I thought Tara Westover’s memoir Educated would be the uplifting story of a plucky backwoods home-schooled girl who got a PhD in history from Cambridge. That story is in there, but Educated is more about a woman who clawed her way out of an abusive “apocalypse prepper” family, losing most of that family in the process. In spite of some emotionally difficult subject matter, I recommend Educated. Westover’s narrative voice balances the bleakness of this story.
There are so many themes explored here, but patriarchy, abuse and dysfunctional family systems stood out for me. I used to work in Child Protective Services, so that may be why. Certainly there is a positive message gleaned from this book. The strength of will Tara and her two brothers (of seven children total) needed to survive in this household helped them persevere to get an education. It’s a steep price to pay, though.
Tara’s family lives in Idaho. They are seriously isolated. Her father is a survivalist-type. Tara begins to lose faith in him when the world does not end on New Year’s Day, 2000. All of the children are “home-schooled” but it’s hard to see what kind of an education they do get. The father runs a scrapyard and does construction; the mother makes herbal tinctures and acts as a midwife. Tara and two of her brothers all suffer near-fatal accidents working with the scrap. It’s not because the father is cruel or sinister. It’s because he is neglectful of and ignorant of his own equipment (he nearly kills himself); and “…[b]ecause Dad always put faith ahead of safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right – after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.”
The father’s religion is personal and idiosyncratic, ranging far beyond the beliefs of the organized church that he identifies with. Certainly the family developed a system that devalued the female children even more than it devalued all the children, which seems like a recurrent theme in patriarchal religions. When Tara and her sister are bullied and terrorized by a violent brother, the parents do nothing, even when the abuse escalates to broken bones and choking. Years later, when Tara is attending college and returning on holidays, she breaks her silence and talks to her father about her brother’s violence. Her parents’ reaction is blood-chillingly terrifying, and very familiar to anyone who has worked with families where violence or sexual abuse is occurring.
Westover makes some points about memory via asterisked comments and footnotes. She compares her memories of traumatic events with the family members with whom she still has contact, and no one remembers any incident the same way. That also came as no surprise. Living in a state of trauma affects memory development and storage, and in this case the two adults present had a vested interest in making sure what actually happened was not revealed or discussed.
The book also depicts Tara coming out of this prison of a life into the world, and she does that beautifully and unsentimentally. Westover does not take it easy on herself her. In fact, if anything, some of the messages inculcated from infancy still come through, and Westover seems unable to give herself any credit for what she’s achieved and how far she’s come.
Educated is difficult to read in spots, but worth it. Westover sees clearly where she has come from, and how far she has come. She knows she has lost a family she still loves and she mourns that loss, but she doesn’t regret it, because she gained the world.
Speaking of crazy-making families, and distorting things, here is a response from the lawyers of Westover’s family. I’d like to note a couple of things from my reading of the book. Westover never, to my recollection, says her father has schizophrenia. When she talks to people at college about his behavior, one of them says it sounds like he might have schizophrenia. Tara describes seeing her mother’s untreated head injury and the resulting behavior changes, and her mother’s gradual improvement over the years. She also discusses a “muscle knowledge” technique her mother uses. I don’t recall her saying her mother lost motor skills.
Apparently the people who left comments on this article agree with me more than they agree with the lawyer quoted.