Mimi Jones Hedwig 

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Posted by mhedwig on July 21, 2018 at 10:50 AM

A stunning memoir of a young girl growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Tara Westover's father at first makes his living by running a junkyard, using his children as laborers in the dangerous business of processing scrap. There are frequent terrible injuries. Mother is a midwife and amateur herbalist, concocting salves and essential oils in her kitchen, making the house always smell like rotting fruits and vegetables. Whenever one of her children, or her husband, is brought home with a smashed head, broken limb or burned body, she treats them with her homebrewed remedies. Doctors and hospitals are believed to be agents of the evil government, so not even when her husband is nearly killed in an explosion do they seek medical treatment. Miraculously he survives, but is too damaged to resume his junkyard work. He joins his wife in building the essential oil business, which becomes very successful.

The six children are supposedly homeschooled, but there is no formal instruction in any conventional discipline. They learn instead their father’s crackpot theories about the “illuminati” controlling the government and the corrupt practices of the "gentiles" (anyone not adhering to his strict view of Mormonism). Their mother instructs them in her airy philosophies of chakras, herbal healing, and something she calls “muscle testing,” which involves receiving messages from the Lord via her nervous system and musculature.

Tara is physically abused by her violent older brother, Shawn (the only member of her family whom she identifies with a pseudonym, suggesting that her tell-all has had legal repercussions). Whether this molestation ever tips over into the sexual she never discloses, but his brutal physical assaults – breaking her wrist, forcing her head into the toilet to the point of near drowning -- and verbal threats to kill her are shocking enough. She tries to get her parents to accept her account of his abuse and to intervene, but they wall themselves off from the truth. Her father's explanation is always that she must have done something to provoke him, some "whorish" behavior. (His definition of whorish extends even to her rolling up the sleeves of her t-shirt as she labors in the junkyard in scorching heat.)

As she matures, she begins questioning her family’s beliefs and practices, and develops an ambition to go to college, something only one of her siblings —her older brother, Tyler—has managed to do. The obstacles are enormous; she has no knowledge of any academic subject, nor any of the necessary documents such as a birth certificate, as all the Westover children were born at home and their births kept secret from the “illuminati.“ Nevertheless, she passes the entrance exam and is admitted to Brigham Young University in Utah at age 17.

Thus begins an academic career that sets her increasingly at odds with her family, as she learns how deep her ignorance is of such events as the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, U.S. and world history and begins to diligently expand her mind. She also discovers that her father’s behavior strongly suggests bipolar disorder.

As her schooling continues, the breach with her parents widens. When she is at Harvard on a fellowship, back from England where she has studied at Cambridge University, her mother and father come from Idaho to try to reclaim her into the “true faith” of Mormonism and the family’s belief system. The conflict between her love for them and her inability to accept their world view and lifestyle causes her to have a breakdown. She is also tormented by a sense of betrayal when her mother does nothing to protect her from her brother, whose abuse escalates every time Tara visits home. Her mother's stance is that her absolute duty as a wife is to stand by her husband, and he refuses to hear anything against his son.

How Tara escapes the insanity of her past and creates a life for herself makes for riveting reading. I did have one major reservation: She alludes from time to time to a relationship with a man named Drew; at one point they are even living together. How she got from a sense of shame and fear so deep that, when her first boyfriend at age 16 tried to hold her hand she snatched it away, to cohabiting with a man outside of marriage is never explained and leaves one huge aspect of her emancipation unaddressed. I would love to read a sequel, in which she describes redefining herself as a woman and a sexual being, in contravention of the extremely prudish, retrograde and misogynistic teachings of her upbringing. I would also love the sequel to explore in depth the long term effects of her shunning by most of the people – many of them loved – in her family and hometown. Last, I would like to know what Tara Westover is doing with her hard-won education, and whether – as I hope – she is fulfilled by it.

A courageous memoir that clearly cost its author a great deal to write and publish.

Categories: Nonfiction