She was a tough kid. Still, even having read EDUCATED, Tara Westover’s blistering family memoir, I’m hard pressed to figure out how any child—no matter how resilient—could come away intact, let alone garner the prestigious academic degrees (M.A., Ph.D.) that she has. For someone who had never stepped into a classroom till college—nor had much homeschooling to speak of—her achievements boggle the mind.
Tara grew up in rural Idaho, in a survivalist-cum-Morman-fundamentalist family. Her parents shunned any contact with public institutions—government agencies, schools, even hospitals—seeing them as the devil’s trickery. All seven children were born at home, most never having acquired birth certificates. Rigid dress and behavior codes were strictly enforced, sometimes with violence.
The Westovers lived precarious lives, with harrowing accidents—auto and workplace—taking a toll on every member of the family. The children especially were placed in harm’s way by their overpowering and negligent father: God would protect them, he was sure—and by God, He did. But just barely.
Yet despite its hardships and the ever-present threat of violence, in Tara’s telling there remained something idyllic in that life. First, the place: the family homestead was nestled in rugged hills beneath the watchful gaze of a legendary Indian Princess rock formation. Wind whipped through conifers and sagebrush and acres of wild wheat; it came in gales, as if the “peak itself was exhaling.”
Second, the family: although dominated by a mercurial father, in closing ranks against the world, siblings and parents formed tight, intimate bonds with one another. Every morning all nine sat around a red oak table for breakfast, in the evenings they gathered for bible readings, and in between they worked as a team—in the family scrapyard or building neighboring barns. The Westovers were a clan.
And Tara belonged. She had her place—both in the family and on the land itself. It was what she knew.
But gradually, inevitably, snippets of the outside world break through the family’s barrier. Tara begins to want more: she wants to go to college—though she has never been schooled, never taken a test, never written an essay, or studied math. The story of her first tentative steps outward comprises the first half of the memoir.
The second half follows Tara as she works to find her academic and social legs on the outside—all the while feeling the tug of the Indian Princess to return home to Idaho. But despite that pull, the world has opened her eyes, making her realize just how pitiful her “education” had been. Isn’t Europe a country? What’s the Holocaust? Why did Rosa Parks need to “steal” a bus seat, and who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Even more important is Tara’s need to locate herself in the wider world and to come to grips with the growing separation from her family. Can she resolve the vast differences in their values and world views? Must she set herself against them? Is she a whore in the grip of the devil, as her father and brother claim? Can she reject their beliefs but not reject those who hold the beliefs?
Educated is a stunning testament to inner strength and the need to be true to self, one of the hardest fought battles for anyone, but especially when it comes to disavowing the people you’ve spent a lifetime loving. Highly recommended.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.