Tara Westover’s life is not only about getting a PhD in intellectual history and political thought from Cambridge University. It’s also about living with her Mormon survivalist family. Growing up, she prepared for doomsday by stockpiling canned peaches and packing her “head-for-the-hills bag.”
Instead of attending school, she foraged and dried plants for her mother, and salvaged scrap metal in her father’s junkyard. Her father believed in self-sufficiency and refused to allow his family to attend school, receive birth certificates, or medical treatment.
The Westover’s were so separated from society that there was no one to check if Tara or her siblings received an education–and no one stepped in when one of her older brothers became violent. But Westover did more than survive survivalists. She taught herself math and literature and was 17 when she first learned about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement.
Educated is difficult to read and impossible to put down. Westover is an extraordinary person with an extraordinary life. She is another young person who has left family in pursuit of education and is faced with balancing family loyalties and having the strength to see past their skewed sense of the world. She shares the heartbreak, guilt, shame, and love that comes with growing apart. Even if your family is nothing like hers (and let’s hope it isn’t)—everyone can find common ground in Educated.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
The content and takeaways from this memoir are exceptional. Here are three themes that stuck with me after reading:
Throughout Educated, the power of knowledge represents independence and the key to gaining self-worth and confidence. Education is an afterthought while growing up in the Westover’s home. Tara and her siblings are at liberty to homeschool themselves after their work is done. Even when she is young, Tara is aware that the lack of education drives the biggest wedge between her family and the rest of town. “I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.”
The more experiences and glimpses of life outside of her family home, the more Tara realizes that education will enrich her life and provide her with opportunities she wasn’t previously aware of. Westover’s decision to pursue education simultaneously broadens her world and makes it more difficult. She must come to terms with her lack of education as a young girl while trying to sympathize with her family who views education as dangerous.
The power that education has to transform is evident as Tara realizes her own potential and what she deserves out of life. Her independence is directly linked to her education as she becomes aware that she doesn’t have to rely on her family. If she gives up her new perspective and view of the world to stay true to her roots, she would also relinquish the new life she has created for herself.
“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.”
The inadequacy of memory as a source of truth repeatedly plagues Westover and her strained family dynamic. She questions the accuracy of her memories and shares her experiences in the book without complete certainty. This causes Tara a lack of self-confidence and grit as she struggles with remembering the details of her abuse. During the times she confronts her family about the subject, they insist that she is delusional partly because isn’t able to fully argue her position. Questioning the truth of her memories only amplifies her self-doubt and causes her to ponder her own self-worth.
Westover is aware of the instability of memory as she compares the ideals of her family with what she is learning and reading on her own. She becomes increasingly aware that her family taught her a biased version of history through their own religious lens that is a stark contrast to what she continues to learn in her own study. Tara is conscious of the limits of recalling any history, public or personal, as she struggles with the two versions of history and sorting out the truth from her family’s teaching.
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.”
Although Educated was not intended to be political, Westover touches on a number of familiar divides: red versus blue states, rural versus urban, and college educated versus not. She spends a large part of her life moving back and forth between these worlds and it takes a toll. Westover grapples with her identity as her perspective towards her family changes with an increased education. Her identity as a pious, Mormon woman, accepted by her mother and father requires relinquishing her identity as a thinker, scholar, and someone who is curious about the world. She is aware that the two cannot exist simultaneously but she is hesitant to give up her Mormon identity since it also pushes her further away from family.
Westover’s journey to self-discovery is a story full of sheer perseverance and grit. Educated deservedly spent a good chunk of time at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This story gets to the heart of what education is and what it gives: the ability to see life through new eyes and the desire to change it.