No one ever knows what goes on behind the closed doors of our neighbors’ houses. Beyond exchanging everyday pleasantries when doing yard work at the same time or occasional meetings on the sidewalk, do you even know your neighbors?
We all struggle with something. Finances, relationships, abuse, death, illiteracy, and so on, every family comes with baggage. However, some families tend to create more chaos and lasting damage than others.
Like Hillbilly Elegy in 2016, Educated peels back the curtain on another way of life and the devastating decisions of one family.
Tara Westover, a Cambridge educated historian, began life as the youngest of seven children in rural Clifton, Idaho. Her parents, Gene and Faye, belonged to the Church of Latter-Day Saints but were estranged from the broader community due to Gene’s extreme survivalist mentality. Survivalist mentalities, when combined with religious fervor, tends to give way to this extreme notion that the world will end in an undetermined period of time in the near future. While having a few months supply of food and supplies on hand in case of emergency is smart (especially in rural areas), the preparation discussed in this book verges on the extreme.
According to her memoir, Tara was born in 1986, but unlike most American residents, she did not have a birth certificate due to a home birth and her father’s obsession with government conspiracies. Her father owned a junkyard and scrapped metal for a living. Eventually he moved into the construction business. Faye, Tara’s mother, started out as a midwife and then moved into the essential oil business, both making and selling.
In my opinion, most memoirs should be read with a little skepticism. Life and family relationships come in varying shades of grey and everyone interprets events differently. Due to the fickleness of memory, no one ever recalls the same event in an identical manner. Our own misconceptions and preconceived notions color how we view and interpret what goes on around us.
That said, Educated paints a bleak picture of a family held in a vise by the rantings of a delusional maniac. Tara believes her father suffers from bipolar disorder, but due to a serious mistrust of doctors, never received a formal diagnosis.
I am not an expert on the finer points of Mormonism’s underlying philosophy, but a majority of Tara’s father’s rantings derive from a fundamentalist understanding of Mormon doctrine. Gene did nor believe in public education, modern medicine, modern literature, the study of history, or anything other than the Bible, the works of Mormonism’s prophets, and the words of America’s founding fathers. As a result, his children grew up without any form of formal education, little-to-no exposure to the wider American culture, and no understanding of American society outside of Clifton, Idaho. The world depicted in this book comes across as bleak and hopeless.
Tara experienced severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her older brother, Shawn. He particularly enjoyed using the term “Fish Eyes” to describe women, beautiful to look at but stupid like a fish. Several nasty head injuries exacerbated his predisposition towards cruelty and manipulation.
Of the seven children, three finished PhDs, two completed their GEDs, and the rest never graduated from high school or earned a GED. This created both a cultural and educational divide within the family.
The memoir is moving and well written. Tara overcame enormous societal, economical, and educational roadblocks to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. Truly a remarkable achievement. Her writing style is conversational and descriptive without verging into grotesque voyeurism.
The pain and hatred roll off certain passages in waves. Even if her father does not suffer from bipolar disorder, something clouded an otherwise rational mind. Mental illness? Extreme fundamentalism? No one will ever know.
We are all shaped by our childhoods, for both the better and the worse. Our parents’ values, religion, and lifestyle choices affect how we see the world and choose to conduct our own lives. Children raised in the same home, with the same parents, and in the same circumstances will all have different experiences and life outcomes. As depicted in Educated, the results can be mixed and heartbreaking.
Educated reads like a history textbook, unsurprising given Tara’s choice of profession. She meticulously depicts a rough childhood, even rougher young adulthood, and a brighter future. Despite the odds, she decided to forge a different path and pursue something beyond Clifton. You have to admire the determination it takes to go straight to college without ever graduating high school and ending up at Cambridge.
Apparently Tara’s parents are suing her over the contents of the book.
Themes Explored: autobiography, memoir, nonfiction, Idaho, rural America, Mormonism, survivalism, feminism, emotional manipulation, childhood abuse, education, medicine, herbalism, government conspiracies, family relationships.
Synopsis: Educated is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Educated: A Memoir, Random House, 2018, ISBN: 9780399590504