Book Review: Educated, by Tara Westover
This book is 329 pages long and I read it in 3 days. It’s hard to put down.
In Educated, the author tells her own remarkable life story. Her tale is one of escape from a violent and intensely isolated childhood in rural Idaho, attending college after receiving no formal education at all, then ultimately emerging with a doctorate in history from Cambridge University.
That Westover becomes a historian seems like no coincidence. She comes to realize that in her family, control is exerted by denying the reality of day-to-day events. When the oldest brother threatens the author with a knife, the parents simply retell the incident into something innocuous. Tara and her siblings grow up substituting their parents’ stories for what they have seen with their own eyes.
While Westover’s scholarship linked her Mormon heritage to currents in 19th century social thought, privately she struggled to define her personal history. It’s a painful challenge that brings on multiple personal crises, but ultimately she learns to acknowledge the reality of her own experiences:
My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
Westover’s father is a survivalist patriarch, a prophet for his own harsh variant of Mormonism, for whom the central fact of life is the imminent apocalypse. He keeps his children out of school and rejects modern medicine. In his world, all government is a malevolent force run by dark conspirators.
Instead of school, Tara works with her siblings in the family scrap yard and construction business. There we see the father’s shocking and willful disregard for his children’s safety, and his own. There are some horrific injuries, all of which only strengthen his religious conviction.
Her childhood is not all bleakness. There was much she loved about her mountain home. Her father could be affectionate when he put away his biblical persona. There were good memories with her mother and siblings. But in a way this makes it that much harder for her to make the final break that was necessary for her survival.
In one of my favorite passages from the book, the parents are visiting Westover at college. She takes them to dinner at an Indian restaurant, where her father launches into a rant:
Dad moved on from World War II to the United Nations, the European Union, and the imminent destruction of the world. He spoke as if the three were synonyms. The curry arrived and I focused my attention on it. Mother had grown tired of the lecture, and asked Dad to talk about something else.
“But the world is about to end!” he said. He was shouting now.
“Of course it is,” Mother said. “But let’s not discuss it over dinner.”
Westover’s journey through Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge is itself a captivating tale. Going to college was an act of rebellion, but initially she maintained her parents’ world view. She thought Europe was a single country and had never heard of the Holocaust or the civil rights movement. Fitting in was not easy when she believed that a myriad of everyday items, from Diet Coke to t-shirts, were deeply sinful.
Desperation drove her to overcome her fear of government and apply for student aid. She discovered that the help was liberating, rather than enslaving as her father had warned.
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.
Thanks to the support and guidance of friends and teachers, as well as her own determination and intellect, she triumphs. And while she breaks with her parents, she creates a new family of friends, mentors, and those relatives who are not under her father’s spell.
This is a powerful story about one person and one family, but it is more than that. Lies and willful denial are more powerful now than ever in our public discourse. Westover’s ability to overcome deception and self-deception in her own life is instructive and inspirational for all of us.
Great review, Jason. I read this book last year and I too could not put it down. It is riveting.
I was in awe of the authors’ strength in escaping her toxic, terrifying family. What a remarkable young woman.
Exactly. I can’t imagine surviving such trials myself.
Hi, Jason. This is a fantastic review that you wrote, you’ve captured the essence of it. I couldn’t put the memoir down either, even though I could hardly bear to read about the injuries (physical, though the psychic ones were awful too) the people in that family – especially the children – sustained, and on top of that they believed in no medical care from hospitals or doctors or established medicine. I do think Westover is so talented in the way that she depicted her father; as you point out he was charismatic and compelling, too. Your final point is a good one. It is hard to believe there are families in this country so isolated and paranoid, but then look at our public discourse – it is very worrisome. Thanks for writing this.
I know what you mean. It was really hard to read about all the danger and injuries the kids were put through. The only way to understand it is the author’s conclusion that the father suffered from a mental illness.
Yes, seems he does, but I like that she didn’t get all reductionist and clinical about that.
You wrote a great review, Jason. This book is now on my list to buy. Truth is often stranger than fiction. There are many out there that never escape their childhoods. Tara is fortunate to have done so, and documented her struggle for readers.
