Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Educated by Tara Westover (2018), narrated by Julia Whelan

Hey, have you heard about this memoir by a young woman raised in a cult-like survivalist family that didn't allow her to go to school? If you live in the United States, you probably have. I read almost nothing about it so I knew little more than the description I just used. But I was intrigued, especially since its popularity has only increased in the past year since it was released. I decided to try it on audio and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was narrated by Julia Whelan, who also read one of my favorite books by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

So Tara Westover grew up in a Morman family in Idaho, and her father was super religious, convinced Armageddon was coming at any moment, and was extremely paranoid and controlling. Her mom basically went along with him although there were times she admitted that she disagreed with him. There were a total of 7 children in the family, I think, and the oldest few had gone to school for a while. Tara never did. They were allegedly homeschooled, but they really weren't. In fact, since they didn't have birth certificates, they legally didn't even exist. But none of this is the crazy part - what I kept being shocked by over and over was the carelessness with which these kids were all treated and the many accidents and injuries that resulted. Her father owned a junkyard and the kids were expected to help sort through piles of twisted metal. Tara was once injured when she felt from a bucket loader. She described some pretty hideous burnings and two major car accidents, in which nobody was wearing a seatbelt because for some reason they didn't believe in them. Her mother and one of her brothers suffered serious head injuries. Oh, and I didn't even mention the most important part of all this which is that they weren't allowed to go to doctors. Tara's mother just worked on them with her herbs and oils and prayers.

Eventually Tara decided she wanted to go to school, and she managed to study for and pass the ACT and go to Brigham Young University and then on to Cambridge in England and, finally, Harvard. Through all of this she was battling against her family and trying to deal with her past. She couldn't escape it - during her first semester of college she dared ask out loud what the Holocaust was and her professor and classmates thought she was making a sick joke. But she wasn't - she had no idea. Another revelation was when she learned the truth about slavery. She knew it existed, but had been taught that slaves were freer and happier than their masters, who were burdened with the responsibility of caring for them. When she learned the truth, she was stunned. Over and over, she learned and experienced things that went against everything she had been taught when she was young and she struggled to make sense of it, constantly doubting herself and not knowing when to trust what she thought she knew. But she's obviously very smart, and she soaked in knowledge, synthesizing it with what she had previously learned to come to her own conclusions.

Leaving home was not the end of the story though. She did return to visit her family, and things were just as strange as always. Another big part of the story is her relationship with her brother Shawn, a highly manipulative and violent person. Once Tara gained some confidence she talked with others in her family about his behavior and the danger he posed. They would agree with her, but then tell Shawn what she had said and they'd all turn on her. At times I feared for her safety although I knew she obviously survived to tell the tale, but I couldn't fathom why she kept going back to her family's home when it seemed so dangerous to do so.

This story was totally gripping. I have mixed feelings about these kinds of memoirs because I'm very aware of the enjoyment we're getting out of someone else's pain. On the other hand, if you go through something like that, having your book about it become so popular is probably rather validating. Her family is still alive - these events were fairly recent - and of course they deny her claims. (Who wouldn't?) I've heard that her parents are suing her, which is also unsurprising and something she must have expected. I'm curious to see what else she might write - she has proven herself a pretty good storyteller.

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