Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover describes Westover’s life growing up in a Mormon community in rural Idaho, the daughter of survivalists. She recounts memories from her childhood and young adulthood with poise and dignity but never skimps on the details.

Tara was the youngest daughter in a family of seven. She learned early that her father was consumed by rage against the government and the medical establishment. One of her earliest memories was her father’s telling the story of the 1992 standoff between the Weaver family and the U.S. Marshals at Ruby Ridge. As her father told the story, he suffered thinking that his family could be next. Preparation for the Days of Abomination began in earnest. The family canned hundreds of jars of peaches, buried rifles on the property where they could retrieve them if needed and prepared their head-for-the-hills bags. Tara was only seven years old.

The topic of school attendance was a constant argument between her father and his mother. Grandmother thought that the children should be in school, but her son believed that allowing the children to go to school would be like turning them over to the devil. Their father kept the boys busy helping him in his junkyard, scrapping for metal.

Tara’s mother was an herbalist. She made tinctures and sold herbs. The local midwife wanted her to become her assistant, but Tara’s mother was frightened of the process and the legal ramifications. In Idaho, midwifery was illegal, and in the case of a delivery going wrong, the midwife could be charged and sent to jail. Nevertheless, Tara’s father pushed her mother to “heed God’s calling” and become a midwife.

Even with the improvements that her mother was able to bring into their lives, the children remained tied to the land and the junkyard. As they grew older, the boys began to leave home and explore the larger world. The oldest, Tony, was driving rigs hauling gravel. Luke would have liked to do the same, but he needed a birth certificate to enroll in Driver’s Ed classes. The reaction of government officials to issuing a birth certificate to someone who had no proof of their birth would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

Educated is a collection of memories that the author has culled mainly from recollections of her childhood. As she got older, she began to show an interest in the world outside her home. Her brother, Tyler, left home to go to college, and he encouraged Tara to apply to Brigham Young University. Tara studied to score well on the ACT, failing the cut the first time by two points, but achieving acceptance score on her second try.

Her time at BYU is full of firsts. The first time she rooms with others, she leaves clothes strewn around the apartment. She doesn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom, there is rotting food in the refrigerator and dirty dishes in the sink. She’s not an ideal roommate, but what does Tara know? This is the way her home was.

Tara was failing most of her courses and running out of money when one of her new roommates suggested she talk with the bishop and get counseling. Tara tells the bishop her problems, but resists accepting grants. Her father’s anti-government rants are deeply ingrained in her consciousness. Only with the bishop’s insistence and her roommate Robin’s persistence does she manage to fill out the paperwork and mail it in.

Once she was able to concentrate on something other than her financial difficulties, Tara could pay more attention to her classes, and they begin to make more sense. She also heard the term bipolar disorder for the first time. Suddenly, she realized that her father’s symptoms fit into the classic definition of the disorder, and a rage fills her that she and her siblings were made to suffer the consequences of his mental illness. Following BYU, she went to Cambridge, spent a semester in Paris and earned a fellowship to Harvard, all in search of what she called an education.
Westover’s memoir is fascinating because it is so different from what most of us have experienced. Her professors are challenged by a mind that is awakening and being formed by her advanced learning, learning that often has no underpinnings from a formal education and therefore no preconceptions. As she grows, so does our respect for her accomplishments. The tenacity and determination to succeed at all costs, in the end, cost Tara her relationship with her parents and some of her siblings. By obtaining her doctorate, Dr. Westover has reached an intellectual level that few people achieve, even with all the advantages of modern society.

Educated is her first book. One only wonders where her vision and voice will take her next. ■