Educated by Tara Westover – Book Review and Musings

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January 14, 2019

Educated is a memoir written by a young woman who was brought up in rural Idaho by fundamentalist/survivalist Mormons. She was the youngest of 7 children. Her family was theoretically home-schooling her, but the teaching was erratic and she mostly learned how to help her parents with their jobs – her father in the junkyard, her mother as an herbalist and midwife – and how to survive. Nonetheless, as a teenager, Tara mostly educates herself, gets a scholarship to Brigham Young University, and enters the outside world. She eventually gets to Harvard and Cambridge, England. The book is the story of her youth, and her later encounters with, and adaptation to, the rest of the world, her “Education”.

Tara’s writing is beautiful, especially her descriptions of the mountain that backs to her home and how she looks to that mountain to ground her. However, the book was excruciating to read, especially in the chapters when Tara was a child. But it was also fascinating. It is a window on a world that most of us have not seen, survivalists who live off the grid as much as possible. They don’t believe in formal education or in health care. Nonetheless, some manage to become educated, and to heal each other.

There are so many themes in this book that the reader can relate to, as this is a story about family, community and growing up. What values do you take from home and what do you leave behind? Who do you believe when what you learn is different from what you have been taught by your family? Everyone has to leave home eventually. The gap between Tara’s home and the outside world is so wide, that she has a hard time bridging them.

Tara’s family believed that God would provide and that if something bad happened to them, God would protect them. The faith of her father put her and her brothers at risk for accidents, as they did not use basic protections while working outdoors at the junkyard with heavy equipment. Both Tara and her brothers were seriously injured, then brought home for healing. As a physician, I thought that some of the recoveries were just short of miraculous. As a parent, I cringed while reading that this small child was not protected by her parents, but actually needlessly exposed to danger. My heart broke for that child who was subject to the whims of the adults in her life, and the realization that there was no escape.

Tara’s family did not uniformly treat her badly but she never knew which parent she was going to get, the one who let her perform in musicals as she had a beautiful singing voice, or the one who repeatedly denied her an education. And which brother would she get, the one who took her on his trucking trips and made up silly word games with her or the one who bent her arm behind her back and forced her head into the toilet? How do you love your family and protect yourself? Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic or addict or an abusive person has struggled with these questions.

Tara grew up in a Mormon community, but her parents were very conservative even by Mormon standards. Notions of sexual purity and modest dress were very important to them. What Tara absorbed was that who she was as a woman, and her feelings as a woman, were wrong. She describes her journey to become comfortable with her identity as a woman and how that affected her relationship with the church.

There are other themes that run through the book, fitting in and not fitting in, just being yourself, being independent but allowing others to help you, being willing to learn. How important it is that someone believes in who you are and who you can be. Where does one belong?

Tara kept yearning to go back to her mountain, but was it possible? And how reliable is memory? Tara, who became a historian, approaches the story of her life, as a piece of history. She knows that memories are often flawed and she tries to verify hers as much as possible, often using her journals or her siblings’ recollections to confirm her own.

Tara is still a young woman and her story is unfinished. The book is a description of her life to date and her attempt to put meaning and a story to what has happened to her so far. I would love to know what the next 10 years bring for her as she makes her way in the world and continues to grow up.