Educated: A Memoirby Published 20 Feb 2018
|Educated: A Memoir.pdf|
Tara Westover grew up preparing for the End of Days, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters rotating emergency supplies, hoping that when the World of Men failed, her family would continue on, unaffected.
She hadn’t been registered for a birth certificate. She had no school records because she’d never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records because her father didn’t believe in doctors or hospitals. According to the state and federal government, she didn’t exist.
As she grew older, her father became more radical, and her brother, more violent. At sixteen Tara decided to educate herself. Her struggle for knowledge would take her far from her Idaho mountains, over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d travelled too far. If there was still a way home.
EDUCATED is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes with the severing of the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has, from her singular experience, crafted a universal coming-of-age story, one that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers – the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.
Educated: A Memoir Reviews
When a girl raised on a mountain in Idaho by her survivalist fundamentalist Mormon family sets foot in a classroom for the first time at the age of 17, how will things turn out? Can she ever escape the past?
Yeah, I made that sound like one of the sleazy thrillers I'm fond of but Educated is a memoir, not a potboiler. I don't normally read memoirs but I decided to take Random House up on their offer when they came knocking.
Educated is the story of Tara Westover's childhood on Buck's Peak, a mountain in Idaho, and her eventual leaving the mountain behind to pursue and education. It doesn't sound very interesting when you say it like that but her upbringing was crazy. Raised by a anti-government survivalist and fundamentalist Mormon father, Tara's early life was anything but ordinary: little education other than learning to read, being nearly worked to death in the scrapyard by her father, tormented by her probably-schizophrenic brother, not even sure of her own birthday. And then she decides to go to college...
The first third of the book was pretty bleak. I kept forgetting it wasn't a work of fiction and wanted to see a couple people dead in the snow. Once Tara goes to college, it's her against her family's beliefs. We all know how hard people cling to beliefs, just look at the ongoing debate on who the best captain of the Enterprise was. Even though it's pretty clear that it's Jean-Luc Picard.
Tara's journey was a trip back and forth through the labyrinth of her family's beliefs and a conflict between her desire to belong and the desire for more than just being someone's wife on a mountain. One thing I quite liked was that she never dragged her family's Mormon beliefs through the mud even though it would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to do and pretty understandable given everything it cost her.
Parts of the book are heartbreaking and it makes the end that much more satisfying. Tara getting her PhD despite where she came from and what it cost her makes me think I've probably squandered some of the opportunities I've been given over the years. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only 7, but I understand that it is this fact more than any other that makes my family different. We don't go to school. Dad worries that the government will force us to go, but it can't because it doesn't know about us. Four of my parents' seven children don't have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we've never set foot in a classroom.Educated is both a tale of hope and a record of horror. We know from the first page of her book that Tara Westover is a bright woman, a gifted writer with an impressive, poetic command of language. But her early life offered no clue that she would become a Cambridge PhD or a brilliant memoirist. She was the youngest of seven children born to Gene and Faye (not their real names) Westover, fundamentalist, survivalist Mormons, in rural Idaho.
Tara Westover - image from her The Times
We had a farm which belonged to my grandfather, and we had a salvage yard full of crumpled-up cars which belonged to my father. And my mother was a - she was an herbalist and a midwife. And as children, we spent a lot of hours walking on the mountain, gathering rose hips and mullein flowers that she could stew into tinctures. So in a lot of ways, it was a very beautiful childhood. - from NPR interviewThe children constituted his workforce in Gene’s scrapyard. Father was the law in their household, but it was a rule informed as much by significant mental health issues as it was by his ardent religious beliefs. In a less rural, less patriarchal, less religious community, theirs could easily have been deemed an unsafe environment. The scrapyard was a particularly dangerous place.
…he just didn't have that bone in his head that said, this is dangerous; don't do this. And he had a really hard time understanding injuries even after they had happened and how severe they were. I just - I don't know what it was about the way his mind worked. He just wasn't able to do that. - from NPR interviewRuby Ridge had occurred when Tara was five, and fed her father’s paranoia. Everyone had to have head-for-the-hills bags for when the government, Deep State, Illuminati, choose your own boogeyman, would come for them. He had a profound distrust of the medical profession, believing that doctors were agents of Satan, intent on doing harm. He saw the herbalism Faye practiced as the only true, righteous treatment for one’s ills, calling her products “god’s pharmacy.” And he practiced what he preached, for himself as well as for his children, even after suffering a devastating injury. Maybe not an ideal way to make sure your kids reach adulthood in one piece.
