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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
Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the Drew from this book, and although Tara and I are no longer together I’ve met all of the key figures in this book on many occasions. Although I don’t have as intimate a knowledge of growing up in the Westover family as a sibling would, I observed first hand everything Tara describes in the third part of the book and heard many stories about earlier events, not just from Tara, but from siblings, cousins, and her parents themselves. I find the claims of factual inaccuracy that have come up among these reviews to be strange for two reasons. First, in a post-James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces”) world, publishers are incredibly careful with memoirs and “Educated” was extensively fact checked before publication. Second, no one claiming factual inaccuracy can do so with any precision. While every Westover sibling, as well as their neighbors and friends, will have different perspectives and different memories, it is very difficult to dispute the core facts of this book. “Educated” is about abuse, and the way in which both abusers and their enablers distort reality for the victims. It’s about the importance of gaining your own understanding of the world so you’re not dependent on the narratives imposed on you by others. I’ve heard Tara’s parents attack schools and universities, doctors and modern medicine, but more importantly, I’ve seen her parents work tirelessly to create a world where Shawn’s abuse was minimized or denied outright. I’ve seen them try to create a world where Tara was insane or possessed in order to protect a violent and unstable brother. I was with her in Cambridge when Shawn was calling with death threats, then saw her mother completely trivialize the experience. For Tara’s parents, allegiance to the family is paramount, and allegiance to the family requires you to accept her father’s view of the world, where violence is acceptable and asking for change is a crime.
I highly recommend this book about a girl whose childhood began on a beautiful mountain in a narrow world created by her father’s anti-establishment mindset of fear, insanity, and control and ended when she decided to venture out into the wider world and research the facts for herself. Will she come home? Can she come home? Or will home be more damaging to her spirit than the broader dangerous world her father fears? I will try not to give spoilers, but most of the information in this review was provided by the book’s author in interviews. It’s not the bare facts which are so fascinating, but the story itself and how it plays out. If you’ve ever been gaslighted, scapegoated or lied about by your own family, you will find in Tara Westover a true kindred spirit.
The title of this book might give the impression it’s merely about going to school. While the author’s lack of primary education is offset by her future ability to earn a doctorate at Cambridge, her education about society and the world outside her family is just as important as her rise academically.
You might say Tara Westover’s education started while she was very young. Her life began on an Idaho mountain with survivalist parents. A father who distrusts the government and runs an ever-spreading scrap yard. A mother who is practically coerced by her husband to become a midwife. Born the youngest in a family of seven, her mother must’ve burned out on homeschooling by the time Tara came along because she didn’t get much book learning. Her first level of education included prepping with her family for the time of desolation, dodging her father’s careless flung scrap metal while she does child labor in his junkyard and accompanying her mother to home births. Tara’s early survivalist education includes learning how to survive her parents’ ignorant choices and a bullying older brother—all of which are much greater threats than her father’s perceived threats of the government taking over their lives.
Her parents rarely leave the mountain. They are home-birthers, home-schoolers, anti-vaxers, anti-establishment and anti-medical care. In a nutshell, her father seems nutso—more like a deranged lunatic with a massive stockpile of weapons than a father.
Tara’s mother appears to be her husband’s enabler as she meekly follows suit and rationalizes his unhealthy choices even when they threaten her safety and the health of her children. As a matter of fact, for a woman who eventually created a lucrative business by claiming to be a healer by designing her own line of essential oils, her mother’s only safety instinct seems to be to protect the family secrets.
As Tara watched the insanity and chaos of her parents’ poor choices, she had one example of life beyond the mountain. One older brother left home and went to college. He encouraged her to do the same. This book is about her quest to get out from under her father’s control—first physically, then emotionally and eventually spiritually. This process didn’t happen overnight. As anyone who has grown up under a narcissistic parent and knows what it’s like to be bullied and gaslighted will find it easy to relate to Tara’s journey.
This memoir is the story of a girl who was thirsty for knowledge, got a sip of real truth and refused to drink the kool-aid any longer. It’s the story if being scapegoated and gaslighted until she questions her sanity. It’s sad, but this book is also about the loss of siblings who would prefer to vote the family line than treat their sister as a friend. It’s also a story of triumph about the girl who escaped the box she was expected to stay in and become the one who got away from all the drama and insanity of her family of origin.
It’s incredible that Tara Westover succeeded in getting a doctorate from Cambridge, but even more amazing is her social education and how she eventually transformed like Pygmalion and was able to self-differentiate from her parents and choose the life she desired for herself.
This book is an exciting read. I read it around the clock within two days. It’s also complicated enough to provoke intellectual discourse about what it means to be faithful to oneself and how loyalty to family plays out against self-worth and self-knowledge.
This memoir is the fourth book I’ve reviewed about a woman raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family. The first three were all brought up in polygamous households, but Tara only had two parents who kept their family in the local ward despite her father’s concerns about the Illuminati infiltrating the mainstream Mormon church. This family looks Mormon from the outside, but a more sinister agenda lies under the surface. She makes it clear this is NOT a book about Mormons but rather the head-spinning tale of a dysfunctional family. She reminds us that most Mormons send their children to public school and go to the doctor when it seems necessary. The fundamentalist vibes which are all there, under a cloak of self-righteousness, could be manifested within any denomination or cult.
The only thing that made this book uncomfortable for me to read was the descriptions of the terrible injuries this family continually sustained due to the father’s stupidity. I constantly cringed at these stories much like I would while watching a show about life-threatening emergencies. Even worse, her father truly believed all these near death injuries were ordained by his arbitrary version of God. It was all I could do to keep from screaming. Such vivid descriptions were necessary though for the reader to understand what Tara had to endure.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say Tara is eventually going to go no contact with some of her family members. She has told this in interviews. What is impressive about Tara is that she shows no bitterness. She loves her parents and family but has chosen to separate from them as a boundary for her sanity. Or did they shun her first? As in most narcissistic family survivor stories, it’s often hard to tell.
This memoir is a true survival story about surviving a survivalist mindset. This book is the tale of narcissistic, emotional and spiritual abuse and one girl’s victory in becoming herself despite being vilified and gaslighted. My favorite quote from the book sums up Tara’s journey,
“I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.” -Tara Westover
Tara’s story is a victory of education, but even more, it’s a triumph of her courage to rise up beyond the mountain—the only home she ever had to find her authentic home within herself. Bravo Tara Westover! You are an amazing survivor! Thank you for documenting your often painful journey so the rest of us can know that although our stories may vary, we are not alone.
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