” he says at one point, when he’s speeding through a snowstorm on icy roads and his family begs him to slow down. He says this just before he rolls the vehicle right off the road). And yet the parents truly believe they’re doing the right thing when they treat concussions and even severe burns with the mother’s herbal remedies. (The scene where they treat a son’s severely burned leg at home, cutting away dead skin without painkillers as the son weeps, is one of the most horrific and infuriating scenes in the entire book). The father sees the nearby town as a place filled with temptations and corruption. Yet when his daughter’s talent for singing is discovered, he vows to do whatever it takes to get her to an audition for a musical in that town. He attends every musical she sings in, sitting in the front row, his eyes shining. When Tara moves to Cambridge, England to study after her college graduation, her father takes her to the airport and hugs her tight, whispering in real fear: “If you’re in America, we can come for you. Wherever you are. I’ve got a thousand gallons of fuel buried in the field. I can fetch you when The End comes, bring you home, make you safe. But if you cross the ocean. . .”
Love can coexist with abuse. Tara Westover’s memoir makes this plain, even as she illustrates this truth with subtlety and depth. As Tara learns more about the world, as she studies history, she naturally begins to question all that her parents taught her. She grows slowly away from them, yet the real break occurs when she tries to confront them about the physical and emotional abuse which an older brother had inflicted upon her for years. Her parents deny that the abuse ever occurred. They gaslight her; they say that if it happened it wasn’t so bad, that she should forgive. And even the depiction of her brother’s abuse, awful as it is, is suffused with complexity. Tara shows the good times with her brother, too; how he was tender and kind to her when she was a child. How he saved her from a runaway horse. How he stood up for her against their father, when the father tried to force her to use an extremely dangerous piece of equipment in his metal scrapping business—a piece of equipment nicknamed the “Shear” because that’s what it was: a three-ton pair of scissors that seemed likely to pull her in and take her head off. How her brother, frail from a head injury, used the Shear in her place in order to protect her.
How that same tender brother broke her wrist, choked her, pushed her head into a toilet, and repeatedly called her a whore.
Tenderness can coexist with abuse. Love can coexist with abuse. That doesn’t make the abuse okay.
The last time that Tara sees her father, she writes:
He gave me a stiff hug and said, “I love you, you know that?”
“I do,” I said. “That has never been the issue.”
Educated is an enthralling journey, and often edge-of-the-seat tense. Though there is heartbreak, there are also many angels that Tara meets along her way. Her elder brother, Tyler, who was the first to break away to college and show her an escape, who encouraged her and supported her when the rest of her family did not. The college roommate and friends who helped her to adjust to a new world; the college bishop who wouldn’t let her drop out, the professors who saw her talent and who took her under their wings. This is a memoir of family, and coming-of-age, and of education in the finest sense. As Tara says in her own words of her education:
“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."