View from Buck Peak - image from Westover’s site
Home schooling was also less than idyllic, with mom’s attention spread not only over seven children but to her work as an herbalist and later, in addition, a midwife. Luke had a learning disability, frustrating mom, who really had hoped to educate them all. Dad undermined this, dragging the kids out to do chores and learn practical skills. Eventually mom gave up. Education consisted of Faye dropping them at the Carnegie Library in town, where they could read whatever they wanted. Dad rustled the boys at 7am, but Tyler, who had an affinity for math, would often remain inside, studying, until dad dragged him out.
…there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that. - from NPR interviewSuccessful schooling or not, Tara acquired a desire for and love of learning. Tyler, a black sheep, not only loved books but music, as well. This was a major tonic for Tara, who was smitten with the classical and choral music her brother would play on his boom box. Not only did she find a love for music, but she discovered that she has a gift for singing. Being a part (often the star) of the town musical productions gave her greater contact with peers outside her family than she had ever had before. It formed one pillar of her desire to go to school, to college, to study music. (I included a link in EXTRA STUFF to a music video in which she sings lead, so you can hear for yourself.)
At age seventeen, Tara Westover attended her first school class, at BYU, clueless about much of what was common knowledge for everyone else, resulting in her asking a question in class about a word everyone, I mean everyone, knows. Oopsy.
Her intellectual broadening and education forms one powerful thread in her story. How her natural curiosity emerged, was nurtured, discouraged, and ultimately triumphed. The other thread consists of the personal, emotional, psychological, religious, and cultural challenges she had to overcome to become her own person.
The world in which Westover was raised was one in which a powerful patriarchy, fed by a fundamentalist religious beliefs, applied its considerable pressure to push her into what was considered the proper role for a young woman, namely homemaker, mother, probably following in her mother’s dual careers as herbalist and midwife. And what about what was the right course for Tara? There was some wiggle room. Once dad sees her perform on stage, he is smitten, and softens to her musical leanings. Male siblings had been allowed to go to college. But every step outside the expectations, the rules, came at a cost. Do something different and lose a piece of connection to your family. And family was extremely important, particularly for a person whose entire life had been defined by family, much more so than for pretty much anyone who might read her book.
Westover as a wee Idaho spud - image from the NY Post
A piece of this proscribed existence was a tolerance for aberrant behavior. Father was domineering, and was feckless about physical danger, even as it applied to his children. And distrustful of the medical establishment. His solution for infected tonsils was to have Tara stand outside with her mouth open to allow in the sun’s healing rays. Severe injuries, including Tara having her leg punctured by razor-like scrap-metal, a brother suffering severe burns on one leg, and even dad himself suffering catastrophic third-degree burns in a junkyard explosion, were to be treated by home-brew tinctures. He was also extremely moody, a characteristic that carried forward in some of the family genes.
Tara’s ten-years-older brother, Shawn, was a piece of work. She felt close to him at times. He could be kind and understanding in a way that moved her. He even saved her life in a runaway horse incident. But he had a reputation as a bar brawler, as a person eager to fight. Sometimes his rages turned on his own family. And it was not just rage, sparked by trivialities, but cruelty, to the point of sadism. Tara was one of the objects of his madness. Dare oppose him and he would twist her arm to the point of spraining, drag her by her hair, force her face into unspeakable places and demand apologies for imagined offenses. Possibly even worse than this was her family’s denial about it, even when it occurred right in front of them. It is this denial that was hardest to bear. If your own parents will betray you, will not look out for you, in the face of such blatant attacks, then what is the value of the thing you hold most dear in the world?
All abuse, no matter what kind of abuse it is, foremost, an assault on the mind. Because if you’re going to abuse someone I think you have to invade their reality, in order to distort it, and you have to convince them of two things. You have to convince them that what you’re doing isn’t that bad. Which means you have to normalize it. You have to justify it, rationalize it. And the other thing you have to convince them of is that they deserve it. - from C-span interviewHer brother, aliased as “Shawn” in the book, was a master manipulator, who, for years, succeeded magnificently in persuading Tara that what she had just experienced had never really happened.
One frustrating aspect of the book is Tara’s dispiriting, but also grating ability to doubt herself, to allow others in her life, bullies, to persuade her she does not think what she is thinking, that she does not feel what she is feeling that she did not see what she has seen. She was living in a gaslit world in which multiple individuals, people who supposedly loved her, were telling her that what she had seen was an illusion, and that bad things that other people did were somehow her fault. Honey, wake the hell up. How many time ya gonna let these awful people get away with this crap? That gets old well before the end. I was very much reminded of victims of domestic abuse, who convince themselves that they must have done something to cause, to deserve the violence they suffer. One can only hope that she has been able to vanquish this self-blaming propensity completely by now. Years of therapy have surely helped.
