In this 2018 account, Tara Westover explores her childhood as the youngest of seven siblings in a Mormon survivalist family in rural Idaho. Public schools and doctors were considered the tools of the devil, and Westover spent the first nine years of her life without a birth certificate. After her older brother, Tyler, left home to go to college, he encouraged Tara to do the same. But even as she worked toward independence by acting in local theater productions and studying for the ACT, family stood in her way: her father did not support her ambitions, and another older brother, “Shawn,” violently bullied and abused her. Against long odds, Westover won a scholarship from Brigham Young University, a fellowship from Harvard, and, finally, a doctorate in history from Cambridge, a process of ongoing education that gave – and cost – her much.
Since its release last year, Educated has garnered praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. It isn’t hard to see why. A raw, messy, yet ultimately inspirational tale, it is at once astonishing and relatable. Not going to the hospital after suffering life-threatening injuries or making it to college without ever having learned what the Holocaust is may seem unfathomable to the great majority of us who did not share Westover’s upbringing. At the same time, balancing affection for family with the need for space, standing up to abuse, battling self-doubt, and trying to find your place in the world are hurdles that many have had to cross, and Westover captures the difficulty of doing so as well has her own often conflicted feelings with clarity and poise. She shows both steel resolve and paralyzing uncertainty as well as a thirst for knowledge and exploration tempered by the lure of the past.
That being said, it is possible that Educated has taken some measure of dramatic license. Westover’s parents have disputed the account, but that can easily be read as living in denial or trying to save face. However, even Tyler, though generally supportive of the memoir, has challenged the depiction of their parents as anti-education (as opposed to merely homeschoolers who disdained public schools). Add to that a 2009 photo of their father that shows none of the facial deformities the book makes clear that he has as well as the author’s admitted haziness regarding some of her own memories, and it is fair to ask what may have been altered to tell the best story.
These concerns do not invalidate the book or make it any less worth reading, nor should it be read for the wrong reasons. Educated is not an indictment of Mormonism or of homeschooling, but rather of the sort of warped mindset that regards rolling up one’s sleeves while working outside in the summer heat as a scandalous affront, BYU as a hotbed of worldly, godless socialism, and being in excruciating pain after narrowly surviving an explosion a divine gift that should be warmly welcomed. The book – and the “Dr.” that now precedes Westover’s name – also affirm that adversity is not destiny, and it is this latter message that is needed now more than ever.