Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with no education in rural Idaho under the domination of her father—who was bipolar, a reactionary Mormon and anti-government survivalist—is not only a heart-wrenching account of child abuse, it’s also a challenge to the liberal concept of individual freedom and self-determination as guarantors of human happiness. “Educated” is a word used ironically in the book’s title to describe the condition of someone—the author—who, with a few exceptions, had to cut herself off from her entire extended family, the only people she had known and loved for the first two-thirds of her life, in order to retain the independence of thought, action, and belief that her education eventually provided.
Tara was supposed to have been homeschooled, but the home-schooling never happened. When she finally learns to read, she has only an ancient American history textbook, the Bible, and the writings of the Mormon prophets at her disposal. Pressed to work in the family business—a scrap yard with some construction on the side—she grows up ignorant of the simplest things. When her brother Shawn called her “nigger” all one summer, she thought it was cute.
Despite her lack of schooling, Tara wants to go to college. Encouraged by an older brother and a friend, she struggles to qualify for entrance, and once there, struggles to survive academically, socially, and financially. She works one or more jobs while attending school, and in the summer works full time in the scrapyard, or bagging groceries. Tara’s struggles to succeed are taxing, but the deepest conflict in her life is interior. From time to time in her life she becomes dysfunctional, torn apart by the inward war between her childhood self, obedient to her father, faithful to her family, and her adult, “educated” self, who defers not to the truths of revelation backed by divine authority, but to reason backed by evidence, the self who wants to study history and philosophy, and who can no longer subscribe to her father’s religious and political convictions. It’s this inner struggle that makes the story so painful.
Tara’s family situation is a throwback to a pre-industrial era in which, for lack of money and mobility, people lived in the same place all their lives, surrounded by the families and communities into which they were born. Survival depended on getting along with the family, like it or not. Two hundred years ago, Tara Westover would have been a prisoner of her father’s hatred of government, public schools, and modern medicine. But as the beneficiary of post-industrial democratic society, where, with luck and some support, people can determine their own futures apart from their families of origin, Tara can escape her tightly knit community and exist as an individual in a larger world—diverse, atomistic, and cosmopolitan, and full of opportunity. The irony is, that the freedom this brings her does not necessarily bestow happiness. Tara is writing this book in order to understand and heal the breach that has opened up within her between her educated self and the self that grew up at the base of Buck’s Peak. For, while she pays a high price for the phobias and rigidity of her upbringing, she also pays a price for her freedom in the form of isolation, loneliness, and guilt.
The intelligence and honesty with which Westover tells her story are compelling. The story is not simple, not black and white. She doesn’t offer pat excuses for her own mistakes or gloss over difficult issues. You feel how she is caught between loving her mother and father and brothers and sister and the mountain where she grew up, on the one hand, and fighting for her own separate existence on the other. There is no easy way to square this circle, and no easy way out. When I finished the book I realized how lucky I was to have had parents whose values and beliefs I shared, who encouraged me to become who I wanted to be, and for whom my education was a fulfillment of their wishes rather than a blow to everything they held dear. If on one level this book is about how oppressive accidents of birth and conditioning can be, on another level it’s a celebration of the spirit of the author, who has been able to integrate the opposing forces in her life in a way that shines light on the strengths and limitations of both in a story that is not over yet.~