Monday, January 29, 2018

Educated. Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover is an unforgettable memoir, joining the ranks of Glass Castle, Liar’s Club, and Wild. I couldn’t put it down and, days later, am still thinking about it. Westover has a novelist’s eye for detail and description, especially about her childhood. There’s no excessive storytelling here. Every anecdote has a purpose and leads to a powerful ending. The push and pull she feels with her family is visceral, and my heart aches for what she went through to get her diplomas.

As a child, Westover doesn’t go to school because her survivalist father believes it’s government propaganda. Instead, she’s educated in her father’s junkyard scrapping metal and in her mother’s kitchen concocting herbal remedies that substitute for healthcare. Everything she knows of the world is filtered through their paranoid, misogynistic religious beliefs. It’s a tough childhood made worse by her brother Shawn’s physical and emotional abuse. Her parents refuse to believe the abuse and make Tara question her own memories and beliefs.

Despite the hardships, Tara maintains a spark of independence. When another brother, Tyler, returns home from college, he tells her, “There’s a world out there, Tara. And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.” Inspired, she teaches herself enough math and grammar to do well on the ACT and gets into BYU.

Tara’s extreme childhood leaves her ill prepared for the world beyond the mountain. Her fish-out-of-water experiences in college are both humorous and heartbreaking. She gains confidence over time, works really hard, and graduates from BYU, then goes on to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge. 

She tries to maintain family ties throughout her education, but the further she gets, the harder it becomes. Her parents accept Tara going to school, but they can’t handle her gaining a different perspective on their lives and questioning what they hold as true. Ultimately, they make her choose: repent and return to the mountain or be cast out of the family. 

Despite her unusual story, Westover hits on universal experiences: feeling like an imposter, being torn between family and one’s own desires, the frustration of dealing with gaslighting, and learning to see the world with new eyes. Her path teaches us a lot about resilience and tenacity, and finding your truth in a confusing, sometimes hostile, world.

No matter what Westover does in the future, I’m glad she’s told her coming-of-age story. The memoir genre is richer for it. 

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