I’ve been hoping that I would read something amazing for my first Cannonball. I had heard so many good things about Educated that I put a hold on it in my library and was excited when I got the call last week, timed perfectly to be read over the long Thanksgiving weekend and become my fifty-second review. Educated is an incredible, thought-provoking memoir. Yet I find myself writing this review quickly not because I’m so eager to share my opinions with other readers, but because I need to move on from this emotional wreckage. I hesitate to use the word triggered, but this book needs to come with massive warnings. Anybody who has ever experienced physical, mental, or emotional abuse, or lived in close proximity to mental illness is likely to have a charged reaction.
Tara Westover grew up in Idaho with survivalist parents who were fundamentalist Mormons. These are the types of Mormons who think the regular Mormons are way too liberal. They didn’t believe in public schools or doctors; in fact, Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate until the age of 9. This proved difficult to get as nobody in her family could remember her exact birth date. She remembers the day her birth certificate came in the mail, “It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.” Her father buried supplies in preparation for the End of Days and her mother learned the art of healing using herbs and her personal energy. When her older brother Tyler declared his intent to go to college, her father was dismissive, declaring college to be extra schooling for people who were too dumb to learn the first time. Still, Tyler goes; if he hadn’t managed to claw his way out of his parents’ life, it’s likely that Tara never would have thought it possible either.
Westover’s life is one of overcoming incredible odds. That a girl with no education (though the family would say they were home-schooled, they never actually learned anything beyond how to read the bible and mix herbal remedies) could teach herself enough to pass the ACT, get into Brigham Young University, and then move on to prestigious post-graduate studies at Cambridge and Harvard is almost ludicrous. As I read, I found myself both hoping the story is completely true so that we aren’t made to endure another James Frey debacle, and at the same time praying that no child would have to experience an upbringing like Tara had.
What Westover’s memoir is really about, though, is the conflict between family loyalty and a shifting view of the world. To grow up under conditions of mental abuse and extreme child endangerment–conditions a child would accept and consider normal, because there is no alternative–and then to discover a world that suggests her family’s beliefs were not just wrong, but dangerous, sent Tara’s entire world into chaos. As a rational observer to the drama, my heart broke for her every time she gave her abusive brother and negligent parents another chance.
The abuse in Tara’s life is insidious. I started hating her father all the way back on page 65, when she is nearly killed helping him collect scrap metal in their junkyard. After putting her in an outrageously hazardous situation that resulted in her falling and hurting her back and possibly damaging her kidneys, he says “How’d you manage that?” Worse is her self-reproach: “I felt stupid. I should have been able to do it, I thought.” This is a mild example of the recklessness that her father exhibits toward the entire family, which results in the most horrific accidents you never knew people could survive. At university, Tara eventually learns about bipolar disorder and pieces together that her father is sick. In describing what it was like to live with him, she writes, “We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things could happen at any moment.”
The mental and physical abuse she receives at the hands of her brother Shawn escalates similarly. I only needed to read about his contempt for his girlfriends to realize this was a man who was going to leave a string of damaged women in his wake. His disdain for women, or indeed for anybody weaker than him, revealed a person who was likely to brutalize anybody in his path until he ended up dead or in jail. That he probably learned all this growing up with a mentally ill father does little to arouse sympathy.
Possibly worst of all the abuses, though, is the gaslighting. As Tara comes to understand that her life with her family was not “normal,” she attempts to confront them quietly, carefully, if only to spare Shawn’s wife from becoming the latest victim to his abuses. The family bond is so powerful and her father’s will is so strong that her mother turns on her, calls her deluded, and tries to convince her that she (Tara) is the monster. As of the publication date, Tara has still been making attempts to reconcile with her mother, who won’t see her daughter unless Tara is willing to see her father as well.
In the Author’s note, Westover expressly states that her memoir is not a judgement about Mormonism or any other religious belief. I take her at her word that her intent isn’t related to religion; yet, it’s hard to separate the abuse from the belief. Of course not all Mormons are like her father; however, a religion that seeks to control what women wear isn’t guiltless. Mainstream Mormons may not be using the words slut and whore to describe a woman wearing a tank top, but is the seed of the belief there? One of Tara’s male friends at BYU glibly states that he wouldn’t want to study law if he were a women, because women are just “made differently.” This book may not be a judgement on religion, but it’s hardly an endorsement.
There is so much to unpack in this book, I would need to write a book myself to express everything I feel about it. Even as I eagerly finish this review so I can return the book to the library and reset my mental equilibrium, I’m considering buying a copy to reread. This dichotomy and conflict of emotions is the very core of this memoir.