Book Review: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Book Review: Educated : A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018) 5 Stars *****

Told from a heart broken by wretched memories, the story begins with seven year old Tara and takes us through adulthood. Born and raised in the remote mountains of Idaho in an extreme Mormon fundamentalist/survivalist family, Tara learns to hate herself as she and her family wait for the End of Days. Even after all of her successes, it takes her many years until she can accept herself as deserving of the opportunities and accomplishments afforded her. Carrying emotional and physical scars throughout her life, we see once again that when a child is abused by a loved one, they do not grow up to hate that person, they grown up to hate themselves. The truth is: We never truly escape our upbringing, no matter how far or how fast we run.

The family does not believe in birth certificates, hospitals, doctors, insurance, public education, western medicines, supermarkets, cleaning, organizing, or questioning patriarchal authority. The children are primarily home-schooled to a point, but the education stops before they are reading, writing and doing basic math problems at a level of literacy. Tara is seventeen years old until she attends a school full time. The siblings are divided in their desire to be educated. Three of them, including Tara, desire higher education and life’s work outside of their parents’ closed world. Tara’s father is more accepting of this decision for his sons, but believes Tara’s aspirations are the work of the devil and an abomination against the Mormon religion. Tara is called a whore by her father whenever she expresses a desire to attend school. He does not understand or accept her desire for more than marriage and motherhood.

Tara and her six siblings are expected to work in the family businesses. Living under the thumb and in the shadow of their father’s junkyard/scrap metal and gasoline siphoning businesses occupies their existence. The main problem with Tara’s father? He is bi-polar and unconcerned about the unsafe conditions under which he forces even his young children to work. He refuses to allow protective helmets, heavy gloves, proven-safe equipment, or methodical procedures. He forces them to work with flammables as he unconcernedly uses acetylene torches and other igniters nearby. He even forces ten year old Tara to ride on top of a pile of junk as he dumps it and Tara into a container, impaling her leg with a metal spike. As a result, his children suffer broken bones, burned bodies, brain damage, scarred and disfigured faces and body parts, and loss of limbs and fingers. Name calling destroys self-esteem. Threats of physical violence, not only from Tara’s father but also from one of her bi-polar further brain- damaged- from- accidents brothers, destroys aspirations.

Tara’s father’s stubborn decisions resulted in two serious car accidents while returning to Idaho from a family visit to Arizona. He decided twice to make the long journey by driving through the night. Tara’s father forced one of his sons to drive despite protestations of fatigue. Tara’s mother was seriously brain damaged during this first accident. Even after the tragic events of this first time decision, Tara’s father demanded the same departure from their second trip even though they would be driving into dangerous white-out blizzard conditions. Their car went off the road and the family received serious injuries once again. His reaction? Not his fault. Not a bad decision at all. Things happen.

The main problem with Tara’s mother? Tara’s mother is a celebrated mid-wife and herbalist/healer which serves to bring in most of the family income. Self-centered. No backbone. Untrustworthy. Manipulative. Although she sees the cruel exploitation her husband imposes on her children, she does little to stop him. To add insult to injury, she has a different story for each person she speaks with. She promises her children to back them up, then recants and plays a bait and switch and presents the opposite of the truth to extended family members. She backs up her husband, no matter what.

Somehow, Tara works her way to success by part-time jobs, independent study, self-teaching, attending classes and schools of higher education. Tara receives a lot of help from college professors—guidance, advice, scholarships, grants, and other financial aid, opportunities to study abroad and eventually is graduated from Cambridge in England as a brilliant scholar, and goes on to Harvard for a PH.D. Tara also has an exceptionally beautiful singing voice which she recognizes as a gift. You would think a highly acclaimed scholar with an angelic singing voice would be able to shed her past for a sense of pride. and happiness. But, no. On paper, Tara notes her accomplishments and talents, but this intellectual assessment never makes it to her heart.

Tara is a loner and does not make friends easily. She is unsophisticated in social graces. She wears black pants and a black blouse at a black tie dinner at Cambridge, having no idea how a woman should dress for such an occasion. For many years, she bathed once or twice a week, never using soap. She became a pariah for openly not washing her hands after using the restroom. She never cleaned up after herself, threw out rotted food, washed her dishes, wore anything other than men’s oversized jeans and shirts. She smelled bad. Her home smelled bad. Although Tara knew she did not fit in, she hardly asked for guidance and persisted in being herself, believing that it was her prerogative.

Despite the emotional pain and physical threats she endures during her visits, Tara continues to visit her family periodically, attending funerals and family holiday dinners. Her parents sometimes visit her at school but it always ends badly. She often gives up hope and vacillates between achieving her goals and giving in to her father’s demands of mediocrity and conformity within his extreme belief system. Eventually, Tara walks away and does not look back until she has achieved her highest honors. The price she pays is high. She gains herself but loses her family. In time, Tara reconnects with her two education-minded brothers and an aunt. Her parents have spread the rumor that Tara is demonically possessed and that they fear for their safety. Many of the relatives accept this, so she is permanently ostracized from that group.

This is an amazing story. Hard to imagine that someone in this situation can accomplish so much. It demonstrates how outside help from powerful, well-placed people can turn a person’s life around and put them on a path to success and accomplishment. The sad thing is that Tara tells her story as a robot, lacking emotional connection to her diary entries. It reads like a newspaper account, devoid of feelings. The words are there, but the pain is buried so deep, that Tara must disassociate herself from the events. Although Tara is aware of her amazing accomplishments, she is not happy inside. The book ends as it begins with facts, not feelings. What of Tara’s personal life? It would seem she does not have one.

What was the result of Tara’s education? She now knows that discovery and knowledge do not lead to brainwashing. It’s possible to read and learn, then analyze and dismiss. Exposure does not mean acceptance. This is something Tara wishes her father could accept.

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

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