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Educated: A Memoir Hardcover – February 20, 2018
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An Amazon Best Book of February 2018: Tara Westover wasn’t your garden variety college student. When the Holocaust was mentioned in a history class, she didn’t know what it was (no, really). That’s because she didn’t see the inside of a classroom until the age of seventeen. Public education was one of the many things her religious fanatic father was dubious of, believing it a means for the government to brainwash its gullible citizens, and her mother wasn’t diligent on the homeschooling front. If it wasn’t for a brother who managed to extricate himself from their isolated—and often dangerous--world, Westover might still be in rural Idaho, trying to survive her survivalist upbringing. It’s a miraculous story she tells in her memoir Educated. For those of us who took our educations for granted, who occasionally fell asleep in large lecture halls (and inconveniently small ones), it’s hard to grasp the level of grit—not to mention intellect—required to pull off what Westover did. But eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University may have been the easy part, at least compared to what she had to sacrifice to attain it. The courage it took to make that sacrifice was the truest indicator of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned. Educated is an inspiring reminder that knowledge is, indeed, power. --Erin Kodicek, Amazon Book Review
“If [J. D.] Vance’s memoir offered street-heroin-grade drama, [Tara] Westover’s is carfentanil, the stuff that tranquilizes elephants. The extremity of Westover’s upbringing emerges gradually through her telling, which only makes the telling more alluring and harrowing. . . . By the end, Westover has somehow managed not only to capture her unsurpassably exceptional upbringing, but to make her current situation seem not so exceptional at all, and resonant for many others.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Living proof that some people are flat-out, boots-always-laced-up indomitable . . . a heartbreaking, heartwarming, best-in-years memoir about striding beyond the limitations of birth and environment into a better life.”—USA Today
“Riveting . . . Westover brings readers deep into this world, a milieu usually hidden from outsiders. . . . Her story is remarkable, as each extreme anecdote described in tidy prose attests.”—The Economist
“A coming-of-age memoir reminiscent of The Glass Castle.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Incredibly thought-provoking . . . so much more than a memoir about a woman who graduated college without a formal education. It is about a woman who must learn how to learn.”—The Harvard Crimson
“Heart-wrenching . . . a beautiful testament to the power of education to open eyes and change lives.”—Amy Chua, The New York Times
“Propulsive . . . Despite the singularity of her childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”—Vogue
“A subtle, nuanced study of how dysfunction of any kind can be normalized even within the most conventional family structure, and of the damage such containment can do.”—Financial Times
“Westover’s extraordinary memoir is haunting in the best way, delivering a powerful coming-of-age saga.”—Paste
“Westover’s one-of-a-kind memoir is about the shaping of a mind. . . . In briskly paced prose, she evokes a childhood that completely defined her. Yet it was also, she gradually sensed, deforming her.”—The Atlantic
“Whether narrating scenes of fury and violence or evoking rural landscapes or tortured self-analysis, Westover writes with uncommon intelligence and grace. . . . One of the most improbable and fascinating journeys I’ve read in recent years.”—Newsday
“This gripping coming-of-age story shows a woman’s world being opened through education.”—Refinery29
“Raw and unflinching . . . lyrical and literary.”—Library Journal
“An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.”—Kirkus Reviews
“At its heart, her memoir is a family history: not just a tale of overcoming but an uncertain elegy to the life that she ultimately rejected. Westover manages both tenderness and a savage honesty that spares no one, not even herself.”—Booklist
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As Tara gets into her preteen and teen years, one older brother in particular starts tormenting her, and the tormenting rises to the level of hugely severe abuse. In part in response to this, she decides to go to college, and by pretty much sheer force of will, does well enough on the ACT to get into Brigham Young University. From there, she starts a storied college career and eventually gets a doctorate from Cambridge. However, each time she is drawn back to the her family, her brother's abuse continues, and the family denial turns more and more severe. The memoir becomes a story of her internal struggle---to believe her own version of her life and to have the strength to break away from her past.
I've struggled with some issues of my own in remembering the past differently than others, and I well know the feeling that the author has over and over. One line, "reality becomes fluid", hit me very hard. When you know something happened a certain way, but others can't accept that reality and attempt to change the past by denying it---Tara Westover is able to write about this so powerfully I was crying at points.
I hope this book gets wide readership. It's an amazing glimpse into a way of life that most of us will never know, and an inspiring story of one woman's ability to change her future.
I will start by quoting an email that I sent to Tara on Feb. 21, 2016. I still mostly feel the same way. Here are excerpts from the note that I sent:
“Overall, I like the book and wish that we could all understand it. It not only contains important messages, but the writing style and descriptions are captivating. … I could add a number of details on Part 1: Idaho. For your earlier memories, I was old enough to have access to more information, and I could clarify. I am not sure that I would recommend changing your text much, though, because my additions would also add complications. Usually in reports of scientific and engineering projects we follow what is known as the "80/20 rule," which is that reports focus on key messages and points and deliberately leave out seemingly contradictory or excessively complicated information for general audiences. The fact is that practically no-one can understand all of the details in a complicated situation, and focusing on the underlying themes is generally best unless the audience has specific need to try to grasp the details. I think that you did well following the 80/20 rule. If you like I could send clarifying notes that you could include in an appendix or as publication notes. As you mention, we have different memories and different perceptions of the same events, and I recognize that if you try to include my version, it will likely interfere with your clean narrative.”
