Book Buzz: Educated

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

In her time studying at Harvard and Cambridge, Tara Westover often discovered profound gaps in her knowledge. Teachers would refer to specific events or places that she’d never heard of; other students would make cultural references she didn’t understand.

These discoveries sometimes upended Westover’s worldview, sending her scurrying to learn more, an effort to cover the truth about her past.

That she was accepted to study at such prestigious academic institutions was in itself somewhat of a miracle. Westover had no experience with formal education until age 17, when she entered Brigham Young University as a freshman. She taught herself enough math, science and English to pass the ACT, but had never attended school of any kind.

In Educated, Westover tells the incredible story of her life. Her family, led by her enigmatic firebrand father, espoused a belief system that viewed all outside interference with suspicion. The medical establishment was not to be trusted; illness was treated with medicinal herbs and prayer. The family stockpiled resources for the imminent government collapse. And though they were ostensibly homeschooled, instead of studying, the children were put to work in the family junkyard.

It is in the junkyard that Westover’s story turns tragic. Working with few safety precautions—her father believes such measures to be an affront to the angels—the siblings sustain injury after injury, each more horrifying than the last. The wounds the Westover children receive are more than physical, leaving scars that transform her brother Shawn into an unrecognizable abuser. When Shawn’s rage targets his sister, her parents cover and excuse the abuse.

At last, with the help of her brother Tyler, Westover begins to see that life could be something more. Tyler had escaped the family years before, and encourages her to try for admission to BYU. Westover pours her heart into study. When she is admitted, her father musters admiration, though never full support.

But as Westover ventures further into the realm of knowledge, the bedrock of her beliefs starts to crack. She questions an ideology she’s always assumed to be unimpeachable, tentatively trying on new perspectives.

The process is painful; Westover writes with candor about her fear of and love for her family, and the cost of a new life. “I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.”

Educated is raw and vulnerable; a gut-punch reading experience akin to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Readers will marvel at Westover’s strength, not only in her will to survive, but also to completely transform. To say she is courageous scarcely does her justice.

At its most powerful, Educated is the story of a voice reclaimed. “My life was narrated for me by others,” Westover writes. “Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

In this candid and revealing memoir, Westover’s voice is not just strong, but searing.

Mary Kinser is Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.)