Tara Westover’s recent memoir Educated is by far one of the best books I have read. Her story is unusal and unconventional. She was raised in the mountains of Idaho with fundamentalist, anti-government, Mormon parents who were preparing for the end times. Instead of attending public school, she worked for her father in the scrape yard and with her mom in the kitchen making herbal medicines and jarring peaches.
As she described her childhood, I often read with my hand covering my mouth. Her father’s untreated bipolar disorder created chaos and pain in her family. Her and her brothers experienced injury after injury working for their father in the scrape yard as he made them perform reckless jobs and then refused to take them to the hospital. The more she was exposed to the outside world, the more clearly it became that her homelife was anything but normal.
Things got worse after an older brother moved home and become increasingly abusive. His violence grew as she turned from a child to a teenager, and he used religion to make her think that she is immoral just for being female. She recounts how his manipulation strongly impacted her self image:
…I evolved a new understanding of the word ‘whore,’ one that was less about actions and more about essence. It was not that I had done something wrong so much as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being (199).
At seventeen, she knew a change was needed and getting an education appeared to be the way out. Following the example of one of her brothers, Westover was accepted into BYU without a high school education. She had to teach herself several subjects in order to pass entrance exams and it worked. She got in.
Her lack of education was revealed right from the start. After an embarrassing moment in class, she waited until everyone left to look up the word Holocaust on the internet because she doesn’t know it’s meaning:
I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point I’d read enough. I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something so horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure (157).
Despite her non-traditional background, Westover proved to have a sharp intellect that made her stand out. Several professors along the way encouraged her to pursue further studies in history and she went for it. But behind the academic achievements, the sad reality of the broken relationship with her parents remained. The more she changed, the more her family saw her education as a threat and construed it in terms of a disobedience to God. During her studies at Harvard, they visit and ask her to return home. She refused, knowing that by saying no they would disown her:
Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind…What my father wanted to chase from me wasn’t a demon: it was me (304).
Choosing her own path came at a cost but her journey of breaking away from a controlling, religious and abusive environment is powerful. A constant theme throughout the book is her fighting spirit to never give up despite the countless roadblocks that she is faced with. She wasn’t alone in the process. There were strategic people who were able to offer support and encouragement during each step of the way that made all the difference. Her story is one of vulnerable perseverance and shows how there is power in education.