Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.
My take: 5 looks ***SPOILERS***
The above summary, taken from Goodreads, is so complete that the hard facts of this book are already in front of you. However, to read this book, for me, was to feel on a visceral level a mere fraction of the feelings that Ms. Westover experienced. To read this book for insight on the mentality of doomsday prep, anti-government sentiment, fundamental Mormonism, and militia ideology is to miss underlying truths of human nature, as well as asking questions about what sets some apart, and not others.
The first thing that struck me was the slow and steady descent of mother and father into a more fundamental and primitive way of thinking and living. In the beginning, they were just like “everyone else”. Nothing about their early days together were out of the ordinary in a Mormon life. The father, thought to suffer from both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, isolated his family more and more as his mental health deteriorated. In fundamentalist fashion, the mother followed him without question. There were moments of strength for her, like when she told Tara not to give up her goal of going to college, but other times she chose to remain maddeningly silent, like when Shawn was hurting Tara in the next room. While there was never a mention of the mother having mental illness, it seems to me that this was probable. I don’t owe it to her accident, either. I think she would have made these toxic decisions regardless.
The idea that caused me to close the book and ponder, though, was what set Tara apart from her peers in college. She obviously excelled, despite having no formal education until her acceptance to BYU. What was it about her papers, the style of her writing, the topics she chose and the way she presented them that caused her instructors to be so enamored? One paid her tuition and expenses to keep her in school. What did they see about this young lady that was obviously absent in others? The fact that she was first rejected for Cambridge leads me to believe that her background gave some of these professors an inclination to favor her. If you simply saw her application, essay, and admission criteria, she didn’t make the mark. However, if you met with her and got to know her … well, that made the difference. All of the instructors mentioned in the book are men, and I think they invested themselves in her success, as well as feeling a strong sense of protection for her.
This is NOT to say that Westover was handed her academic honors and degrees out of pity. She is obviously extremely intelligent, and spent much time studying and overcoming that which she had been denied growing up. She showed an innate hunger for knowledge, desire to overcome ignorance, and an unrivaled work ethic. She worked extremely hard and earned all of her accolades, once she got her foot in the door.
And all of this while remaining emotionally stunted. Years and years of returning to those who abused her, failed to protect her, and showed little-to-no concern for her well-being. Her deep and seemingly unseverable ties to her past, even in light of her increased knowledge and understanding in her new life, never really left her. What was that something buried so deeply within her that kept compelling her to return the the mountain she had called home? Why would someone so enlightened continue to go to a place where she is constantly sabotaged? Why would she struggle so when she finally can no longer lie and submit to her mother and father’s outlandishly harmful threats and accusations?
In the end, I can understand why Audrey behaved as she did. She was firmly entrenched in the family, with no real desire to leave, and seemed very easily persuaded. I found Erin’s email to the mother very confusing, in light of her conversation with Tara. I was pleased that Richard and Tyler remained stalwart brothers.
As for Tara, I saw glimpses at the end of the potential of a strong woman, with the desire to live life, finally, on her own terms. However, her past behavior and insistence on making amends with her family over and over again, leave me with little confidence that she will be able to leave that part of her life behind completely.
There is so much more to this book than the themes I have detailed. My advice? Read it!