Educated by Tara Westover

Children have a right to an education, and adults have a responsibility to meet that need before a child is old enough to make the decision to pursue an education themselves. Educated is a riveting and nauseating story of Tara Westover educating herself.

In Westover’s short life (she is only 32 now), she has lived through more pain, both physical and emotional, than anyone should ever experience. After being deprived of an education, she studied for the ACT and was accepted to BYU. She stepped foot in a classroom for the first time when she entered university. Westover would go on to win the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earn a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Cambridge.

I highly suggest reading Educated. In sharing five short excerpts from Westover’s memoir, I hope to encourage you to pick up the book yourself and read of a young girl from Idaho, who came face to face with her abusers and chose to walk away, pursuing an enlightened life.

Westover writes of vivid memories of growing up with an abusive brother, a father she has diagnosed as bipolar, and a family absolutely opposed to public education, modern medicine, and government. I find Educated to be an amazing narrative, written in a manner that is poetic and makes the pages pass by quickly. The story of Tara Westover’s childhood is one of abuse hidden behind the veil of religion and love. It is painful to read her story and devastating to know that her family still condemns her for pursuing a life with goals far more grand than becoming a wife, mother, and midwife.

As a young child, Tara was curious of how the other half lived. Ballet class was one of her first opportunities to meet girls from town. The following passage placed Tara in this environment.

The T-shirt reached almost to my knees, but even so I was ashamed to see so much of my legs. Dad said a righteous woman never shows anything above her ankle.

The other girls rarely spoke to me, but I loved being there with them. I loved the sensation of conformity. Learning to dance felt like learning to belong. I could memorize the movements and, in doing so, step into their minds, lunging when they lunged, reaching my arms upward in time with theirs. Sometimes, when I glanced at the mirror and saw the tangle of our twirling forms, I couldn’t immediately discern myself in the crowd. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a gray T-shirt–a goose among swans. We moved together, a single flock.

Tara Westover, Educated, pg. 93

Tara was taught to feel shame of her body by her father and brothers that would affect her even as a small child in ballet class, continuing into adulthood making it difficult to trust men or to view other women without passing harsh judgements.

Throughout this memoir, Tara never truly conforms or lets go of her Idaho upbringing in her father’s junkyard. The idea of conformity excites and scares Tara, helping her to become interested in a reality different than her fathers, a reality that includes education.

Tara’s relationship with her father developed from him creating and controlling every aspect of her reality as a young girl. As her father prepared for the end of the world at the beginning of the new millennium, Tara describes sitting with her father, believing that God had deprived his most loyal and devoted follower.

Dad’s favorite program was The Honeymooners, and that night there was a special, with episodes playing back to back. We watched, waiting for The End. I checked the clock every few minutes from ten until eleven, then every few seconds until midnight. Even Dad, who was rarely stirred by anything outside himself, glanced at the clock.

11:59 p.m [December 31, 1999].

I held my breath. One more minute, I thought, before everything is gone.

Then it was 12:00. The TV was still buzzing, its lights dancing across the carpet. I wondered if our clock was fast. I went to the kitchen and turned on the tap. We had water. Dad stayed still, his eyes on the screen. I returned to the couch.

The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this. He, a faithful servant, who suffered willingly just as Noah had willingly suffered to build the ark.

But God withheld the flood.

Tara Westover, Educated, pg. 106-107

Tara spent her summers canning peaches. Her family traded their money for gold and silver. They stockpiled weapons and ammunition to guard their supply of food, water, and fuel. They were prepared for the end when no one else was even preparing. The Westover family viewed everyone else in their Mormon congregation as faithful yet failing to take action to show their devotion.

Tara’s relationship to her religion is so closely tied to her father’s perception of their religion. It is not fully explained how Tara comes to view her religion once in an academic environment, yet she does use her perspective being raised in the Mormon religion in her analysis of history.

The most upsetting moments of Educated come when Tara is at the mercy of her brother and father, in situations where her body is being mangled either by avoidable accidents with machines or by sheer force. Tara learned to fend for herself, yet that would not be enough to save her from many gashes, bruises, and concussions that came with scrapping metal in her dad’s junkyard at the age of ten.

Those instincts were my guardians. They had saved me before, guiding my movements on a dozen bucking horses, telling me when to cling to the saddle and when to pitch myself clear of pounding hooves. They were the same instincts that, year before, had prompted me to hoist myself from the scrap bin when Dad was dumping it, because they had understood, if I had not, that it was better to fall from a great height rather than hope Dad would intervene. All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine–that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.

Tara Westover, Educated, pg. 120

Simply put, Tara could not rely upon or trust her family. Their carelessness, disregard for safety and medicine, and violent outbursts meant growing up in chaos. It would take a decade before Tara even begins to come to terms with the effect of growing up in this atmosphere.

Amid all the violence, education was an escape. It was the one way out of the insane reality of being a Westover in the mountains of Idaho. Although this escape would also be the factor that would crumble Tara’s relationship with her family, feeding Tara’s anger towards her parents and leading her father to feel betrayed.

Suspended between fear of the past and fear of the future, I recorded the dream in my journal. Then, without any explanation, as if the connection between the two were obvious, I wrote, I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to get a decent education as a child.

Tara Westover, Educated, pg. 190-191

Tara received only the education she gave herself. She was not homeschooled. She occasionally read as a child at home and learned to read from her siblings. Her understanding of math ended with division, and was only continued when she began studying for the ACT to go to university. One excerpt that really exemplifies her lack of education was Tara asking a professor, in front of an entire lecture hall, what the world Holocaust meant in her first semester of school. Once Tara understood how her parents had deprived her of an understanding of the world around her, Tara grew increasingly motivated to fill the void.

Finally, I want to share one final quote from Tara as an adult, once able to grasp the power of her education.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now.

Tara Westover, Educated, pg. 350

The price would be her family, her life in Idaho. Tara paid a hefty price, and continues to pay. She weighs this decision of education vs. family throughout the pages of Educated. Sometimes, she finds herself back in Idaho asking for forgiveness, and other times, she finds new strength afforded to her through the liberation of her education.

Emma’s Take

Educated was difficult to read. I consumed the 380 page read in about 72 hours. Tara Westover’s writing is nearly impossible to put down, like watching an accident unfold and needing to know the result. In the middle of the book, I felt so shaken from the violence outlined through the detailed, vivid narrative I had to put the book down and take an hour walk just to get away from it all. I felt nauseous and my skin crawled as I put myself in the shoes of this ten-year-old girl, worried for her life as she went to work every morning in her father’s junk yard and as she grew older living with an unstable older brother who was close to killing her on many occasions.

I so appreciate learning this perspective of Tara Westover, a highly educated Cambridge grad who just barely survived a childhood in the backcountry of Idaho raised in a bizarre interpretation of the Mormon faith. I highly suggest Educated to any and all. Westover’s story is compelling and deserves to be known by others.

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