How incredible is it when you randomly pick up a book at a bookstore, reading nothing but the excerpt and that very book leaves a profound impact on you? I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I picked up this book. “Educated” by Tara Westover is one of the most thought-provoking and beautifully written memoirs I have read in a long time.
“All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine: that the odds were better if you rely only on yourself”.
Tara was born into a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. She lived in a home with five siblings and a mother and father who did not believe in formal education or medicine. Eventually, her father’s Mormon beliefs became extreme, as did his paranoia about the government coming after them. Her father worked in a junkyard and planned for the “end of days” by hoarding food and guns. Her mother became a midwife and cured many of the their ailments with herbalism. Tara recounts a childhood full of injuries that did not receive any medical attention. Her father believed the medical profession was the work of satan and trusted his wife’s herbalism, which he called “God’s pharmacy”. She watched as her family members suffered severe burns from gasoline explosions and traumatic brain injuries from car accidents. Her mother treated these injuries with herbalism in their home. In later years, Tara recounts how many of the injuries left a few of their family members with altered personalities due to brain damage, something none of them considered at the time.
Between living with her father’s paranoia and one of her brother’s escalating violence, Tara decides to pursue an education. She teaches herself algebra and trigonometry in preparation for a university admissions test. She manages to escape the violent outbursts of her brother, but she carries the memories of each violent act with her as she attends university. She also carries with her the knowledge that her father condones her pursuit of an education. Tara furthers her education and eventually finds herself in Cambridge. Her world begins to shift as her professors try to make her see her own potential. However, Tara’s guilt about going against her father’s wishes and losing ties to her family get a hold on her and threaten to hold her back or revert to her old ways time and time again.
“You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.”
My favorite part of this book was when Tara found herself in a classroom for the first time in seventeen years. We read about her experiences as she learns about the Holocaust and the true horrors of slavery. We are taken through her emotions and how she processes all the gruesome details as she reads the history books. Perhaps the most profound moment is when she learns about Bipolar Disorder and as the professor is listing the symptoms, her father comes to her mind. She continues on the path of realization as she is taught the symptoms of brain injury and thinks about her mother and how she was never the same after their car accident. Through this education, she understands her family better and starts understanding where her father’s paranoia and episodes of grandeur and persecution come from.
Her journey was not easy as she pursued her education. It is truly inspiring to read about how she overcame her feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and insecurity over the lack of previous education.
Physical and emotional abuse:
“He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.”
Reading about the emotional and physical abuse at the hands of Tara’s brother was very hard to read, but it was also one of the most important parts of the book. It was even harder to read about how her family denied any of the abuse actually happening, and how her mother turned a blind eye to it rather than face the brutal reality. Her brother’s violence escalates as she gets older and instead of seeking help she learns to laugh it off or tell herself he had reason. It takes a while for her to realize how dangerous her brother was becoming, and by then a lot of the damage was already done. The really interesting part of this portion of the book is how her personal perspective of what happened during these violent moments do not match with the narrative her parents feed her. She resorts to going back to her journals and really asking herself if these violent incidents happened the way she remembers them. It was fascinating to read about how she learns to trust her memory and protect herself.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
Family is really at the heart of Tara’s story. At times it was painful to read about how much she loved her family but how hard she tried to keep those ties from breaking. From her older brother Tyler she found the strength to pursue her education and from him she found a pillar of support when her family was turning their backs on her. Her father believed she was “taken by Lucifer” and tried time and time again to bring her back to her previous life on the mountain. Many times he succeeded but he was never able to stop her from getting her education. Tara struggled with loyalties and sense of duty, but she also recognized her family environment for what it had become: toxic. Though you get a glimpse of a father and mother’s love for their daughter, you also see how sometimes that is not enough. I loved the relationship Tara had with her brother Tyler and how sometimes a simple nudge from a family member you look up to can be life changing.
This story is not about Mormonism and Tara makes that perfectly clear from the beginning. It is about reconstructing yourself, dealing with the loss of family and how education can change you. It is about believing in yourself, overcoming your struggles and learning how to shed the weight of your past. There is so much you can learn from this book. It is almost impossible to list all the themes. Educated is not an easy book to read. It is punches you in the gut and takes you along someone’s personal journey. It is like reading a diary and peering into the household of a family in the Idaho Mountains.