- What: Educated
- Who: Tara Westover
- Pages: 334, hard cover
- Genre: Memoir
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
Educated was one of those books that I was a wee bit hesitant to read. Since it was released in February 2018, I’ve seen it everywhere: in the windows of bookstores, every time I log into Amazon, on all of the lists, and even on Ellen.
Could a book really be this good? You know I’m a skeptic! Furthermore, could a memoir be this good? Then, I wondered if I’d had a change of heart about the genre. Before Educated, I had read three memoirs in a little over a year; that totaled the amount I had read in the previous 10 years. With Michelle Obama’s, Tiffany Haddish’s, and The Glass Castle now in my repertoire, did I want more, or did I prefer to not take the risk (I had been choosing the best of the best in the genre after all)?
I’m thrilled to say that Tara Westover’s devastating yet uplifting book about her unorthodox upbringing and her even more unorthodox rise to success and happiness fell right into line with the above-mentioned books. I’m also happy — yet still slightly weary — to report that Educated has shifted my opinion of its genre. My negative feelings toward memoirs are a thing of the past, and I think I’m onboard — or at least in line to board. Let’s be honest: I’ve always been a little late to the party.
“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.” — Educated
Tara Westover came from a large, fairly tight-knit family whose patriarchy was an extreme survivalist and radical Mormon — his church’s own teachings were far too lenient for what God had planned, according to her father. He denounced anything related to the government, including hospitals, doctors, stable employment, gun control, and schools; fervently believed in the Illuminati; and was convinced that the world would end with Y2K.
With the above ruling her life, Westover grew up in Idaho at the base of a mountain and worked in her father’s junkyard with her brothers; during her teenage years, she would join them at construction jobs that would leave her in serious danger. They endured brain trauma, third-degree burns, broken bones, and too many crazy and unfathomable injuries to count because her dad didn’t take safety seriously. She should have been spending her days learning in a classroom and socializing with kids her own age, but because her parents rebuked formal education, she never entered a school.
Eventually, Westover discovered she wanted more and started questioning the edicts her father would dictate on the family. And maybe college was her way out. So she started studying on her own and signed up for the ACT. Although she had reservations still about traditional schooling, she reasoned that she could only get into college with God’s help; if she did, then He clearly wanted her to attend.
It was God’s will.
She studied undergrad at BYU where she struggled to understand major events, such as the Holocaust, which she’d never heard of before, and social norms, such as washing her hands after using the bathroom. But she persevered and went on to obtain her PhD from Cambridge.
Along the way, Westover found her true self and realized that her abusive and unconventional upbringing did not have to define her. She could be an educated woman who chose her own path; even if that meant estranging the family she loved, it was necessary for her future and well-being.
“What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.” — Educated
I have so many feelings about this book, and it’s hard to put them into words and to know where to begin. Too often I found myself shocked with my jaw dropping to the floor. What point do I even make first? Let’s start with the basics: Westover’s lack of schooling.
I loved school as a child. You can call me a nerd or a geek, but school was one of the best parts of growing up. I loved learning and still do. Therefore, I can’t understand how Westover never went to school. Really, I don’t comprehend it. This point makes me ache for this little girl who clearly possessed aptitude, knowledge, and curiosity and who would never know the happiness that school potentially bestows. No child should have to grow up without that opportunity.
Despite my anguish — or maybe because of it — Westover’s story possessed and awed me from the get-go. I was transfixed by every little detail she injected into her upbringing. Her writing was so vivid and so graphic. It placed me right at the foot of the mountain, right in the junk yard.
I squirmed when she or her brothers would hurt themselves because her father refused safety measures on the job. I nearly cried when she described the abuse and physical pain at the hands of her brother or when she chronicled the mental breakdown she experienced after being alienated by her family. And then I too felt fully empowered when she overcame every hardship unfairly placed on her.
“The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.” — Educated
Educated went beyond descriptive writing though. Westover also mixed her impressive storytelling with beautiful and philosophical insight in every scene. By expertly combining her talented writing skills with that brilliant mind, she could analyze her own life honestly while maintaining high intrigue. I don’t know how she made such analytical thoughts so incredibly emotional and powerful, but she did so with nothing feeling over the top or forced.
“This story, remarkable as it is, might be merely another entry in the subgenre of extreme American life, were it not for the uncommon perceptiveness of the person telling it,” wrote Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker. “Westover examines her childhood with unsparing clarity, and, more startlingly, with curiosity and love, even for those who have seriously failed or wronged her.”
Westover’s story is an unusual one, and it’s something that should be told. It can be easy to dismiss Educated and say that a book is only as good as the story behind it (or to mistrust it, which I certainly do not). Sure, Westover didn’t choose her made-for-media upbringing, but this book is so much more than that, and that’s a very unfair assessment. Without Westover’s storytelling, perceptiveness, and wisdom, this would be just another collection of interesting anecdotes. Her book inspires and connects us, and it humanizes those who are different or understand things in an unconventional way. These are some of the many reasons Educated deserves every ounce of praise it’s ever received.
And if I don’t stop talking about how much I love and appreciate this book, I never will. I could go on and on and on …
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” — Educated