Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her "head-for-the-hills bag." In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father's junkyard. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara's older brothers became violent. As a way out, Tara began to educate herself, learning enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University. Her quest for knowledge would transform her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she'd traveled too far, if there was still a way home. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Tara Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education offers: the perspective to see one's life through new eyes, and the will to change it.
I'm not questioning whether the events that Westover writes about occurred or not - I expect that they did, and that there were many traumatic instances in her childhood and adolescence - but when I compare it to other Misery Lit titles this book feels very self-pitiful, and in some areas I suspected that Tara's viewpoint only uncovered part of the story, which supported how she wanted to position the overall narrative of her life.
For instance, on education she wanted the reader to believe that she had had next to nothing in the way of education before she sat her college exam. It seemed incredible that she could reach such stellar heights against such insurmountable odds, but then we read that 6 out of the 7 children went on to some level of higher education. When I read further around the subject, I discovered that both her mum and dad attended at least a year of university classes each, which Westover failed to mention anywhere in this book. Also, one brother (who I recollect she was close to in the book) has since questioned the accuracy and one-sidedness of a number of her recollections. He admits that their parents were extremists and that things happened to hurt Tara, but he points out that he has a different interpretation of some things that happened within the family. Tara would like us to believe that this is because her family are all indoctrinated by the family's very strict faith and controlling nature of her bi-polar father - yes, that's entirely possible, but equally her can-do-no-wrong self-positioning in this book made me begin to lose my trust in her as a narrator of her story at times, and to wonder what the full story was.
Westover also positions her mother's hugely successful business as a random happenstance that happened to some poor, uneducated hillbillies on the back of treating her father's injuries. That felt very glossed over, and again by sowing that doubt in my mind I further questioned how fully accurate the rest of the memoir was.
In all, I'm very conflicted by this book. I don't feel that we ever got to meet the real Tara - we meet the version of Tara and her story that Westover wanted to portray, and it didn't feel wholly authentic to me. Clearly I'm in the minority on this as I know the world and his wife loved this; I did really enjoy reading it, but I'm not sure I overly liked Tara in the end, which is very surprising as I usually root straight away for the underdog in this type of book. Her story was fascinating, but I think I would have sympathised with her difficult family upbringing much more if she'd let a bit more of the true Tara through.
3.5 stars - a really good read, but I was left with too many niggling questions.
As a memoir, I think Educated is pretty excellent (if a little battened down--I don't really feel like I have any sense of who Tara really is), but it's also the story of one family whose situation is so particular that I don't think the book really tells us anything about anyone but them. And that's fine--it is a memoir, after all, not a sociological study--and I imagine that many readers will find the exploration of this particular family dynamic helpful in understanding certain kinds of abuse. Ultimately I wanted more about the process of going to school (college) for the first time and what it was like to participate in organized learning and what she found out about the world once she left her isolationist upbringing. She mentions learning of the Holocaust for the first time; she outlines some of the things about schooling she didn't know when she first got to college. I was hoping for more of that kind of thing. The book was a memoir of a family; I wanted a memoir of all the nitty-gritty details of an education. Perhaps that desire on my part is also why I found the exclusion of certain details so annoying (for instance, some of her confusion about college surely would have been addressed at orientation, but she never mentions college orientation at all, not as a thing that didn't help, not as a thing that might have helped but that she somehow didn't know to attend, nothing). The little missing pieces of the story started to annoy me more and more as the memoir went on.
I don't particularly recommend this one on audio but I'm not steering you away from it either. I didn't love Whelan's voices for the men's dialogue, but other than that, the audiobook was entirely serviceable.
Trigger warnings for Educated: emotional abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, gaslighting, neglect of minors, medical trauma, untreated mental illness, the "n-word," violent misogyny, violent death of a dog (brief but brutal)
This is a memoir of an extraordinary childhood and about living through the aftermath. Westover is nonjudgmental when discussing her family and it's clear that she still holds them in great affection. Nonetheless, the story is harrowing. It's like a first hand account of a pioneer family, with the same extreme dangers exacerbated by her father's possible mental illness and the risky nature of the family business.
Once Westover manages to escape to university, the story doesn't lose momentum. She's intelligent and resourceful, but ill-prepared and made uncertain by the foreignness of her new environment. All in all, this was a memoir that read like a novel.
