Not knowing my birthday had never seemed strange. I knew I’d been born near the end of September, and each year I picked a day, one that didn’t fall on a Sunday because it’s no fun spending your birthday in church…”I have a birthday, same as you,” I wanted to tell [bureaucrats struggling to understand her lack of a birth certificate]. “It just changes. Don’t you wish you could change your birthday?”
Tara Westover’s memoir Educated has had a major impact in nonfiction these last weeks. If Fire and Fury was the nonfiction superstar of January, Educated is the It book for February. It made the rounds on lots of upcoming in 2018 lists at the beginning of the year and was garnering tons of positive attention and reviews long before its February 20th release. It’s also drawn inevitable Glass Castle comparisons, and I love that book so much, I couldn’t imagine anything comparing. Until about the last third of this book, I thought it just might though.
I initially ignored Educated like I do anything delving too deeply into the university experience – it’s fine if a story contains something about it for me and my interests, but I don’t like reading too much on it, and I’m always turned off by Ivy League-worship. So I passed this one over at first. I somehow missed from the synopsis that Westover was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family, which usually has me grabbing a copy as quickly as possible. In case you’re also misled by or uninterested in the educational aspect: it’s more about the author’s struggle to overcome a highly dysfunctional family background and embrace her talent for knowledge and her hard-won personal achievements alone in the world over familial ties.
The gist is that Westover was raised off the grid, one of seven children of a charismatic but delusionally paranoid Mormon father and subservient mother, living as survivalists isolated on Buck Peak mountain in Idaho. Her father warned of the dangers of the government disagreeing with their ways of life and murdering them, like at Ruby Ridge, according to his preaching. If you’ve read other memoirs of children grown and gone from these type of families, maybe you already know what these stories entail. In brief: children forced to be adults too soon, neglect, doing dangerous work, religion and deference to God’s will above all else.
The children don’t attend school, not even homeschool – just Mormon Sunday school and Bible-reading, basically. They also don’t receive any medical treatment for illnesses or injuries, have to work hard scrapping in their father’s junkyard from early ages, or, additionally for Tara and her sister, helping their mother prepare essential oils and tinctures that she uses in her midwifery and homeopathic healing practices.
Eventually, she follows the precedent set by an older brother who managed to get into Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City despite not even having been homeschooled (he and another brother would also go on to earn PhDs). She passes the ACT and earns herself a place at the college.
“There’s a world out there,” [her college-attending brother tells her.] “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.”
Arriving at BYU, she has one of the most unbelievable but remarkably transformational fish out of water stories I can remember reading. If you think your adapting to college experience was hard, this’ll put things in perspective.
And I do believe it, that’s not in question at all – but I think for all that she reveals, maybe some things go unsaid. I felt like there were some steps missing between failing an algebra class and earning 100 on the final, between not knowing what a textbook was or how to use it and the thesis work she did at Cambridge. I know that’s the whole point – and maybe I’m just cynical and not soft enough to let the whole triumphant lesson of this win me over. She did do it, and that’s what matters, I just had a feeling I wasn’t seeing everything at play.
The constant struggle Tara engages in is that her two worlds become mutually exclusive. She can’t be a worldly, thoughtful, educated and liberated woman while still maintaining ties to her fundamentalist, patriarchal, and manipulative family. The core issue in the rift that opens between them is the beatings, bone breakings, and various physical and mental abuses she and her sister suffered at the hands of one very troubled brother. Their parents, particularly their father, refuse to accept or acknowledge the truth of it.
There’s a duality as she considers what she remembers of certain experiences – some things that she already knows are false – and uses that confusion to question the veracity of other events. She pores over old journal entries and tries to cobble together narratives and reconcile who she was with who she’s become, sometimes incorporating lines into her developing story and musing at how they’ve shown her something about her past self, often how they’ve influenced her growth or choices: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written.”
There are other cracks and fissures in her relationship with the family and their lifestyle that widen over time too, as would be expected leaving an environment such as that and building a life of the mind out in a world where more than one opinion or belief set is permitted.
…the paranoia and fundamentalism were carving up my life, how they were taking from me the people I cared about and leaving only degrees and certificates – an air of respectability – in their place.
I found the writing uneven – the first half to two-thirds had gorgeous storytelling and enveloping writing that swept me along completely. I read more than a hundred pages and felt like no time had passed. It’s unputdownable. But the last third fell apart somewhat for me – the writing felt less polished, and became more a recitation of events, a kind of timeline, as she shuttles back and forth between university and “home”.
She has mental breakdowns, withdraws into herself, almost fails her PhD. Upon being awarded a visiting fellowship to Harvard, she observes, “I knew I should be drunk with gratitude that I, an ignorant girl who’d crawled out of a scrap heap, should be allowed to study there, but I couldn’t summon the fervor. I had begun to conceive of what my education might cost me, and I had begun to resent it.”
Reviewing memoirs is so difficult, because it’s allegedly what someone did, the choices they actually made and what realistically transpired – not plots in a novel. But this litany of returns to Buck Peak, seemingly on every holiday or school break, felt extremely frustrating and tiring. Her pull to her family and her roots is strong and understandable — part of the book is about redefining her own personhood for herself, but it became uncomfortable, at some point, to read about each return with its impending sense of doom.
And ultimately, I was bothered because I feel sad for her – her pain jumps off the page, even when she writes about it metaphorically or indirectly, as I thought became more common in the book’s final section. She’s cut ties with those family members who refused to acknowledge the truth of what she and her sister suffered, the reality of what’s wrong within their isolated community, and how accidents and injury have harmed them physically and mentally in addition to the lies and pain they’ve purposely inflicted on each other. But she kept returning, she kept acquiescing to certain conditions. Even if she’s drawn that line now, it’s clear that she hasn’t closed the door in the estrangement completely.
I agree with the buzz to great extent – this is a powerful, page-turning book and Tara’s journey and accomplishments are magnificent. She has every reason to be proud of herself and similarly every reason not to keep looking back over her shoulder at where she came from. It’s hard to accept that you’re not going to have your family’s love and approval if you live your life the way you’ve chosen, but I hope she’s – if not already there – then close to a place where that’s ok for her.
I remembered attending [a lecture] which…had begun by writing, “Who writes history?” on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.
a very high 3.5/5
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
published February 20, 2018 by Random House
I received an advance copy for unbiased review courtesy of the publisher.