When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.
I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.
Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.
Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.