Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: A review

"...You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”  - Tara Westover in Educated: A Memoir.

I don't often read memoirs or autobiographies. I prefer fiction. It's more honest, I think, with less egoism, narcissism, and self-righteous self-regard. But this book kept staring me in the face everywhere I looked last year and, at the end of the year, it kept turning up on everyone's "Best of 2018" lists, including Barack Obama's. What could it be about the book that readers and critics found so compelling? I decided I had to find out.

Educated is the story of the youngest child born into a Mormon family of seven children that lived in the shadow of a mountain in southeastern Idaho. It's an area where most of the residents, it seems, are Mormons and very strict and conservative Mormons at that. But none are quite as strict or conservative as the Westover family, a family ruled by the iron hand of patriarchy in the form of the father.

The patriarch had grown up at the base of that same mountain and, when he married a girl from the nearby town, they just moved further up the slope. As the children started coming, he began to lose his grip on reality and to slip into paranoia and schizophrenia. He became a survivalist and spent his time preparing for the end of the world, making sure that his family would have sufficient food and fuel to survive while everyone else perished. 

The first three children had had their births registered and had actually started to school, but by the time the fourth child came along, the family no longer registered the births and the first three children were pulled out of school. The last four born never attended. The father was determined that the government not know of them or be able to track the family.

All the family worked in the father's business of building barns, sheds, and other outbuildings or collecting and selling scrap. They also helped the mother with her herbalist business. She was a gifted herbal healer and also, somewhat reluctantly, became an assistant to a midwife and then a midwife herself. Unlicensed, of course.

All of that on its surface might sound like an idyllic and iconic western family existence. But surfaces can be deceiving.

The children learned to read from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but they received no further education except for that provided by their daily lives. Moreover, the patriarch insisted that everything was in God's hands and he refused to adhere to even minimal safety precautions in his work or to insist on them for his children. He saw no reason for things like seat belts in cars or helmets for motorcycle riders. The result was a catalog of horrible injuries for the family members. Legs sliced open, fingers lost, terrible burns that left victims permanently disfigured, and repeated head injuries to one son. Moreover, the patriarch refuses to allow any of the injured, including himself, to receive care from physicians or from a hospital. Instead, they are put into the care of the mother/herbalist for healing. 

But the family dysfunctionality goes much deeper. That son with the head injuries is called Shawn in the book. His personality was volatile and unpredictable. He was a bully. As the years went on and the head injuries mounted, he became a super-bully. He was violently abusive to Tara. She suffered all manner of injuries, including cracked bones as a result of his attacks. And through it all her parents did nothing! They made excuses for him. Nothing was ever his fault.

The patriarch was never physically violent in his abuse, but he verbally practiced mental and psychological abuse. Tara writes that he was - and, I guess, is - bipolar. That's her diagnosis. He never saw a doctor and never got any treatment.

This is a harrowing and disturbing tale, and yet there is a rainbow at the end of all these storms for Tara survived. She not only survived; she thrived. 

At 16, she determined that she would go to college, even though she had never been to school. She had to pass the ACT with a score of at least 27 to be accepted at BYU, and somehow she managed to do that. She was supremely unprepared and overwhelmed, but she persisted. She found mentors and others who were willing to help her and she graduated. Through the good offices of one of her professors, she was accepted for a fellowship at Cambridge University and later another fellowship at Harvard. Ultimately, she returned to Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. in historiography.

The downside of this story of educational success is that during all of it she was returning periodically to her Idaho family where she continued to suffer abuse. Only belatedly was she able to break away, cut ties with all except for three brothers who had been supportive, and cross what had become an ideological chasm to get on with the new life that she had made for herself. 

But as I finished reading Tara's uplifting story, I was struck with the thought that the rest of her survivalist family are still there on that Idaho mountain and her violent brother, Shawn, is still free to abuse people - people who now include his wife and children. And so it continues into the next generation. It is a sobering conclusion.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Comments

  1. I have read at least two books about Mormon kids who broke away. They were both horrific and then uplifting in a way, because as a reader I was wanting them to break free. I don't know that I can take another one. I actually know a few people who were raised Mormon and who turned out ok, but they were from the "mainstream" side of the religion, though they too have issues. Then there was The Glass Castle. Sobering is the correct word, I think. Mind control comes in many forms.

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    1. This book is very well written and certainly deserves the praise it has gotten. But it was utterly appalling to read of how completely the obviously mentally ill father controlled the thought processes and every aspect of life in this family, even of his wife who was obviously an intelligent and gifted woman. In the philosophy which he espoused men were always dominant and worthy and women had essentially no value except as wives and mothers. His wife's work as a healer was apparently seen as an adjunct to that role. Both of his two daughters and at least one of the younger sons were physically abused by his violent son, and the parents MUST have been aware and yet they did nothing to stop it! It's just mind-boggling. I, too, know Mormons, but they are not batshit crazy like this guy.

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  2. Powerful stuff. It seems that you agreed it's a great memoir.

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    1. When you consider what this woman had to overcome in order to achieve what she has, it really makes you marvel at the strength of the human spirit.

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  3. I thought it was well written but I agree it is sobering to think of families dominated by mentally ill people (enabled by religion I guess). Cheers

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    1. I found it hard to read at times. Whenever she was headed back into that awful situation, I just wanted to shake her and say, "Don't do it! Run!"

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