I couldn't help but project many of the ideas of Tara's father onto the most radical Trump supporters, people who believe things not because they have the facts to back them up but because they want to believe them. The Jews are responsible for World War II and created the Holocaust to excuse themselves and make the Nazis look bad. Education is controlled by the government and full of propaganda, and educators are agents of the government (if not the devil). Well, I don't have to say more, you hear the crap that comes out of Trump's mouth every day. I spent a lot of my time reading this book with my gut twisting, just as it does when I have to listen to Trump or his ignorant followers. Which means that it was both frustrating and horrifying. I'm glad Tara got out, but I wish that she had confided in someone who could help much sooner. As Philip Larkin said:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”
Though members of her family have disputed her account of some events, I believe her. I believe her because I resonate with her. I understand what it is to convince yourself it's all normal. I understand what it's like to participate not just willingly but desperately in your own gaslighting. I know what it's like to lose your whole family because it's easier for them to believe the abuser. So yeah, I absolutely believe her. She's much too familiar with those feelings in a way that a person just doesn't learn from a textbook.
It was a relief to read some of her experiences and emotional struggles, to hear someone else's experience in dealing with that. It was validating, because even now I sometimes wonder about reality and truth. Gaslighting, especially that which is done to a person in their childhood, has a permanent effect.
I would recommend this book for everyone really. Obviously, it contains some harsh materials that many readers will find upsetting, but it contains some truths that just aren't out in the world in a tangible way. If you haven't been there, you will strengthen your ability to empathize with others. If you have, I think you may share some of my feelings of relief and validation.
I'm proud of her for writing this. I'm grateful.
Today, Tara Westover, at 32, is a historian with a PhD from Cambridge University, impressive in and of itself. More impressive, however, is her journey, quite a harrowing one, from the mountains of Idaho, from a fundamentalist LDS family over which her father ruled with devote immersion in religious mythology and delusion, from a home that denied science and any sort of rational thinking, that believed in and practiced, and continues to practice, discredited herbal therapies, placing Tara, family members, and others who came to them for help in mortal danger, and that, above all, not only condoned but shielded an abusive brother, putting Tara, her sister, and her sister-in-law in the path of constant psychological and physical abuse. Add to this the fact that she pretty much had to self-educate herself, not just intellectually but also in social manners, as her parents prevented her and her sibling from attending public schools, and that she only became self aware of her need to educate herself, to become self-aware, and to enter the world, the real one beyond her mountain home, in her late teens. Remarkable and incredible seem insufficient words to describe her accomplishment.
Tara Westover is the youngest of seven born to Gene and Faye Westover in Clifton, Idaho, in the lower southwest of the state, about three hour drive north of Salt Lake City. The Westovers are The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints; however, they adhere to a form of independent fundamentalism that views even regular members of the church as corrupted souls. They are survivalists who manage to live outside the system, eschewing doctors, hospitals, modern medicine, schools, and interaction with government of any sort. Tara was delivered by a midwife, and only got a birth certificate when she was nine. Like her siblings, she spent her time working in her father’s scrapping and construction business, where injury on the job appears to have been a regular occurrence. And when accidents or illnesses occurred, her mother treated them, even deep gashes and burns, with homemade concoctions (her mother has build a successful business selling what she calls essential oils). The parents mantra was, “God will provide.”
Family unity was and is at the core of the Westovers, and Tara’s parents, especially her father, appear to have wielded this to control the family, and as a tool to bring Tara back into the fold. They threatened with and then literally excommunicated her from the extended Westover family. As she relates in her book, this caused her tremendous psychological stress and self-doubt. Added to this, an older brother Shawn physically abused her and later threatened her life. She could never feel secure at home, and never in his presence. The worst part of this abuse and what split her from her family was and is her parent’s denial of Shawn’s abuse. Shawn demanded absolute obsequiousness from the women around him, and in the book Tara illustrates how he exercised control over girlfriends, his wife, and Tara that mirror the traits of controlling men. In many ways, Shawn followed in the footsteps of his father, who also demanded absolute adherence to his beliefs. With this, came the reality that Tara could not trust her mother. On a number of occasions after Tara had confided in her mother about her problems with Shawn, her mother promised to act, only to betray her daughter. Combining this with the authoritarian family structure, with the family’s isolation and denial of the greater society, even Mormon society, with a survivalist approach to life in which the end times were about to befall them every day, the only suitable way to characterize the environment in which Tara grew up and which, through her own will and instinctual intelligence, she was able to escape, is toxic.
The truly sad part of this memoir is that many children live in similarly dangerous households and hardly any have the personal wherewithal of Tara Westover. Hers, then, is a remarkable, inspiring, and probably unique tale of escape.
