An unforgettable memoir about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. Educated: A Memoir is the story of Tara Westover, who started her education formally at the age of 17. This is a tale of survival and struggle.
Although this was a very difficult read for me and a few people I know, it is a testament that you can change your own destiny and that you are not where/who you come from if you don’t want to be. What an inspiring and difficult life Tara has lived!
Tara Westover’s memoir is about growing up in a remote area of Idaho with a very challenging family. She was born to Mormon fundamentalist parents, the youngest of seven. Her father Gene was the prophet of their small family, convinced the world was going to end at the stroke of the millennium. (When it did not, the author observes, the “disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this”.) He does not believe in sending his children to school, so Tara is left to educate herself by reading old science textbooks, hand-me-downs from one of her brothers, all while hiding this from her father. As Gene struggles with his mental health, he always defers back and believes that this is a way of God speaking through him.
Faye, Westover’s mother, largely defers to her husband, in spite of what evidently were some doubts about the divinity of his testimony. She finds some independence in her roles as a healer and as an experienced but apparently unlicensed midwife. Eventually, she takes up essential oils, something called muscle testing, and “energy work”. That all these activities appear somewhat contrary to Mormon religious doctrine is something Westover never explicitly addresses. In the same manner that her child self once did, she seems to accept her mother’s explanations. Muscle testing, for example, is an “act of faith in which God spoke through her fingers”.
In this account – Westover’s family dispute her version of events – life is grim in all the ways one might expect. Money is a constant struggle; Gene works largely in scrap metal but it isn’t enough. Cars driven by exhausted family members crash during long drives, but hospitals and western medicine are forbidden so injuries persist and fester. An amazing number of freak accidents befall the male Westover’s: leg shredding’s, burns. The author herself is repeatedly beaten and abused by an elder brother who charges into her room while she’s sleeping and fastens his hands around her throat, calling her names because of her friendship with a local boy.
But she gradually makes her way out of all of it. She has no formal education but manages to study her way to college. She struggles initially but gets good enough marks to do a PhD at Cambridge. And in the course of all that, Westover writes, she found herself – through what some might call a “transformation” and others a “betrayal”. As she puts it in the last line of the book: “I call it an education.”