Tonight I am going to discuss a book that I finished just last night. This book has kept me up very late for the past several nights, because it was so interesting that I just couldn’t put it down and close my eyes. The book is
Educated: a Memoir, Tara Westover (2018)
As suggested by the title, this is a true story of a young woman’s extraordinary life, told in first person. Tara Westover was born and raised in the mountains of Idaho, where her father owned and operated a scrapyard and her mother was a midwife and made herbal remedies, which she sold to her neighbors. The family was Mormon, but as Westover is careful to explain, this is not a story about Mormonism or religion in general. Westover’s father was a paranoid survivalist who did not believe in public education or standard medical treatment. He spent a lot of time, money, and energy preparing for the “End Times,” which he believed were going to come along at any minute. Westover recalls the glee with which her dad approached the new millennium, believing (as many people did) that the national infrastructures would grind to a halt because of faults in computer software that could not comprehend a date of <00>. She records the resulting disappointment and struggle to adjust the whole family experienced when the dreaded Y2K did not materialize.
Due to her father’s suspicion that public education was a tool of the government and the socialist “Illuminati,” Westover and three of her older siblings never attended a day of school. Taught to read by her mother, she was mostly left to learn what she wanted to on her own. The home contained very little in the way of educational resources, and no one supervised or tested what learning might have taken place.
Instead, Westover and her other siblings were expected to work in the scrapyard, hauling junk and operating machinery that was way too complicated and dangerous for such young workers. Westover was only ten years old when she started working int the junkyard, which was done after her other chores, which included cooking and cleaning in the house and feeding and caring for livestock in the barn. Although there were moments of freedom and joy when she was able to ride on her horse or explore the wilds of the mountain, the majority of her time as a girl and a teenager was spent doing hard labor for her father.
In spite of this hardship, Westover was inspired by her friendship with a boy in town to aspire to higher education. She applied and was ultimately accepted as a student at Brigham Young University, the Mormon institution in Provo, Utah. Her experiences as a student who had never before taken an exam or participated in a classroom provide very interesting reading. Eventually, she performed so well that she earned a summer scholarship to Cambridge, which led to her acceptance in that university’s graduate program. The girl whose childhood universe had been limited to her family’s land and the nearby town was now trying to adjust to life and relationships in a much wider world. Eventually, she earned a PhD and is currently involved in post-doctoral research.
More interesting than her adventures is her struggle with accommodating her old life into her new self. Having spent so many years under the absolute authority of her tyrannical and unreasonable father, she wrestled with issues of personal worth and self-acceptance. She suffered through various injuries and medical traumas caused by her dad’s careless insistence on speed versus safety, and she experienced physical abuse from an older brother. The hardest thing for her to deal with was the ways her mother and siblings covered up for their patriarch and each other, not wanting to accept the reality of their own lives. This is powerful stuff.
Another theme that runs through the book is Westover’s coming to grips with feminism. As most Mormon women are expected to be stay-at-home moms, she wondered what was wrong with her for not wanting that ideal. She wanted to study history and social philosophy, which were not appropriate subjects for females. My heart was broken for her as she recorded her mental and emotional struggles with issues like these. Yet her observations led to empowering conclusions, like this:
…there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved, and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.
Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was a pleasure to read because it’s very well-written, and the story and themes resonated deeply with me. The author’s intelligence and honesty spill from every page. Have you read this yet? Let me know what YOU think!