Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book Review: "Educated: A Memoir" by Tara Westover


Harrowing, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant, Educated is at times difficult to read and not at all what I expected, but I couldn't tear myself away from it.

"Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go. But I didn't ask. There was something in the hard line of my father's face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he'd sacrificed to raise me."

Until she was 17 years old, Tara Westover never went to school. Her father was convinced that the government was out to get them in every way, so his children got their education at home—not through books and studying, but through preparing for the End of Days by making survivalist kits, canning endless jars of fruit, and being prepared for a siege at any time.

Tara's mother was a midwife and healer, so she helped her mother prepare the various tinctures and remedies she used. At other times she worked in her father's junkyard with her siblings, salvaging scrap metal and dealing with the various injuries that came with this work, because her parents didn't believe that doctors or hospitals could heal better than herbs and the Lord's power. The problem was, they were so isolated that there was no one to help ensure the children learned any actual facts, or protect them when behavior turned violent.

When one of Tara's older brother's left the family compound in Idaho to study at Brigham Young University, for the first time Tara realized there was a world outside her father's blustery preaching. Despite having never set foot in a classroom, she began to study for the ACT exam, teaching herself enough math, grammar, and science to achieve the score she needed to attend BYU herself. But this decision didn't please her father, who believed college professors were liars and hypocrites sure to take Tara down a blasphemous path.

In Educated, Westover shares her story about being caught between loyalty to family and God, and the desire to find your own way, to learn things on your own. She touches on learning about things like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement for the first time, and how difficult she found being on her own, dealing with the disapproval of her father.

While this book deals with the educational triumphs Westover ultimately achieves despite all of the obstacles thrown in her way, this is a tough story to read as well, because she also shares what it is like to constantly have your self-worth undermined by those who claim to love you and want what's best for you. How can you ever truly believe you deserve a life in which you don't have to worry about abuse, humiliation, and degradation, when it is your own family causing these things? Where do you find the strength to say you've had enough when you know doing so might cost you your family?

I'm late to the party in reading this, and I will admit this wasn't quite the book I expected, as I thought it would focus more on Westover's education than her upbringing and the emotional and physical abuse she endured for years. Obviously, this, too, was part of her education, but at times I found the continuous pattern of behaviors really difficult to keep reading about. I realize that those around her must have felt the same way—just when they thought she might be making a breakthrough she let the same things happen to her over and over and over again.

Even though this wasn't an enjoyable book per se, it was written so skillfully, and Westover's story was so compelling that I read the entire book in a day thanks to a flight and a long car ride.

This is an important, poignant, thought-provoking book which demonstrates how one woman found the courage to achieve despite being surrounded by those who told her she shouldn't or she couldn't. What a punch this packed.

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