Some elements in the book have been misinterpreted from the way that Tara likely intended, and I think that some things Tara misunderstood herself. Because education is a primary theme of the book, I will offer a different perspective on that topic here. In writing this alternate perspective, I do not intend to convey that Tara’s interpretation of events is wholly in error. Our parents are extremists, and they and other members of our family have done terrible things that have hurt Tara. There is no doubt there was abuse, neglect, and other awful choices. Those events are described in Tara’s book, and I will not add new comments about those events here. I was removed quite far from the family when most of those events took place, and for the most part they are not entirely clear in my mind. As indicated above, I intend to restrict my narrative here to my personal experiences or actual events for which I have clear accounts that I expect will generate little disagreement from other individuals who were involved.
As Tara describes, our father is very suspicious of the government. At one point, he told us, his children, that he was concerned someone from the government could come to our home and gun shots could be fired. Nothing he ever said, however, led me to believe that this concern was connected with our homeschool. Instead, he referenced Charlton Hesston’s sentiment that the only way the government would get his guns would be from his “cold dead hands.” To expand a little further, our father also said that he did not think that the government would send local law enforcement or even federal agents to take guns away from law-abiding U.S. citizens. He considered it more likely that such a task would have to be fulfilled by troops from the United Nations. It should also be noted that the guns in question did not include high capacity, semi-automatic rifles, such as have been used in mass shootings or are designed for intense combat. I have never seen our father with such a weapon, and as far as I know, he has never owned one.
Regarding higher education, many readers of the book have concluded that Tara attended formal higher education against apparently insurmountable odds. Perhaps it is not that surprising after all. Of the seven children in our family, six of them attended formal higher education classes (Luke is the only one who has not, and as described in Tara’s book, classroom education is not really his thing). In addition, both our mother “Faye” and our father “Gene” attended at least one year of university classes each. Our mother frequently encouraged me from a young age to prepare to attend university classes by the time I was sixteen. On the other hand, our father has expressed great dissatisfaction with the hubris associated with university education as well as its bias toward liberal thinking.
Observing people around me, it seemed that university degrees actually helped very few people in our community. Most individuals that I knew of returned to work on their family’s farm after getting a degree. Those that did not return, I really didn’t know about. Without being able to perceive a direct benefit from a university degree, I did not initially consider higher education very seriously. Our father was actually the person who first gave me a specific purpose to get a university degree. He told me that if I got an engineering degree, then I could provide engineering stamps for building and bridge designs for the family construction business. Our dad mostly created his own designs for sheds and other custom structures that his business built, but sometimes he had to have his designs stamped by a professional engineer. If I became a professional engineer, not only could I stamp our designs, but I could probably also be more flexible in the design to save additional costs in fabrication materials. The idea captured my interest, but I was concerned about being able to finish an engineering degree. At the time, I was about sixteen, and four years of classes in a university seemed like a very long time. Neither of my parents had actually graduated. I considered that the only way to make sure that I could graduate would be to win a four-year full-tuition scholarship; at length, that is what I determined to do. Tara was correct that my father often fought me to go to work rather than study.
Part of the application for the scholarship that I wanted (a Trustee’s scholarship at BYU) required writing an essay response to a quote by Blaise Pascal. Again it was our father who provided the best advice on how to approach the essay. He suggested that I spend a full day in the library at Utah State University to read all I could about Blaise Pascal to find the context of the quote and perhaps additional complementary quotes. I followed my father’s advice and won the scholarship. Years later as I was finishing a bachelor’s degree in engineering at BYU, Purdue University offered me a fellowship for graduate school. I was excited to go but also very hesitant. It was important to me that I marry someone who shared my religious beliefs, and that seemed much less probable in Indiana than in Utah. After much deliberation and hearing some negative stories about graduate school in far-away places, I had almost decided to turn down Purdue’s offer and stay in Utah. Before I made my final decision, though, I consulted my parents for their advice. They both recommended that I go to Purdue. I particularly remember my father’s advice. He told me not to let fear of the future cause me to miss such a great opportunity. With that reassurance, I decided to go, and after five years, I earned a Ph.D. from Purdue.
Undoubtedly, Tara’s experience talking about higher education with our parents was much different than mine. After reading a memoir, I would hope that readers have new questions about their understanding of the events and people being scrutinized rather than feeling confident that their understanding is now sufficient to render accurate judgment. Every person involved has their own paradigm and experiences.
Postscript Note: I have received some negative comments on the review above from people who think that I am trying to impose my experiences on Tara. That really is not my intention. In her book, in numerous places, Tara interprets for me and other members of my family things that we did, said, thought, and even felt. I cannot speak for the other members of my family, but in my case I think in many instances she greatly incorrectly conveyed my experiences. In the interest of a balanced viewpoint, it seems that I should at least attempt to share a part of my perspective, while still supporting her as much as I can. I do recognize this is her memoir, and she describes her experiences from her paradigm. However, it seems reasonable for me to explain my perspective and outline events that demonstrate the validity of my perspective, in my review.
Educated is a series of absolutely gripping set pieces. There's the story of nine-year-old Tara finding her older brother Luke, his leg on fire, in the front yard, and wrapping his leg in a trash bag so it wouldn't get infected before submerging it in a garbage can to stop it from burning. And then being scolded by her mother for using plastic trash bag, which melted to the skin. And the humiliation of her first college lecture, when one of the words on a slide was unfamiliar and she asked her professor what the Holocaust was.
There is also the devastating account of an entire family held hostage to the madness and violence of their father, and the brutal terrorism of one son; how each member of the family tries at different times to free themselves from this madness, and how so many of them fail, and the cost that comes with success.
It's about the unimaginable toll of a lifetime of mental and physical abuse, of being denied not just education, but a sense of self; of how the people we love can try to destroy us by taking away our own history, and how hard it is---but how vital---to fight back.
Brilliant book. Wouldn't be surprised if it's the best thing I read this year.