Educated is a memoir by New York Times best-selling author, Tara Westover. Born into a Mormon family, Westover is raised in Buck Peak, Idaho by a father who has morphed from serious, physically impressive and independent-minded young man, to a man with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder and paranoia about the Government and the Medical Establishment, who are clearly “Agents of the Devil”. Formal education results in getting “brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies”.
Her mother is a talented herbalist and an unregistered midwife, who initially believes in educating her children but acquiesces to her husband’s demands for practical skills. Their father instils in his family a deep mistrust of phones, doctors, any type of government documentation or registration, and his determination to be prepared for when the Feds come to get them; the threat of the coming Days of Abomination require the family to bottle fruit and put up preserves, and each prepare “head for the hills” bags.
When the third of her older brothers abandons the family, to go to college (against his father’s will), ten-year-old Tara is drafted into working in her father’s junkyard, where safety is left to God: “I tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, ‘Don’t throw them here! I’m here!’ Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, honey,’ he said. ‘God is here, working right alongside us. He won’t let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is His will.'”
Where there are injuries, be they penetrative wounds or third-degree burns, the injured drag themselves to be treated with rescue remedy and herbals by their mother. “Mother always said that medical drugs are a special kind of poison, one that never leaves your body but rots you slowly from the inside for the rest of your life. She told me if I took a drug now, even if I didn’t have children for a decade, they would be deformed.”
As an adolescent, large in her life is a judgemental brother who revels in physical and mental cruelty, while an absent brother encourages Tara to take a qualifying exam for Brigham Young College, despite having never been to school. After she excels in academia, the former becomes the cause of a major rift in the family; the latter never fails to support. While her father allows Tara to audition for musicals (love or pride?), his reaction to her decision to go to college is disapproval: “The Lord has called me to testify,” he said. “He is displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming” When she wins a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, he reminds her to credit her (non-existent) home schooling; as she boards the plane for England, his main concern is that he will be unable to bring her home to safety “when the End comes”.
Once she has gained academic qualifications, she comes to realise: “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.”
It’s said that truth is often stranger than fiction; sometimes, what Westover described is so shocking, it is blackly funny: Having had a major motor vehicle accident during an all-night drive, causing his family multiple injuries, the following year, her father insists on another late-night interstate drive: “‘Shouldn’t we drive slower?’ Mother asks. Dad grins. ‘I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly.’ The van is still accelerating. To fifty, then to sixty” with the inevitable, identical result.
Westover’s book will leave some readers incredulous that such families exist in modern times, and may beg the question: Given that public education is freely available, and that most would consider the provision of basic education the responsibility of every parent, and the right of every child, then is preventing one’s child from gaining this not child abuse? What Westover has achieved is nothing short of inspirational. A stunning read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House.