Published by HarperCollins Canada on February 20th, 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 crafted, from her singular experience, 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 usually only review Canadian books on MapleBooks, but the memoir of Tara Westover absolutely needs to be talked about. Educated is shocking, heart-breaking, but also extremely insightful and inspiring.
Tara was born the last child of a large family in Idaho, USA. Till she was 17, she never went to school. She worked with her father and siblings in a junkyard and on construction sites. She helped her mother making herbal remedies and even tried midwifery at 9 years old.
The memoir can be divided in two parts: first, her life as part of an isolated family, ruled by a father who is forever preparing for the end of the world or a random assault by the FBI. Second, her difficult and painful journey away from the family’s authority and towards academic success, culminating in a PhD.
There are so many aspects of Educated to talk and think about that it’s hard to put them together in a coherent, short review!
When it comes to her family life, a few strong themes really gave me food for thought.
The first one was the place of women in Tara’s family. Tara is supposed to be “modest”: talking to a boy or wearing a bit of lipstick bring insults from her family. She is also very much considered inferior to her brothers. She suffers violent abuse from one of them and her parents, especially her mother, wouldn’t intervene. What is interesting about the account—even though it’s literally sickening—is how this life so easily became a child’s idea of normalcy. To keep sane, Tara adjusts her beliefs, twists her memories, transforms humiliation and violence into minor incidents. It sadly illustrates so well why abused children don’t ask for help.
Child protection was definitely and constantly on my mind, reading this book. The Westover managed to get several members of their family of ten severely injured, including themselves, and none of it was ever reported. Massive car crashes and life-threatening work accidents were kept secret by refusing to go to the hospital, despite obvious and very serious injuries. The family “healed” the sick and wounded at home, even though medical help would have very likely offered a better outcome. Reading Educated, I felt very shocked that in a developed country, society could be so incapable to help children in such life-threatening danger.
Another aspect I found very insightful was how the brainwashing—for lack of a better word—worked on Tara, and how hard it was for her to set herself free from it. Tara didn’t need to be confined at home: when she first started university, her upbringing and belief kept her “in check”. For example, she wouldn’t take painkillers for an excruciating tooth pain even though it disrupts her studies; she wouldn’t apply for a sorely needed grant because in her father’s opinion, doing so would make you a slave to the government… No one needed to remind her to keep in check with her family’s rules: they were drilled into her, and it’s interesting to note how distance from her family didn’t set her mind free. It takes time, it takes information, it takes new experiences and the patient, loving efforts of new friends (as well as the support of a few family members).
Which brings me to another topic that frankly captivated me in Educated: Tara’s impressive academic success. She didn’t receive any formal education whatsoever, except for reading and writing. She didn’t have any basics in mathematics, literature, history or geography… And yet, at 17, she decided to try for university and made it. Not only this, but she was soon excelling and got invited to a prestigious British university, where she finally completes her PhD.
The obvious question is: how did she do it? It’s tempting to say Tara is just a genius, but it wouldn’t give justice to the work and effort she put into her life transformation. She is definitely smart, but that alone doesn’t explain how she could catch up so fast on a decade deprived of formal education. Resilience and a capacity for hard work seemed to be the key. She never gave up and she worked very hard, despite some humiliating moments due to her lack of instruction or complete ignorance of how school material works… Tara is able to endure, and it looks like it’s what helped her the most. I found that immensely inspiring.
There are a few other themes in this book that really deserves to be mentioned, such as mental health and its effect on the sufferer’s family, or how education can clash with a family’s culture, or also how Tara eventually develops a new sense of womanhood… but this review is already long!
This is a fantastic book and I really, really recommend everyone to read it. It’s extremely inspiring!