Book Review: Educated, by Tara Westover
This book is 329 pages long and I read it in 3 days. It’s hard to put down.
In Educated, the author tells her own remarkable life story. Her tale is one of escape from a violent and intensely isolated childhood in rural Idaho, attending college after receiving no formal education at all, then ultimately emerging with a doctorate in history from Cambridge University.
That Westover becomes a historian seems like no coincidence. She comes to realize that in her family, control is exerted by denying the reality of day-to-day events. When the oldest brother threatens the author with a knife, the parents simply retell the incident into something innocuous. Tara and her siblings grow up substituting their parents’ stories for what they have seen with their own eyes.
While Westover’s scholarship linked her Mormon heritage to currents in 19th century social thought, privately she struggled to define her personal history. It’s a painful challenge that brings on multiple personal crises, but ultimately she learns to acknowledge the reality of her own experiences:
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.
Westover’s father is a survivalist patriarch, a prophet for his own harsh variant of Mormonism, for whom the central fact of life is the imminent apocalypse. He keeps his children out of school and rejects modern medicine. In his world, all government is a malevolent force run by dark conspirators.
Instead of school, Tara works with her siblings in the family scrap yard and construction business. There we see the father’s shocking and willful disregard for his children’s safety, and his own. There are some horrific injuries, all of which only strengthen his religious conviction.
Her childhood is not all bleakness. There was much she loved about her mountain home. Her father could be affectionate when he put away his biblical persona. There were good memories with her mother and siblings. But in a way this makes it that much harder for her to make the final break that was necessary for her survival.
In one of my favorite passages from the book, the parents are visiting Westover at college. She takes them to dinner at an Indian restaurant, where her father launches into a rant:
Dad moved on from World War II to the United Nations, the European Union, and the imminent destruction of the world. He spoke as if the three were synonyms. The curry arrived and I focused my attention on it. Mother had grown tired of the lecture, and asked Dad to talk about something else.
“But the world is about to end!” he said. He was shouting now.
“Of course it is,” Mother said. “But let’s not discuss it over dinner.”
Westover’s journey through Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge is itself a captivating tale. Going to college was an act of rebellion, but initially she maintained her parents’ world view. She thought Europe was a single country and had never heard of the Holocaust or the civil rights movement. Fitting in was not easy when she believed that a myriad of everyday items, from Diet Coke to t-shirts, were deeply sinful.
Desperation drove her to overcome her fear of government and apply for student aid. She discovered that the help was liberating, rather than enslaving as her father had warned.
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.
Thanks to the support and guidance of friends and teachers, as well as her own determination and intellect, she triumphs. And while she breaks with her parents, she creates a new family of friends, mentors, and those relatives who are not under her father’s spell.
This is a powerful story about one person and one family, but it is more than that. Lies and willful denial are more powerful now than ever in our public discourse. Westover’s ability to overcome deception and self-deception in her own life is instructive and inspirational for all of us.