Like the author of The Glass Castle, this is a memoir of a woman who overcomes familial obstacles to obtain an education. As she tries to "have her cake and eat it too" between family acceptance and an education" she risks losing both. This memoir was particular difficult to stomach given a troubled brother whose abusive behavior was overlooked by Tara's parents. However, her craving to learn, drive for a good education, and desire for a better life was kept me turning to pages and has kept this book on the NYT bestsellers list for 38 weeks and I predict will keep it on it for many more weeks to come.
Wow... picked up and finished in a day and a half. I took in Tara's story as one of survival and personal strength. Secluded away from much of every day world due to her having a fundamentalist Mormon father who believed the government was out to get them, she lived a life full of brainwashing and lacking any education, although she was home schooled for a short time, she did not obtain high school level education. Stories of abuse and uncertainty fill the pages, making you long for her to find her wings.
Those wings are finally found when her older brother encourages becoming "Educated" and leaving the world she knows behind. Not without hurdles Tara struggles between the worlds, even later longing for a part of the world again.
An insanely addictive read.
Tara Westover never went to school, was not even home-schooled, yet she ended up with a doctorate. She is stubborn as a bulldog and pulled herself up by the steel-toed boots she wore as a child working in her family's Idaho junkyard. The first class room she ever entered was the first day of her freshman college year at age 17. She had never seen a doctor. Never had a vaccination. Never taken any kind of medication, not even an ibuprofen. She had no birth certificate. She didn't even know her birthday. As she continued on in her education, there were many things about the world that she didn't know. She always felt she was a fake, that she didn't belong there. She was poor, uneducated and a whore, at least that is what she thought.
As you read this book, be prepared for some physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Tara wants to be part of her family, even with her successes at school, but she can not bring herself to accept that the things that have happened in her family were okay. She is so damaged along the way, that without the counselling she finally participates in, she would not be where she is today. EDUCATED is a fascinating story of sheer perseverance and grit. As I said at the beginning of this review, this book brought out so many emotions as I read it, but in the end, I am very glad I did. Bravo to Tara Westover.
It was a really fascinating memoir of reinvention, not just moving from outsider to mainstream or unschooled to academically adept, but how she forcibly reoriented her own internal world map. The first part of the book was more of a dysfunctional-family page-turner than I expected from reading reviews, a barrage of violence and mental illness and a jaw-dropping amount of physical injury—it boggles the mind how any of these people were still walking upright by the book's end—but it all served a purpose, and painted a good solid picture of the emotional and psychological boundaries she had to work so hard to redraw. Westover tells her story well, and of course it's all the more dramatic for not being a novel. But she manages to pull no punches and at the same time not edge over into pathos. As someone who's recreated myself in very comparatively small ways, but still thinks about all the tiny choices that went into something so momentous (to me), I found her story really affecting. I wonder if she'll write more popular work or settle into the academic life that seems to suit her so well.
It is in its way a very American book, but in a not-good way; it has a theme of self-reliance taken to insane extremes (I'm talking about her parents). I don't want to spoil it by telling you more than you already know about how a basically self-taught Tara pulled herself up by her bootstraps. I just want to tell you to READ THIS BOOK already.
It took me awhile to get around to reading it, because I thought it would be depressing, reminding me too much of where I came from and what I had to leave behind to get to a place of relative safety. It was a depressing and shocking book, and it was illuminating.
I went to Cambridge for graduate study, too, by the way, but my journey there was so much easier. I envy this writer, and I love what she's done with EDUCATED.
The author was raised in Idaho near a beautiful mountain called Bucks Peak. There was no record of her birth, and she never attended school. This is her inspiring story. Her parents were Fundamental Mormons who brought her up to be self-sufficient and modest in dress and behavior. Her mother, Faye, was a talented herbalist and an unlicensed midwife. Her father, Gene, was a survivalist who ran a junk yard, dealt in scrap metal and took odd construction jobs, locally. He was the master of his home and believed that a woman’s place was as a homemaker and mother. All of the children became part of his crew at one point or another in their lives, when necessary. Many sustained life-threatening injuries because of a lack of judgment and/or common sense. Their father believed that G-d would guide him and them. They all fell under the spell of their father, to a greater or lesser degree. Gene believed he communicated directly with his G-d and always had the one right way, even when tragedy occurred because of his foolish decisions. He believed whatever happened was G-d’s will, and G-d would always provide and care for them. Angels would guide them, and they would not be given more to deal with than they could handle. He was sure the end of days was coming, and he prepared for it, hoarding food and burying fuel underground.
