Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, details her unusual upbringing and the monumental journey to a new life, leaving the bizarre world of her youth behind.
Westover takes the reader along as she describes her life growing up with her fundamentalist parents in the rural mountains of Idaho. The youngest of seven children, she was born at home with no documentation whatsoever. She wouldn’t get a birth certificate until she was seven years old. Her parents were distrustful of the government and never allowed their younger children to attend public school, nor did they provide much of an education at home.
Parts of her account sound like a storybook existence of hard work and survival set to the backdrop of a breathtaking mountainside wilderness. However, every part of her family’s existence would come to be defined by her father’s unspoken mental illness.
As a young girl, Westover loved spending her time out in nature on the mountain and enjoyed the different types of work each season brought. This enjoyment, however, was often in contrast to her father’s bizarre beliefs, like his swearing off dairy products on behalf of the entire family based on his interpretation of scripture. At times, his bipolar disorder (as she would later learn was the name of his condition) dictated that the family prepare and stockpile food for the end of times. At other times, he would become isolated and withdraw from the family due to a deep depression. His prohibition of medical care and modern conventions like car insurance created turmoil for the family. He was a danger to those he loved due to the family rules and religious views he enforced. While some of her older siblings moved on and out, the younger Tara was left to endure the baffling and abusive atmosphere.
As an adolescent, Westover began to distance herself from her family, escaping to voice lessons and drama productions in town and even taking a job working away from her father’s construction and scrapping businesses. She and a particular book-worm sibling had always talked about attending school in town, although neither were brave enough to stand up to their father. At 16, with the encouragement of her brother, she managed to teach herself enough trigonometry to pass the ACT test. At age 17, she stepped into a classroom for the first time as a college freshman at Brigham Young University.
As I read about her struggles trying to exist in what seemed like such a foreign environment to her, I kept hoping someone (ANYONE!) would learn about her plight and recognize her need for some guidance in this new world. She silently forged ahead, unaware of some of the most basic and common habits of her peers, like washing her hands, going to the doctor, or even taking ibuprofen for a headache. It took many years and much confusion, but through persistence and dedication, she would come to find her niche in the study of history and historians. She graduated from BYU and went on to earn a Master’s degree and Ph.D. from Cambridge.
I was enthralled throughout by each vivid detail and every new discovery she made. By the end I was relieved that she found a way to escape the harmful environment into which she was born. The decision to become estranged from her parents was not an easy one and I felt for her as she grappled with the pitfalls of her new life. Educated is a fascinating glimpse into a very unusual perspective of the world and it reminded me to appreciate the relative ease of my own life, at least relative to what Tara Westover endured. I came away with admiration for her intellect, wisdom, work ethic, and brilliant storytelling of a life that is more complex and beautiful than any fiction could offer.
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