Published by Random House
Publication date: February 20, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Memoir, Non-fiction
I’d always known my father believed in a different God. As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God’s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known…
It’s not often that non-fiction acts as a trigger for me, but Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated had me lit up like a pinball machine and shrieking with lights and noise just as wildly. She is one of seven siblings raised by Mormon parents in the wilds of Idaho. Her father is a frightening combination of the worst of the evangelical and survivalist mindset—a stereotypical patriarch, whose wife has no opinions of her own and whose word is law. He is never violent with his wife or children, but he doesn’t need to be. His brand of rabid religiosity is such that he exposes them to levels of neglect and physical danger that read beyond appalling. Somehow, through a will stronger than her father’s, Tara escapes the confines of her family’s homestead and is able to not only survive, but thrive in the world of academia. A world about which she knows absolutely nothing, having received an education at home that went no further than learning how to read the Bible and what few books she could find. Her story is a movie waiting to happen.
Why did I react so strongly to Educated? Not because of my upbringing, but due to the decade I spent in Utah suffocating in the bosom of Mormonism. I saw and heard enough there that much of Tara’s life was not surprising. In the Mormon church the man is the unquestioned elder of the household, making it an easy doctrine for men to claim and abuse power. Her father’s word is law and must be obeyed regardless of outcome or experience. Despite a catastrophic car accident due to driving for long hours at night without stopping, an accident that left Westover’s mother with permanent severe brain damage, he insists on doing the same thing the next year. And, surprise, the family wrecks again when he loses control on a patch of ice. Westover is injured both times, as well as in a plethora of other childhood accidents which are all directly attributable to a man with no thought or care for his children, just his belief in his divine right as per his interpretation of the Bible.
Faith aside, it was the degree to which her parents abdicated all responsibility for the physical welfare of their children that left me choking with rage. Her father’s paranoia about the government is such that there was very little contact with the outside world. All the children were born at home and had no birth certificates and no idea of their birth date At one point, her mother tells Tara she is 20, but Tara knows enough to point out that, in fact, she is only 15. His paranoia and religious doctrine combine to make any medical intervention off limits. He says God is responsible for all healing so the car accident that leaves her mother with severe brain trauma warrants nothing more than herbal compresses for her head. She never fully recovers. Neither does a brother whose legs are burned in an accident in their scrapyard or another who falls eight stories off a forklift.
Parenting like this has numerous repercussions and in Educated one aspect particularly impacts Tara, as one of only two girls in the family. Her brother Shawn is a mentally unbalanced sadist who physically abuses her, as well as breaking her down mentally. She works in the scrapyard from the time she is six but as she matures he decides that even in her men’s flannel shirts and baggy jeans she is a whore. Even though he teaches her some martial arts for self-defense he uses those moves against her when he is angry, finally breaking her wrist in public. From him she learns
That moment would define my memory of that night, and of the many nights like it, for a decade. In it I saw myself as unbreakable, as tender as stone. At first I merely believed this, until one day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn’t affect me, that he didn’t affect me, because nothing affected me. I didn’t understand how morbidly rigid I was. How I had hollowed myself out.
Somehow, Tara is able to educate herself enough to get into BYU—despite her father’s adamant opposition. There the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ aspect of her life blossoms into full flower as she sees how frighteningly ignorant she is of the outside world. The basic facts of history are unknown to her; she doesn’t know what the Holocaust was. She can build barns, assist in birthing children, and prepare for the End of Days, but she had no idea of the world outside her family’s homestead.
Even as Tara’s mind is opening to learning she is hobbled by the beliefs about herself that have been burned into her very being through decades of dogma and abuse. Her memory carries more weight than the evidence she sees in front of her. She visits home infrequently only to see that Shawn, now married and a father, perpetuates his abuse on his wife and no one does anything because he is the patriarch of his family. Events escalate and Tara finally confronts her parents about her brother. They accuse her of being unChristian, rage-filled, and delusional—classic blame the victim.
Reality became fluid. The ground gave way beneath my feet, dragging me downward, spinning fast, like sand rushing through a hole in the bottom of the universe.
Educated is a searing journey of self-discovery. Much of it, to those of us who live in the real world, will be unimaginable, but, as if in expectation of this, Tara does not rely solely on memory. She kept journals for years and years and with those, and the accounts of people who witnessed events, she holds herself to the highest levels of accountability and truthfulness. This memoir is a testament to the indomitability of one young woman’s refusal to be held back and forced into a life of subservience and ongoing abuse. I can’t wait to see what Tara Westover does next.