Educatedby Published 20 Feb 2018
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.
I’ve always prided myself on my ability to teach myself things. Whenever I don’t know a lot about something, I’ll read a textbook or watch an online course until I do.
I thought I was pretty good at teaching myself—until I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Her ability to learn on her own blows mine right out of the water. I was thrilled to sit down with her recently to talk about the book.
Tara was raised in a Mormon survivalist home in rural Idaho. Her dad had very non-mainstream views about the government. He believed doomsday was coming, and that the family should interact with the health and education systems as little as possible. As a result, she didn’t step foot in a classroom until she was 17, and major medical crises went untreated (her mother suffered a brain injury in a car accident and never fully recovered).
Because Tara and her six siblings worked at their father’s junkyard from a young age, none of them received any kind of proper homeschooling. She had to teach herself algebra and trigonometry and self-studied for the ACT, which she did well enough on to gain admission to Brigham Young University. Eventually, she earned her doctorate in intellectual history from Cambridge University. (Full disclosure: she was a Gates Scholar, which I didn’t even know until I reached that part of the book.)
Educated is an amazing story, and I get why it’s spent so much time on the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It reminded me in some ways of the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country , which I recently watched. Both explore people who remove themselves from society because they have these beliefs and knowledge that they think make them more enlightened. Their belief systems benefit from their separateness, and you’re forced to be either in or out.
But unlike Wild, Wild Country—which revels in the strangeness of its subjects—Educated doesn’t feel voyeuristic. Tara is never cruel, even when she’s writing about some of her father’s most fringe beliefs. It’s clear that her whole family, including her mom and dad, is energetic and talented. Whatever their ideas are, they pursue them.
Of the seven Westover siblings, three of them—including Tara—left home, and all three have earned Ph.D.s. Three doctorates in one family would be remarkable even for a more “conventional” household. I think there must’ve been something about their childhood that gave them a degree of toughness and helped them persevere. Her dad taught the kids that they could teach themselves anything, and Tara’s success is a testament to that.
I found it fascinating how it took studying philosophy and history in school for Tara to trust her own perception of the world. Because she never went to school, her worldview was entirely shaped by her dad. He believed in conspiracy theories, and so she did, too. It wasn’t until she went to BYU that she realized there were other perspectives on things her dad had presented as fact. For example, she had never heard of the Holocaust until her art history professor mentioned it. She had to research the subject to form her own opinion that was separate from her dad’s.
Her experience is an extreme version of something everyone goes through with their parents. At some point in your childhood, you go from thinking they know everything to seeing them as adults with limitations. I’m sad that Tara is estranged from a lot of her family because of this process, but the path she’s taken and the life she’s built for herself are truly inspiring.
When you meet her, you don’t have any impression of all the turmoil she’s gone through. She’s so articulate about the traumas of her childhood, including the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of one brother. I was impressed by how she talks so candidly about how naïve she once was—most of us find it difficult to talk about our own ignorance.
I was especially interested to hear her take on polarization in America. Although it’s not a political book, Educated touches on a number of the divides in our country: red states versus blue states, rural versus urban, college-educated versus not. Since she’s spent her whole life moving between these worlds, I asked Tara what she thought. She told me she was disappointed in what she called the “breaking of charity”—an idea that comes from the Salem witch trials and refers to the moment when two members of the same group break apart and become different tribes.
“I worry that education is becoming a stick that some people use to beat other people into submission or becoming something that people feel arrogant about,” she said. “I think education is really just a process of self-discovery—of developing a sense of self and what you think. I think of [it] as this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.”
Tara’s process of self-discovery is beautifully captured in Educated. It’s the kind of book that I think everyone will enjoy, no matter what genre you usually pick up. She’s a talented writer, and I suspect this book isn’t the last we’ll hear from her. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Wow! Tara Westgrove is one of the strongest, and bravest people I have ever read about! This woman grew up as the youngest child in a big survivalist, Mormon family, in Idaho at Buck Peak. So much danger for her in that life, mostly because of her father and one of her older brothers.
This memoir is so brutal at times and hard to read, your heart just breaks for this girl, and for some of her siblings.
Tara rises up to become extremely “educated” despite the fact that she never attended school, and was barely homeschooled.
Her academic achievements were fascinating to read about, especially with all the turmoil in her life.
Recommended!!!!! What a story!
Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for the advanced ebook!
A monumental memoir that should be required reading for all. The description doesn't do it justice. It's not about getting a PhD, it's about growing up in a family that doesn't believe in school, thinks doctors are a part of a sociologist conspiracy, and that any day the government will shoot them dead--if the end of times don't come first. The experiences Tara describes are horrific, yet oddly relatable--even if your family is nothing like hers (and let's hope it isn't). By the end, she has to come to terms with balancing family bonds and having the strength to see past their warped sense of reality.
There's really no words to describe it, but I'd start with moving, inspiring, shocking and un-put-downable. Stop wasting your time reading this review and start reading the book! IT'S SO GOOD!!!
Difficult to read. Impossible to put down. A powerful, powerful book that you shouldn’t miss. I can’t just leave it at that because Tara Westover’s story deserves more than those few words. I don’t often read memoirs, but when I do I want them to be told by extraordinary people who have a meaningful story to tell and that would be faint praise for this book. It sounds odd to say how beautifully written this is because we are not spared of the ugly details of what this family was about, but yet it is beautifully written. I had to remind myself at times that I wasn’t reading a gritty novel, that Tara and her family were real as I got more than just a glimpse of a life that was hard for me to even imagine.
A religious fanatic father, hoarding food and guns and bullets and keeping his family off the radar, not filing for birth certificates, not getting medical attention when they needed it, avoiding the government, the feds at all cost , keeping his children out of school, the paranoia, the preparation for the “Days of Abomination” - this is what we find in this place on a mountain in Idaho. There are horrible accidents and he won’t get medical help for his family. Her mother’s healing herbs and tinctures are used to treat the slightest scrape to the most horrible head injury or burns from gasoline to an explosion. If some thing bad happens it because that’s the will of the Lord. Her mother seems at times more sympathetic to her children, but she is complicit by her subservience to her husband. I don’t even know how to describe it other than gut wrenching to see the effects on this family of neglect in the name of religious beliefs and in reality mental illness. It isn’t just her father but the brutality by one of her brother’s which is more than awful and creates rifts between family members,
That she was bold enough and somehow found the will to rise above it all while she is torn with the sense of duty, of loyalty to her family, the ingrained beliefs, still loving her family is miraculous. Going to college was the first time she’d been in a classroom, not knowing what the Holocaust was, learning about slavery, the depression, WWII, the civil rights movement. She doesn’t just get a college education but ultimately a PhD from Cambridge, a Harvard fellowship. She struggles for years to discover who she was, who she could be - a scholar, a writer, an independent woman. This is a stunning, awe inspiring story that will haunt the reader long after the book ends.
Thank you to Tara Westover for sharing yourself with us. I received an advanced copy of this book from Random House through NetGalley. Thanks to my friend Diane for bringing this book to my attention. Without her review I might have missed this.
"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.