Educated, A Memoir: Book Review

Educated, A Memoir: Book Review

By Beatrice Ballarin

This year I picked Educated by Tara Westover for my summer readings by the Venetian beaches. I have heard a lot about this book, although I do not usually read memoirs, I decided to see for myself why this book became so popular.

From an Italian perspective, I barely knew anything about the obscure faction of Mormon Survivalists the author was born into- to me, all of this has always been far away on the other side of the ocean. Nevertheless, the stereotypical image that I had of the US is of a land full of opportunities, jobs, prosperity, and big universities. How little did I know that what I was about to read was going to shock me deeply and change my perspective on the States.

There once was a little girl from the remote mountains of Idaho that had never been in a classroom. Born in a poor family of rural Mormon survivalists, she spent most of her childhood preparing for the “end of the world” by canning peaches. Tara was the youngest of seven children being raised outside of modern society-neither her nor her siblings even had birth certificates.

“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.” 

She spent her summers organizing medicinal herbs for her mother, who was a healer and an experienced-but unlicensed-midwife. During the winters, she worked a precarious job in her father’s junkyard, without the use of protective equipment. Although there were innumerable accidents and injuries, the father’s mistrust for western medicine prohibited access to hospitals and instead relied on home remedies. Thus, the Westover family had never seen a nurse or a doctor before. Shockingly, car crashes and even major burns from explosions were treated at home through the use of herbs. As the reader, the father’s strict rules and extremist beliefs about the coming “End Times” are difficult to comprehend, but for Tara, it was all she ever knew. Until she started asking questions.

Besides mistrust of mainstream medicine, including hospitals, there was also a fear of the federal government and public education. This led the Westover family to become extremely isolated from mainstream Mormon society, with no one to intervene when Tara was constantly abused and beaten up by her older brother. There was no one to support her – not even her parents. Only as an adult, and far removed from her homeland, did Tara start to realize that her father might be suffering from bipolar disorder. This tragic combination of events pushed Tara to rebel against her parents’ view of the world and actively seek to educate herself. She started by teaching herself enough math to pass the GRE and get herself admitted to college, where she studied history for the first time.

She recalled an episode during modern history class during her first year at the university, where the professor showed pictures of bony people, looking sad, and wearing what looked like striped pyjamas. She recounts with embarrassment that she failed to recognize the holocaust in that picture- she’d never even heard of it before. When she asked publicly in the classroom what was going on in the picture, her cheeks quickly burned with shame for not knowing. In that moment she made a promise to herself to study all that she could about the world that had been kept hidden from her.

“The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.” 

And study she did, though not without struggles, she eventually enrolled into a PhD program at the prestigious Cambridge University, all without the support of her family. Her desire to learn changed her; she started to see how the world worked outside the walls of her home in Idaho. Now, she often wonders if she has traveled too far from her family, and if a way home is still possible. It is of no question that her education saved her, literally. Although, to the reader, it appears as if Tara is not quite ready to fully step into this new world and she often feels insecure and even discouraged about her new, “enlightened” self.

Educated is a book about struggle and self-invention. It is about family loyalty and the grief that comes when abandoning it. It describes the background of the rural US, where besides the metropolitan cities like New York or San Francisco, this is still a reality that some face and struggle to escape. It describes, with the heartbreaking emotional distance of a self-emancipated daughter, the people Tara loved but who also wronged her or failed her. It is almost as if she is talking about the past of someone else, as if she fears her memories to be true, because they are terrifying. It describes the power that education has to offer, allowing a person’s to revisit her life through new eyes.

“Curiosity is a luxury for the financially secure.”

Maybe with this book Tara tried to put all the pieces of her life together, attempting to better understand what happened to her. And to, with respect, ultimately forgive and be able to break away from the umbilical cord tying her to her past and be free. As she puts it, in the last line of the book: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education”.