Tara at Cambridge - image from Salt Lake City Tribune
She struggles with the yin and yang of her upbringing and finding her true self. Her father was extreme, but also loving. Her abusive brother had a very kind side to him. Her mother was supportive, but was also a betrayer. Her parents wanted what they truly thought was best for her, but ultimately attempted to extinguish the true Tara. The dichotomy in the book is gripping. At times it reads like How Green Was My Valley, an upbringing that was idyllic, rich with history and lore, both community and family, and featuring a strong bond to the land. Their home was at the foot of Buck Peak, which sported an almost magical feature that looked like an Indian Princess, and was the source of legends. At others, it is like a horror novel, a testament to the power of reality-bending, indoctrination, and maybe even Stockholm Syndrome. How she survived feeling like the alien she was in BYU and later Cambridge, is amazing, and a testament to her inner strength and intellectual gifts. Westover caught a few breaks over the course of her life, teachers, one at BYU, another at Cambridge, who spot the diamond in her rough, and help her in her educational quest. Reading of this support, I had the same weepy joyful feeling as when Hagrid informs a very young lad, “Yer a wizard, Harry.”
When setting out to write the book, Westover had no clue how to go about it, well, this sort of a book, anyway. She had already written a doctoral thesis. But she did have stacks of journals she’d been keeping since she was ten. In figuring out how to get from wish to realization, one important resource was listening to the New Yorker fiction podcast, with its focus on short stories. And she took in plenty of books on writing. It is certainly clear that, just as she had the wherewithal to go from no-school to doctorate at Cambridge, she has shown an ability to figure out how to write a moving, compelling memoir. Educated is a triumph, a remarkable work, beautifully told, of the journey from an isolated, fundamentalist survivalist childhood, through the trials of becoming, to adulthood as an erudite and accomplished survivor. It is a powerful look at the ties, benefits, and perils of families. Ultimately, Educated is a rewarding odyssey you do not want to miss.
Review Posted – 3/23/18
Published – 2/20/18
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
Although the internet yielded no vids of Tara singing lead in her town’s production of Annie in the wayback, here is one of grown-up Tara singing lead vocal on The Hills of Aran with John Meed
----- C-Span - interviewed by Susannah Cahalan – video – 1 hour – If you can manage only one of these, this is the one to see
-----CBS This Morning - video – 6:41
-----Penguin promotional video – 7:01
-----Channel 4 News - 8:46
-----NPR - with Dave Davies – the link includes text of the interview. There is a link on the page to the full audio interview – 38:18 - This is the source for several quotes used in the review, and is definitely worth a look and/or listen
A sample of the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan, on Soundcloud
A brief interview with Westover and Whelan re the making of the audiobook - on Signature
"Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. 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."
- Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir
This book feels like it was written by a sister, a cousin, a niece. Tara Westover grew up a few mountains over from my dad's Heglar ranch. I don't know her. Don't know her family. She grew up about 70-80+ miles South East as the crow flies, but realistically, it was a 1.5 hours drive difference, and a whole planet of Mormonism over.
I didn't grow up in Idaho. I was born there and returned there yearly. But this book is filled with the geography, culture, behaviors, mountains, religion, schools, and extremes I understand. She is writing from a similar, and often shared space. I didn't just read this book, I felt it on every page. Her prose was amazing. The memoir danced at parts, while a couple pages later, I would be sent up for air. I often found myself having to talk through parts of the book with my wife while reading. It flowed. Some books seem to remove friction while you read. My wife abandoned work for a day to read it. It consumed us.
This book reads like a modern-day, Horatio Alger + The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography. However, it isn't just a book about how a girl with little formal education from a small town in Idaho makes it to Cambridge. It is also a tale of escape, and a historiography. Westover is using her own life to do a popular memory study on herself. She is looking at how she viewed her religion, her background, her parents, and her education. She explores how those memories and narratives change and reorient based upon proximity to her family, her father. These narratives especially begin to reorient as she becomes "educated."
I bought a copy and before I even read it, I gave it to my father to read (He grew up in Heglar, ID). Then I bought another couple and yesterday and today my wife and I raced to finish our respective copies. We bored our kids talking about it over two dinners. We both finished it within minutes of each other tonight.
