Tara Westover’s Educated is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. I seldom read nonfiction because I often have a hard time connecting to a book if it doesn’t have a compelling story to tell, and will find myself fighting boredom and finally abandoning the book. That was never a danger with Educated. Westover’s memoir is horrifying and poignant and powerful, and it captivated me in a way that few books outside the fantasy genre have. It’s a story that I can’t stop thinking about, and I truly believe that it will stay with me for a long time to come. It also made me insanely thankful for my family and upbringing, my freedom and education.
“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 was raised on Buck’s Peak with her sister and five brothers. Her mother was an herbalist and midwife, and her father was a scrapper who set his kids to work in his junkyard as soon as they were able. The Westover’s were survivalists, constantly preparing for the end of the world, which they believed was imminent. They were a family of fundamentalist Mormons who deeply distrusted the government and the medical establishment. Their theology and practices were skewed and dangerous. The four youngest children were delivered at home, without medical assistance or birth certificates. With no birth certificates, the government didn’t know that the children existed, and thus their parents did not have to send them to school; they distrusted the education system, as well.
“We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.”
Tara was the youngest of the siblings, though no one could even recall her birthday. She grew up quiet and careful and wary, and while she did her best to please her mercurial father, but something within her bucked against his iron-fisted control and wild mood swings. At seventeen, Tara entered a classroom for the first time, at Brigham Young University. She would struggle between her thirst for knowledge and her fear of losing her family until she reached a fork in the road, and would have to choose which to keep.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them… You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
Tara’s thirst for education was driven by her desire to understand herself and her family, and how her parents could rewrite history time and again, convincing their family that this new breakdown of events had always been the truth. She wasn’t only fascinated by history, but by those who wrote it. She gradually came to understand the abuse she had suffered at the hands of a sibling, as well as the mania of her father, and how those experiences had broken bits of her and stunted her emotional growth. Even after everything she went through, she had a fierce loyalty to her family, but she also realized how perilous her relationship with them could be. She had to come to terms with the divide between family and faith, between real truth and the marred theology to which her family adhered.
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”
There were so many things that happened during Tara’s childhood and early adulthood that sound almost too fantastic to be believed, and yet her writing has a ring of truth that is impossible to deny. I believe every word, though it hurts my heart to think of anyone having to live that kind of life. The injuries alone, sustained by both Tara and various family members, are appalling. And the fact that they never sought medical attention, relying instead on faith and essential oils, absolutely horrified me. I believe in God and in His ability to perform miracles, but I also believe that He has led our society to medical knowledge that He intends for us to use. The dangerous situations these children faced made me want to reach back into history and give them a safe home. There was also serious mental illness on the part of at least two of these family members, one of whom was Tara’s father. I’ve never been so thankful to grow up where I did, with the family I have, believing in the doctrine that I do.
“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.”
Tara’s story is one of heartache, but it’s also one of triumph. It was a huge struggle, but Tara was finally able to create an identity for herself instead of letting her identity be dictated to her by the forceful personalities in her family. I have such immense respect for someone who could risk everything she knew like that for a chance at a better life, even without having any support system to catch her if she failed. Of the seven siblings, four never even attained GEDs, and their families all work for their parents. The other three not only went to college, but earned doctorates. Theirs is a family divided in more ways than one, and I pray that they will find healing one day. Educated taught me to never take the freedoms I’ve been given for granted. The freedom to pursue an education and to find and choose my own faith are incredibly precious, and this book reminded me to always value those gifts.
“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.”
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