Educated by Tara Westover was one of the biggest books of last year, so I’m a little late to the party with this one, but oh boy is it brilliant.
This is Tara’s memoir of her life growing up in a Mormon survivalist cult on a mountain in rural Idaho. Tara is the youngest of seven children, none of whom were sent to school by their parents. They weren’t home-schooled either, but worked instead in the family businesses. Her mother is an untrained (illegal) midwife and herbalist, and her father owns a junkyard. It was largely his authority and paranoia that drove the family to live a life of hoarding food, guns and gas, avoiding government in any form (including all schools and healthcare) and preparing for the end of the World of Men.
This book is an absolutely astonishing read. My mouth dropped open on almost every page because, for somebody so set against doctors and hospitals, Tara’s father makes unbelievably dangerous and reckless decisions. At one point Tara’s brother Shawn asks their father if he is actively trying to kill one of his children – and it certainly seems that way. The book is peppered with numerous anecdotes of exhausted night-driving, lethal junkyard machinery, horrifying accidents and shockingly graphic burns – all treated with herbs and tinctures, and leaving lasting damage as a result. There are also many accounts of domestic violence, mainly at the hands of Shawn, which are raw and painful and extremely difficult to read.
But the central theme of this autobiography is education, and I loved how Tara deals with this complexly. It would be easy to say that getting an education helped Tara escape the restrictive world she was born into, and she was objectively better off as a result, but it just isn’t that simple.
As she grew up, Tara started to become more interested in getting an education. She tried to study at home, but her father noticed and would make her work all hours to keep her from her books. One brother, Tyler, encouraged her to keep going, and introduced her to classical music – she describes the influence this had on her life in this clip from an interview with PBS (and she sings beautifully too!):
Eventually Tara managed to pass her ACT exam sufficiently well to get accepted to BYU, a Mormon university in Utah, and from there she went on to study and work in Harvard and Cambridge. But those achievements were very hard won, not least because she had to struggle with the pull of her upbringing all the way. It wasn’t as simple as getting educated, realising her parents were ‘wrong’ and forging off into a world of ‘right’. What’s astonishing is that she held two strongly opposing forces in her head all the way through her education: one that pushed her forward and told her she must learn, and another that pulled her back and said everything she was doing was heinous and a betrayal of God and her family. So where did that drive to learn come from? And how has she reconciled her adult self with the world she left behind? These are the central questions of the book, and they’re dealt with sensitively and with the attention they deserve. There is no one ‘hallelujah’ moment for Tara, but a long, gradual slog from small realisation to small realisation, until she looks back and sees how far from her child-self she has come. What’s more, these changes aren’t all gains; Tara has to pay a huge cost for the life she has chosen.
There’s so much that’s brilliant in Educated. It is by no means an easy read, but I felt totally drawn in by it and I’m still thinking about it now that I’ve finished. For me, education is one of the most important things in life – I’ve been fortunate enough to have studied two degrees, and to be currently studying a third, so I can’t imagine the person I would be if I had been denied those opportunities. Tara Westover gives an incredible account of a life without an education, and what she gained – and lost – as a result of getting one.
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