Tara Westover’s Educated was one of the biggest books of 2018, topping awards and bestsellers lists across the world. It’s a memoir in which Westover - who, by the way, is still only 32 - recalls her upbringing in rural Idaho as part of a Mormon survivalist family. Her father, Gene, deals in scrap metal and has a whole litany of extreme beliefs, primary amongst them being his distrust of all conventional medical treatment and the public school system. Her mother, Faye, is a subservient figure, although as the narrative continues she develops a reputation for midwifery and faith healing, as well as her catalogue of natural ointments and potions. There are seven Westover siblings, with Tara the youngest. Today, Westover is estranged from her parents, two of her brothers and her sister.
This is no rose-tinted view of simple, country living. The family might live a superficially idyllic wild and free existence, but dig a little deeper and Tara’s childhood is revealed as deeply dysfunctional: no birth certificate, no health checks, no school, a very narrow home education and huge portions of the day devoted to working on the scrap heap and bottling and storing food supplies for the End of Days. The Westover siblings suffer an astonishing array of injuries and near-death experiences at the mountainside home, from horrific burns to terrifying falls and concussions.
This is, in part, a coming-of-age story. As Tara grows, her family - and particularly her father and older brother, Shawn - struggle to cope with the reality of her becoming her own person. Her father attempts to stop her from taking part in a local drama show, eventually relenting but insisting that her costume is appropriately ‘modest’, i.e. floor-length and oversized. She loves music, is a talented singer and credits music with providing her with her first view of a world beyond the mountain. Shawn, who becomes increasingly aggressive and violent over time, calls Tara vile names, hits her, even attempts to throttle her.
When Tara becomes friends with a local boy and applies to the Mormon University, Brigham Young, tensions increase. Moving to Provo, Utah, to study, she encounters a whole new urban existence; away from the mountain, Tara is shocked to discover that the world is never quiet and “the chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air breaks, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk” combined feel like an assault. She shares a home with Mormon girls completely unlike herself: they wear nail polish and branded clothing, shop on Sundays and drink Diet Coke. And academically, Tara struggles. Although unquestionably bright, her patchy, uber-religious ‘schooling’ at home means she’s missed huge chunks of general knowledge and world history. In one lecture she raises her hand to ask what the Holocaust was, to the utter disbelief of her peers and teacher.
Some might have expected Westover to give up, head home, marry a local, especially after one of the church elders at university takes her to task over not accepting dates from several would-be suitors: “Marriage is part of God’s plan,” he chides. But her upbringing seems to have been useful in one key respect, i.e. in developing resilience. She works, listens, pores over books until the early hours, soaks up her academic surroundings like a sponge. She wins scholarships, awards and a place to study at Cambridge after she graduates.
Still in touch (just), Westover’s relationship with her family is almost at breaking point. Now educated, Tara can see the gaping holes in her father’s extreme view of the world. There’s an excruciating scene where he regales Tara and her mother with his anti-Semitic views and Martin Luther King’s “ties to communism” over a restaurant dinner. “But the world is about to end!” he shouts, oblivious to the other diners in his booming mountainside voice.
When the tie with her parents is finally severed, it’s a culmination of many factors - Tara’s time away from the mountain, new friendships and loves as well as countless old grievances. At the end of the book she reflects that “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.” She closes with the powerful words, “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
Unsettling and thought-provoking but ultimately inspiring, Educated was one of my favourite books of 2018. If you missed it, get it on your ‘to read’ pile for 2019.