Tara Westover's memoir hit me hard because of the struggle she has owning her own narrative. Through many vectors I related to her (we both graduated from BYU with Honors, were both were from Idaho, educated Mormons, and both have preppers in the family). My family, while sharing similar land, a similar start, and a similar undergraduate education, however, are not Tara's. And that is what made this memoir so compelling. It was like reading a Dickens novel, but one that was set in your neighborhood. It was moving, sad, and tremendous. In the end, I was attracted by how close the story felt, but I was also VERY grateful her story wasn't THAT close.
This one first came to my attention via a GR review. I thought wow, I need to read this now. The wonderful Traveling Sisters group set it up as a slow read and I was in. Grabbed a copy from NetGalley and was ready to go. BUT.....and a big BUT......I didn't like this one, I had to force myself to finish. Had it not been for the group read, I'm sure I would have DNF'd this one.
So I'm probably in the minority in not liking this one. It was more of a 'having a hard time believing the story' kinda thing. Tara details her life growing up in the mountains. She paints a picture of this wild child who doesn't bathe, or wash her hands after using the toilet (her grandmother had a fit about this), is quite ignorant, but yet...she self teaches herself to get into a prestigious college. She talks about her childhood and her parents seems so bad - no schooling, must work and earn money, her father seems to be a religious zealot who harbors a fear of the govt, her mother creates tinctures that cure people from near death. It just became a bit much and I was having a hard time believing it all. Multiple car accidents, severe burns, head trauma, and all cured with herbs. But then she wants to go to school, so she does...college, gets a PhD. Where did she get the money? They didn't seem to have much money. Yet, being in the 'mountain' rustic home, they had a phone, tv, internet. I dunno, it was just getting to be a bit much for me to believe. She ended up having multiple siblings teach themselves, go to college, and get advanced degrees. Really?
A memoir is defined as an autobiography or a written account of one's memory of certain events. Maybe this is how she remembers everything, maybe it really all happened this way. I really don't know. But it all just did not add up for me. I had so many questions about everything. I have a family member who remembers his childhood different from how I remember HIS childhood. So it happens. I'll just say thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of the read and this in no way influenced my review.
3 Sad to Say Stars 🌟🌟🌟
Ugh this is hard for me... I really am such a positive reviewer for the most part, but this book I unfortunately found disappointing.... this could be for multiple reasons, I went in with high expectations... I had read so many glowing reviews for this book I was expecting greatness.... also this is absolutely not in my preferred list of genres, but this also could’ve helped the book.... as I have very few books to compare it to.... I finished this book well over a week ago and I have sat on this review, because I just am not sure how to be honest without criticizing a persons life.... for this reason I may never read another memoir that I need to review, it is hard for me to separate the person from the book.... but I will try...
On a very positive note I thought the message of this book was wonderful education is extremely important.... it really is one thing nobody can ever take away from you.... I do admire Tara’s fortitude to acquire an education..... however there was a little luck involved here.... all I’m saying is the average person of average intelligence probably isn’t going to end up at Harvard.... no matter how hard they work.... clearly Tara was blessed with the intelligence to do so, and this was not addressed anywhere in this book... my father grew up with a single mother, his father passed away when he was one-year-old, they didn’t have much, but his mother forced him to go to at least one year of college and he ended up with a PhD in aeronautical engineering.... now I am very proud of my father he has accomplished a lot in his life and he is an amazing person, however he was also blessed with an amazing brain... apparently this skips a generation because my son was blessed with that same amazing brain.... all I’m saying is sometimes you need to give credit where credit is due.... if I had started college without knowing any algebra my freshman year I would have never made it through college much less ended up at Harvard, no matter how hard I worked..... so yes you should work hard, yes education is important, but you also need to be realistic with what your abilities are.... some of the hardest working people might end up at the local community college or not in college at all..... sorry that was a bit of a rant, rant over....
There are also some things in this book I found a little hard to believe.... however I will give Tara the benefit of the doubt on this, sometimes our perception of things isn’t exactly how things happened.... wow a lot of things could have been avoided if they just wore seatbelts....
But really in all honesty none of the things stated above cause me to not love this book, it just did not hold my attention.... I needed some light moments in the midst of all these horrible childhood memories.... even in the worst of childhoods there are some bright spots....
For me this book had a very positive message, however I would’ve preferred it to be delivered in a more positive and realistic manner.... and to all of you who love this book I am so glad you did! really I wish I had as well....
*** thank you to the publisher and Net Galley for a copy of this book ***