Neither of Tara’s parents seemed quite stable. They were afraid of hospitals which might poison them; they were afraid of schools which might brainwash them. They were fanatic in their beliefs, and Tara’s formative years were sheltered from the outside world. She was often subjected to abuse by one of her brothers which went unnoticed or ignored by both of her parents. Her father believed females needed to be taught how to behave properly. If she accused her brother of hurting her, he demanded proof. Often, she had no one to protect her.
When, for some odd reason, she was allowed to apply to college, never having been to public school, Tara spent hours studying for the ACT. Her home schooling had been sparse at best, but her brother encouraged her because it was the path he had followed. On her second attempt she did well enough to enter Brigham Young University. She was out of place, unworldly and dressed differently than the other student, having no prior knowledge of anything worldly beside the religious books she had read and the medicines she had made with her mom. She was adept at construction with her brothers and fathers but had no idea about something so simple as basic hygiene.
Growing up, Tara did no know what she was missing, but as she entered the world, the opportunities and education she was exposed to caused tremendous conflict within her. She began to see the difference between her world and everyone one else’s world. She began to question her lifestyle.
As Tara describes her life, set firmly in the current events of the times, it is hard to believe that she and her family could survive so many mishaps intact, without the benefit of medical care or education. It is hard to believe that life was able to fulfill her dreams. She has written her memoir clearly and succinctly as she tells the story of a young girl who was both sheltered and abused. The miracle of that young girl’s success and her ability to break out of the mold she was in and grow to the person she is now, is the highlight of the book. The book is stirring as it illustrates the miraculous possibilities one can hope for and achieve against all the odds placed in the way. Without the inner strength and insight Tara possessed, it would have been impossible.
Educated, which as I write this is near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, is a powerful tale of religious fanaticism, domestic violence, and untreated mental illness. It is a wonder that the author and her siblings survived their hardscrabble childhoods in rural Idaho, as their zealous Mormon parents did not believe in modern medicine and instead relied on homeopathic remedies and homemade herbal treatments. Moreover, Westover's domineering father thought nothing of putting his children in harm's way, and the book contains several examples of serious accidents that did not have to happen. The children's education was sorely neglected, to the extent that when Westover finally got into college despite paternal objections and through the force of her own will, she found that she lacked even basic common knowledge of Napoleon, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Holocaust. Westover's dedication to her education came at a steep price; although she has earned PhD from Cambridge, she is now estranged from the family she left behind.
I found this book painful to read. The lives it depicts are grim and almost cheerless. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to readers of The Glass Castle and The Sound of Gravel.
Then the author, interested in historiography in her studies -- how the perspective of the one writing the history shapes the history -- undercuts the credibility of her own history in numerous ways: using pseudonyms for her family members while using her own real name (What's the point of that? Did her education not include Google?), giving repeated credence to her brother and father's gaslighting, showing repeated willingness to change her perception of reality for acceptance, questioning the validity of memory itself, and, finally, putting asterisks next to "quoted" emails that she admits to just making up with the excuse that "The meaning has been preserved." The muddle she creates dulls my admiration for her achievement in surviving and escaping her family.
I may have set my expectations too high, hoping this would be another The Glass Castle.
But "'Educated" is more than a memoir; it is a thriller and a page-turner as the author fights off the brainwashing techniques applied by her parents and the physical threats of one unstable brother. That Westover even managed to survive her upbringing is surprising; that she has done so well is almost a miracle.
It kept me reading - you can't help but root for her. But it got so repetitive. How many times can we mentally scream, "NO, TARA, NO!" No, do NOT go get another ice cream with the guy who broke your toe and habitually shoves your head in the toilet! This will not end well! How many times can we think, "OK, now she's starting to get it, finally!" and then read "So I went home for Christmas." You WHAT?! "STOP GOING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, TARA!!"
Best takeway came on the penultimate page: "Guilt is never about THEM. Guilt is the fear of one's own wretchedness."
Somehow, Tara got out. Through a combination of high ACT scores and lying about the quality of her almost nonexistent homeschooling, she got into college. She eventually ended up earning a PhD in history from Cambridge. But truly leaving the mountain and her family behind was never anywhere near as easy.
The story of Westover's academic accomplishments, given where she started from, is impressive, perhaps even inspiring. But mostly what this book was for me, was upsetting. Deeply, viscerally upsetting. I've read some disturbing books in my life, both fiction and non-fiction, but I have never so desperately wanted to somehow reach through the pages of a book and hit people. Which is, of course, a testament to its effectiveness, made even more effective, I think, by the heartbreakingly restrained, thoughtful way that Westover tells the story, as she reflects on issues of family, history, memory, and self.