by Helen Patterson
Tara Westover was born to fanatically devout parents who spent most of their lives preparing for the apocalypse and the subsequent collapse of civilization. She and her siblings had little formal primary education and went untreated for serious, life-threatening injuries because of her parents’ belief that the government, school system, and all of medicine were embroiled in conspiracies. After leaving home and studying at Brigham Young University (B.A., 2008) and Cambridge (M.Phil., Trinity College, 2009; Ph.D. in history, 2014), Westover wrote Educated: A Memoir about her experience growing up, and away from, her family.
Religion and fanaticism are constant themes in this book, but Westover makes clear from the author’s note at the beginning that “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.” Taking these words to heart is fundamental for understanding what Westover is trying to accomplish with the book. She is not attacking religion or Mormonism, and what she presents is not a morality tale or a conversion (or deconversion) narrative. The deeply personal nature of faith means it cannot be inherently good or evil; it is human. Anyone who reads Educated without taking this message to heart will miss the depth and richness of Westover’s book and her experiences.
Abuse and hardship have run throughout Westover’s life. The physical toll of working in her father’s junkyard, the debilitating injuries from multiple car accidents and third-degree burns, and the constant, grinding hardship of near-poverty are always with her. More dangerous is her unpredictable father, prone to fits of rage when his authority and religious dogma are questioned. Most dangerous, perhaps, is Tara’s brother, Shawn, who belittles and shames her, concusses her, holds her head underwater in the toilet multiple times, and breaks her wrist. Shawn drives a wedge between her and the rest of the family. He also drives a wedge inside her mind, making her ashamed and doubtful of her reason even as she succeeds academically.
In memoir, there is always the peril of falsehood. For Westover, memory—specifically, whose memories are “true”—becomes a battleground. Her abusive brother Shawn denies that he ever hurt her and reframes their every encounter so that she was the one at fault. He sways their parents to his side, and eventually this forces an ultimatum from their father: She can recant her own memories, renounce her willful, secular self, and return to the family. Alternatively, she can deny this grace, this way back into the fold, and stand by the veracity of her experience and emotions and lose her family.
Westover’s choice is difficult, but not impossible. She realizes that “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. . . . If I yielded now . . . I would lose custody of my own mind” (304). For Westover, this is what it means to become educated: you gain your own mind and become your own person. You choose your own truth. When Westover stands up for her selfhood and denies her father, she is doing what every healthy adult does, though for many of us the stakes are lower.
While no review can do full justice to a person’s life story, I hope this one encourages readers to give Westover’s Educated the attention is deserves.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.