We can all be thankful that it is possible for some to escape the world that their family inhabits.
One of my favorites from last year. I’m not always a fan of these kinds of memoirs, but this was so compelling and interesting. I listened to it as an audiobook and couldn’t wait to get back in the car. Great review!
I know what you mean about memoirs, but this one really had something important to say.
I’ve not heard of this book, but I’ll be reading it, thanks to your review. I spent a year in Salt Lake City, and was associated with a group that provided support and assistance to women who had been shunned by the Mormon community because of their decision to divorce. That was quite a long time ago, and I think things are generally different now, but there still are struggles of various sorts, as Tara Westover’s story reveals.
The dad went well beyond the mainstream of the Mormon church in how he ruled his family. As the author says, his behavior is probably better understood as a symptom of mental illness.
I hadn’t heard of this one, but I’m heading over to the library website to put a hold on it, thank you!
Oh my! 1025 holds on 158 copies…it’s gonna be awhile…
Well, it’s a good book. I think you’ll appreciate it when you get to read it.
I have seen this on the B&N best sellers list. I didn’t know if I would like it. Now I think I will give it a read. Thanks for the review.
Definitely worth reading, I think.
Before reading your review of “Educated,” I’d heard of this book and thought it sounded interesting. But the last paragraph of your review makes the books sound absolutely compelling. Thanks, Jason!
Compelling is a good word for it. You’re welcome.
I read this last year and could not put it down. Such an amazing story and peek into a wold view so alien to mine that it was hard to grasp at times.
Yes, it certainly is another world, almost another universe.
What an inspirational story – a testament to the power of the human spirit & our ability to draw strength from our past struggles and choose our own way instead of letting them rule our lives. It’s no wonder it only took you 3 days to read.
Yes, inspirational for sure.
EDUCATED is on my to-read list, so it was good to read your review. Thanks.
I’ve read excellent reviews of this in the media, but I appreciated even more reading your own take on it. I might download it to my Kindle, thanks for letting us know what you thought of it.
I have listened to Taras interview on John Dehlins’ Mormon Stories podcast, but have not yet read the book. Thanks for elevating this on my reading list; I was a Catholic kid but I have a fascination with LDS history and culture -along with many other religions.
Judy’s maternal grandmother ran away from home in order to escape her Mormon family (and made a bad marriage as a result). Otherwise to me they seem extremely exotic.
Thanks for this review. I haven’t read this book, but I will definitely recommend it for my book club. Great description!
I read it myself because Judy read it for her book club.
Thanks for a great review Jason, and I’ll put this on my list.
Definitely worth reading.
I hadn’t heard about this book – definitely it’ll be on my list. Thanks for an excellent review.
putting it on the list…thanks!
Hope you like it.
Hello Jason, I’m not sure I could stomach such a book and the thought that there are still people that live in these self-imposed conditions (and forcing others to do the same) is too much to get my head around, Tara is very strong and very lucky.
I know what you mean. It’s a very uncomfortable read at times.
I am certain I heard an interview of Tara Westover on PBS – Fresh Air with Dave Davies, that’s what it was. Thanks for the great review. I will now likely add this book to my list but I’m having a hard time getting around to reading anything lately and then there’s the one I’m working on distracting me. But you have made it very tempting.
It is hard to find the time to read as much as I would like. Thank goodness for books on tape.
Goodness me, that is a book I shall look out for, sounds incredibly powerful and inspiring!xxx
Very much so.
Thank you for this compelling book review. I hadn’t heard of it but will look for it at my library.
It is terrifying to me how powerful different religions have become in our world. Even seemingly innocuous churches are brainwashing their members. I don’t speak much with a friend of mine anymore, because she now believes that all science is a conspiracy to control Republicans and good Christians. Spooky.
I think there are a lot of relationships (including family ones) that have been disrupted like that.
There is a virulent strain of fundamentalist Christianity in a branch of my family, so I can definitely relate.
:: I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money. ::
Real talk! Thanks for this review.
You’re welcome. I also thought that was a really apt quote.