Book Review:
‘Educated,’ An Unforgettable Journey Toward Self

One of the best kinds of best friends a woman can have is the friend who recommends and — better yet — passes along books that she knows you’ll love. I have just such a friend. In the nearly four decades I’ve known her, accounting for maybe 200 or 300 titles, she’s never steered me wrong. All right, once; she steered me wrong once. She suggested I read a memoir about letting your hair go gray. That was six hours I will never get back.

Still, I was appreciative when she handed me another memoir this summer. It’s by a remarkably accomplished woman who grew up in a remote Mormon community at the base of an Idaho mountain, the youngest daughter of a survivalist family. With the book in hand and some quick research, I felt as if I was the one living off the grid. 

How had I possibly missed this book?

Educated, the enthralling, if often disturbing and ultimately redemptive, memoir by Tara Westover, has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks. (It remains number one on multiple lists even as I type.) The same publication named it one of the ten best books of 2018. So did The Washington Post, Time, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Public Library, and Good Morning America. Celebrities have enthusiastically endorsed it. Not reality show/red carpet types, but people like President Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.

It’s been reviewed (and universally raved about) by countless critics. So, why am I telling you about it now? First of all, because if, like me, you missed it, I recommend that you rectify that situation immediately. And second, because Educated is ideally suited to Women’s Voices for Change. In its 300-plus pages, a woman discovers her voice (not the voice of her faith or of her zealous and, most likely, mentally ill father) and recognizes the changes that she must embrace in order to live a free, fulfilling, and educated life.

Westover’s official bio is succinct, but impressive. Born in 1986, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in 2008. She was the recipient of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned her Master of Philosophy at Cambridge’s Trinity College in 2009. The following year, she was a visiting fellow at Harvard. Four years later, she completed her PhD back at Cambridge. These are admirable accomplishments in themselves and represent years of serious academic exertion. 

But, what makes them remarkable to the point of near impossibility is that Westover never attended school until she matriculated at BYU at the age of seventeen. And her extremely spotty home schooling comprised reading The Bible, The Book of Mormon, the writings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and a solitary elementary-level science book. Inspired by her older brother Tyler, she prepared for the ACT exam by herself because she wanted to explore a life beyond the insular and paranoid world of her fundamentalist father. 

That father (she uses the pseudonym Gene in the book) ran a junkyard and salvage business at the base of a mountain known as Buck’s Peak. The mother (Faye, again a pseudonym) was an herbalist, creating tinctures and salves for the family and others in their community, and eventually becoming a midwife. From a young age, the Westover children were expected to help their parents with these endeavors while also preparing for the End of Days. They canned peaches, buried gasoline and other supplies, and each member of the family kept a fully stocked “head for the hills bag” by his or her bed. After Ruby Ridge, the eleven-day standoff between the Weaver family and U.S. marshals, Gene gathered the family and explained that they could be next. He told them how the government murdered a number of the Weavers, including the mother, shot through a window as she was holding their baby, in such detail that Tara had recurring nightmares that it was her family under attack and her own mother the victim of the sniper’s bullet.

Gene’s paranoia grew. He pulled his older children out of school (the younger ones, like Tara, never even started) in order to escape the government-backed brainwashing of “the Illuminati.” Although the Westovers attended church, Gene scoffed at the other congregants. They were “gentiles,” he insisted, not true Mormons. Aside from strained relations with their less extreme grandparents and other family, the Westovers stayed to themselves. 

Faye did allow Tara to join a dance class, but the young girl’s “modest” attire contrasted sharply with the leotards and tights worn by the others. Once Gene attended Tara’s recital (where the instructor had considerately chosen sweatshirts instead of more form-fitting costumes), he declared that the dancing was sinful, and Faye (as she usually did) acquiesced, agreeing with him in hindsight. Tara could no longer dance. She had a remarkable singing voice, however, and was allowed to sing in the choir and even audition for local musicals. When people praised her voice, Gene smiled knowingly and admitted, “We’re very blessed.”

These happier moments for Tara were few and far between. The constant feeling was danger, and not just because of her father’s round-the-clock vigilance and delusions of persecution. Real and serious injuries at the junkyard were frequent, ranging from Tara’s being hit by flying pieces of metal and debris (her father worked at an astounding pace and didn’t always check to make sure his young daughter was safely out of the way), to legs impaled by rods of iron, falls from moving equipment, and burns so severe that melted clothing, face masks, and dead skin had to scraped from the bone. The medical establishment was not to be trusted, so all injuries were treated at home with Faye’s herbal remedies. The family also survived two major car accidents (in both cases, because Gene insisted that God would keep them safe on long-distance, late-night drives through snowstorms). One left Faye with a brain injury from which she never fully recovered. All in all, it’s a miracle that the Westover children made it to adulthood. And the author makes it very clear that no one walked away unscathed.

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