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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Educated: A Memoir


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover stood out to me as it was an interesting premise: a young woman, raised in a survivalist family in Idaho with no formal education, fights her way to college and graduate school to become a historian. This memoir went way beyond that and became a beautiful story of love, loyalty, and self-discovery. 

Tara was the youngest of seven children, born to a fundamentalist Mormon family who did not believe in formal education. More than that, her father believed that the End of Days was coming, and he had his family preparing to outlast everyone on their mountain, isolated from neighbors, family, and friends. Their income came from the junkyard on their property, and her father spent hours on end rambling about the evils of the Government (capitalization intentional) and the gentiles, whom he defined as everyone but those who lived their faith according to his principles, including his fellow Mormons. When Tara follows in her brother's footsteps to BYU, she suffers from severe culture shock, and she must find her own place and her own way -- not just that of her father. 

This story is incredible, and not just for the sheltered-girl-makes-good story. At its heart, Tara's story is an achievement in self-study that follows her journey from an impressionable child who desperately believes her father's rantings against the evils of the world to an adult who has to find the answers to her questions herself. She has to face her past, which is her family, in the harshest light possible, and she has to make a decision between caring for herself and her own well-being or being a member of her family. It's heartbreaking, and in this story, you watch as her siblings all have to make this decision for themselves. The self-delusion that some family members live in is almost unbelievable, until you realize that we all have people who live in this state even if it is not nearly as extreme as a survivalist mentality. Tara tells of sitting in an undergraduate psychology class and hearing the symptoms for bipolar disorder and realizing that her father is a textbook case. It's not the first time that she begins questioning her upbringing, but it is a defining moment in her relationship with her parents. My heart hurt for her as she laid out her process of coming to grips with the differences between her and those who raised her. 

However, even if this story was just about Tara's work to overcome the odds stacked against her, that would have been amazing. Just her ability to be self-sufficient in terms of reviewing for the ACT on her own, and her seeking help with trigonometry from her brother, was amazing. It was enough to make me wonder if I could have that kind of drive. It's mind boggling that her father would give credit to their "home school," as there was next to no schooling that actually took place. Her family was not set up to succeed, from her father's rantings to her mother's capitulation, from their distrust of modern medicine to a fear of paperwork and schooling, Tara's success was just astounding, and the fact that she, along with two of her brothers, earned Ph.D.'s is amazing, and I applaud them. I know how hard this is. 

The most important part of Tara's story, to me, was her ability to come to grips with the abuse she suffered as a child and a young adult at the hands of her older brother. She calls him Shawn in this book, and he was incredibly violent to Tara, and later we discover many other girls, over a course of decades. I was expecting sexual abuse to come to light at some point, but that was not the case. He spent his time tormenting his sisters, girlfriends, and desired paramours. It's difficult to read, because you want to scream at the girls in the book to run as fast as they can. When one girl turns to Tara and tells her that God has provided Shawn with the ability to "fix" girls through violence, and that he is annointed, it's shocking. I was taken aback that someone could be so enmeshed in their faith that they would accept predicted violence to be God's will. I know it happens, but reading it so starkly was affecting.

Tara's writing is also lovely. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she writes that she studied short stories to figure out how to write for a general audience, and that she structured her chapters like short stories. The effect was beautiful, and the book was affecting and meaningful. I'm grateful that I was able to be a part of her journey as a reader of her story, and I look forward to hearing what the future offers her. 

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