Educated has been on the New York Times Combined Print and E-book Nonfiction Best Seller list for over 33 weeks. It is also one of Time Magazine’s Best Memoirs of 2018 So Far
Educated: A Memoir is Tara Westover’s riveting account of how she went from growing up home schooled in a survivalist family in Idaho to PhD student of History at Cambridge. Westover is the youngest of seven children raised by parents whose goal was to live “off the grid” and who believed that the coming of the end times was immanent. Much of the book focuses on Westover’s education, or lack thereof, and it is incredible to read. But Educated is more than an account of going from no education to the heights of knowledge. This memoir is about reclaiming one’s personal history and recognizing when it is time to walk away from dangerously dysfunctional relationships.
The memoir is divided into three parts which take the reader from Westover’s childhood on the mountain called Buck’s Peak under the complete authority of her father, to her departure for university where her ties to family will be strained, and finally to her post graduate studies abroad and confrontation with her family. Part I deals with life on Buck’s Peak in the 1980s. The Westover children are taught to expect federal agents to descend upon them at any time due to their parents’ decision to homeschool. They prepare “head for the hills” bags and have ample supplies of food and fuel stored away. The dad is not just a conspiracy theorist who believes in the existence of the Illuminati, he is also a religious extremist. The Westovers are Mormons, but the dad thinks mainstream Mormons are “gentiles,” too worldly, having lost sight of true Mormonism. The Westovers do not trust modern medicine or doctors. Mom is a midwife and healer/herbalist who serves surrounding communities and eventually develops her own essential oils company. Dad is a builder and “scrapper” (junkman). “Homeschooling” is largely a self directed affair; the children have basic literacy and math skills, and a few books in the family library. They are expected to work helping their father, and many injuries result. This is largely due to their father’s disregard for basic safety measures. He believes that God and His angels protect them; when they do get hurt, it’s a test from God and they are winning because mom heals them. Accidents include Tara’s brother Luke setting himself on fire and severely damaging his own leg, an explosion that nearly kills her father, and two serious car crashes that the family experienced due to their father’s insistence on traveling at night. One crash led to serious brain injury for Tara’s mother (untreated). A couple of the older siblings left home to work, but one older brother, Tyler, is different, quiet and studious. He teaches himself math and takes the ACT, getting into college as a result. Shawn on the other hand has a volatile temper and is prone to physical violence. He can be kind but then turn in a flash. Tara’s early memories of him involve Shawn playing word games with her and teaching her self defense. Later, when Tara is a teen and gets involved in a community theater, Shawn will become a menacing presence in her life, criticizing her interests and her appearance, calling her a whore. Shawn’s ugly side comes out, and he becomes irrational and brutally violent. Do Tara’s parents not know or see how he is or do they know and not care? Tara learns to become stoic, to try not to feel anything, to be impervious to what is dealt her and be utterly self-reliant, but after Tyler encourages her to take the ACT and go to college, Tara will face inner conflict.
Part II covers Tara’s experiences at Brigham Young University, where education has a transformative effect upon her, but this new Tara is in conflict with the Tara of Buck’s Peak. Exposed to new ideas and unfamiliar history (the Holocaust, Ruby Ridge, the Civil Rights movement) and to Mormons who shop on Sunday, dress in clothing that exposes skin, and go to doctors/use modern medicine, Tara feels like a fish out of water and knows she looks like one. Tara’s goal was to study music and become a choir director, a job considered appropriate for a woman, but she becomes more interested in history, geography and politics — not womanly pursuits by some Mormons’ standards and certainly not by her family’s standards. Tara becomes a person divided; she is one person at BYU and another when she returns to Buck’s Peak. And her life at Buck’s Peak progressively worsens; her father and brother Shawn harrass her for being “uppity” and try to put her in her place. The physical and emotional abuse continue and Tara’s situation there becomes more dangerous. Tara’s BYU roommates try to help, as does a Mormon bishop. She eventually agrees to apply for government aid (a true betrayal of all the things her father believes), gets scholarships and a chance to study abroad. Traveling to England for a semester is another revelation. While she still feels like an outsider or an interloper, she also distinguishes herself in her studies and receives encouragement from professors. But how can this Tara exist alongside Buck’s Peak Tara, with a family that does not approve of what she does and is abusive physically and psychologically?
Part III follows Tara’s post graduate work on a PhD at Cambridge, and it is here that the conflict between family and personal fulfillment/desires reaches a crisis point. Tara learns that others in her family have been abused by Shawn but also that while her mother and father know, they will do nothing. Even worse, they think Tara is the sinful, wrong party in the situation. Trying to work on her research while also trying to keep a good relationship with her family rips Tara in two. She suffers depression and nightmares. Her attempts to talk to her parents about Shawn end up making her life even worse. Tara comes to realize that she cannot have both worlds and that in order to keep a relationship with her parents, she would have to submit to their version of reality, a version which stands in stark contrast with the facts and with her own desires for her life.
While Mormonism is an important part of Educated, the memoir is not about Mormonism per se. Rather, it is about unhealthy relationships, mental illness that goes undiagnosed and untreated, misogyny, and how all of these factors act upon a child as she becomes a young woman. To read this in the wake of #MeToo and the #IBelieveHer campaign surrounding Dr. Blasey Ford is to get a sense of why so many women suffer in silence, are afraid to speak up, and feel that the burden of making things right in dysfunctional relationships is on them. Tara Westover’s training as an historian is on display throughout her memoir as she consults historical sources, her own journals, and other family members’ memories in an attempt to piece together her own history as accurately as possible. The act of recalling and reliving these violent, depressing episodes from her life must have been painful for her. Yet, it must have been cathartic as well. Westover reclaims her own story; she finally gets to tell her truth — to a vast audience — and she does so with honesty and love. Even those who hurt her the most are never complete monsters; they are obviously ill, but if they cannot and will not admit that and get help, it would be dangerous for Westover to continue to subject herself to them. The decisions she makes are done with her own health and safety in mind. Educated is a courageous and fascinating look at one woman’s journey into the wider world, toward self knowledge, self-esteem and inner strength.