Tara Westover tells the story of her unique upbringing in Educated. And that might be the most understated sentence ever used in a book review. Westover’s parents are Mormon, but also combined that faith with more fundamentalist beliefs. They stockpile weapons and supplies, because either the government will attack them or other “End of Days” events are around the corner. Also, they rarely use doctors. Instead, they build both a life and a business around midwifery, homeopathic remedies, essential oils, and energy healing.
Westover is the youngest of their seven children, some of whom feel the same way as their parents. Her father and one of her brothers are particularly abusive to Westover, and other people in their lives. So, let this be a trigger warning if detailed and repeated descriptions of abuse are difficult for you.
The term home schooling is used extremely loosely in the Westover family. Basically, each child is responsible to decide what they want to study and when. Plus, any studying happens outside the work hours required by their father’s junkyard and construction business.
The author decides in her teens that she’s had enough and starts to educate herself. Her goal is to get accepted at Brigham Young University. This begins the more inspiring part of the book. Inspiring, but not easy. She is brutally honest about how difficult it is for her to fit in with regular kids, even typically religious ones. And the emotional effects she suffers from her childhood are extreme.
If you read the book’s blurb or the author bio, you see that she succeeded in her goal. And that she blew the goal of a college education out of the water. Westover’s education goes all the way to receiving her Ph.D.
This is a captivating read about a life quite unlike most of our experiences. And Westover’s writing style is primarily matter-of-fact, rather than emotional. But when she gets emotional, her telling packs a wallop.
Westover’s true education is one about family. Does or doesn’t she fit in her parents’ dysfunctional, delusional, and fundamentalist family structure? Ultimately, she makes her choices. And deals with the choices others make. But it’s a tough haul, and that makes for a terrific memoir.
My parents also belonged to a fringe Christian religion. Thus, I related to plenty of Westover’s stories. Growing up, I didn’t have medical care either. And like Westover, I remedied that fact as soon as I was an adult. Her descriptions of the confluence of faith and “alternative” medical choices ring true for me. As do the conflicts between parents of faith and children who choose another path.
But, unlike my own family, Westover also contends with mental illness. Those sections are especially harrowing, as you’d expect. I admire her ability to draw on reserves of strength, even when they’re deeply hidden and difficult to access.
Although I’m a latecomer to this book, I recommend it if you like memoirs about religious choices and dysfunctional families. Westover is a gifted writer, and her story deserves its various awards.
Pair with In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, A Father, A Cult by Rebecca Stott or Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.