Tara Westover’s memoir Educated isn’t really about education as we might think we understand it – education as it’s understood by schools and universities. What it is about is finding a sense of one’s separate self in an environment that wants to subsume you entirely. Westover grew up in rural Idaho, the youngest of seven children born to a fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father believed that he could only preserve his own safety and that of his wife and children by separating them from the world, so Westover had no birth certificate, never attended school, and spent the early years of her life canning peaches in preparation for the apocalypse. As a result, her knowledge of the outside world was incredibly limited: when she enrolled in formal education for the first time, starting at Brigham Young University (BYU) at the age of seventeen, she didn’t realise she had to read her art history textbook rather than just looking at the pictures, and had never heard of the Holocaust. On the surface, Westover’s story is about how she got from being the girl who had read little except for the Bible, the writings of Mormon religious leaders and the American founding fathers to the woman who graduated with a PhD from Cambridge – except that it isn’t really about that either.
Westover’s father, and one of her brothers, were fundamentally abusive, and her mother – successful in her own right, first as the local midwife and then through running a business selling herbal remedies – colluded in the abuse. Westover writes incredibly well about how she came to understood who she was outside the belief system built up by her father, where lumps of scrap were often flung in her direction across the junkyard where they all worked with no regard for safety, because the Lord would keep her safe, and because caring little about danger was one of the things that made the Westovers who they were. She sees herself as an adult as if from the outside: ‘I tried to imagine what future such a woman might claim for herself. I tried to conjure other scenes in which she and her father were of two minds. Where she ignored his counsel and kept her own. But my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there is Lies… I understood that no future could hold them; no destiny could tolerate him and her. I would remain a child, in perpetuity, always, or I would lose him.’ Later, she writes: ‘I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.’
Westover’s upbringing, and the kind of texts that she absorbed in her childhood and adolescence, explain something of Educated’s strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, her writing is powerful in its simplicity, but she falls down on invented dialogue, which is often stilted and cliched (“You must stop yourself from thinking like that… You are not fool’s gold, shining under a particular light.”) The basic structure of her story also assumes that education is an unmitigated good, even as she highlights fundamental barriers for those who haven’t had the expected middle-class experiences. Because of this, the memoir has little to say about education in itself, rather than education as a road to salvation, although for Westover (and the two of her siblings who also have doctorates) the response to their father’s imposed knowledge starvation was clearly to consume as much learning as they could. For these reasons, Educated didn’t bowl me over quite as thoroughly as I’d expected it to, but it’s still a powerful, brave and thought-provoking book.
Reading Educated in Tynemouth