I reviewed Tara Westover’s book, Educated, back in March 2018. Since I have been forced to lock down my original blog, I will repost that review here for those who are interested in my thoughts on it. I am doing this because Educated reminds me a lot of Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book, Small Fry, which I just reviewed yesterday.
That Duggar group I joined may end up giving me more bang for the buck than I initially realized. It was in that group that I first heard about the book Educated: A Memoir. Released to the public on February 20, 2018, Educated was written by Tara Westover, a woman who spent the first sixteen years of her life growing up unschooled and very religious in rural Idaho.
Those who read this blog regularly may know that I generally take a pretty dim view of Mormonism. I have a lot of reasons for feeling the way I do about the religion– reasons that are easily found within many of my blog posts. Today, I want to go on record to say that I know very well that there are many fine Mormons out there. Tara Westover was the beneficiary of Mormons who were just plain good people. I believe Brigham Young University may have even saved her life.
Westover was sixteen when she left home for college at Brigham Young University. It was there that she entered a classroom for the first time in her life. It was also there that she was identified as a scholar. She has since gone on to earn a doctoral degree in history at Cambridge University in England, stopping at Harvard University along the way to be a visiting fellow. Her story is incredible and miraculous. I found it impossible to put down, and it’s not very often that I can say that anymore about books I read.
Against all odds, Tara Westover, youngest of seven kids raised by an extremely neglectful and somewhat “crazy” father and a very busy midwife mother, now has a doctorate, as do two of her brothers. The other children in the family remain largely unschooled, save for the eldest, who did earn a GED (high school general equivalency diploma). At the end of Educated, Westover notes that her family is divided by an educational chasm. Half stayed in the survivalist world of rural Idaho. The other half went on to academic glory.
Westover’s family lived in Buck’s Peak, a mountain that changed with the seasons. Her father’s mother lived at the bottom of the hill. She is described as kind of cranky, but relatively normal. She had a phone, and when people would call for Tara’s mother to deliver their babies, “Grandma from down the hill” would relay the message… at least until Tara’s mother had a phone line put in, against her husband’s wishes.
Tara’s mother’s mother was known as “Grandma out in town”. She lived in a pretty house with a white picket fence. Westover writes that her maternal grandmother had come from “the wrong side of the tracks” and was treated badly by her peers. Consequently, she wanted her children to look like they came from a good family. Westover’s mother grew up wearing beautifully tailored clothes that her mother had made by hand. “Grandma out in town” would obsess over the outfits her daughter wore to church, which seemed to be a bone of contention that drove Tara’s mother to marry the crazy guy with jet black hair who lived on Buck’s Peak.
Tara Westover’s father was an extremely devout Mormon. He didn’t trust the government and only had his first two children’s births recorded. According to Westover, he wouldn’t take his children to doctors and relied on his wife to prepare herbal tinctures to cure them of their ailments. He regularly drove his children in vehicles that lacked seatbelts. Twice, they were in serious accidents and were injured badly enough that they probably should have visited an emergency room. In fact, Tara’s father didn’t even teach his kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom. When he was confronted by Tara’s maternal grandmother, he replied “I teach my kids not to piss on their hands.”
Westover’s father made money by scrapping metal and building hay sheds. He talked his wife into learning how to be a midwife, even though she hated the work and was reluctant to do it. Every time she protested being a midwife, he would tell her it was what God wanted her to do. Indeed, once she was trained by her predecessor, Tara’s mother was the only midwife in the area and was kept very busy delivering babies from cash strapped locals who couldn’t afford to go to a hospital. From a very early age, Tara Westover witnessed babies being born. She was also exposed to many other elements of life that most youngsters never encounter. Tara’s father was a survivalist and likely very mentally ill. One of her oldest brothers was violent and Tara often took the brunt of his propensity toward physical abuse.
Had it not been for Tara’s more normal mother and another brother, who had decided to venture out of Buck’s Peak and get an education, Tara Westover might still be living on that mountain rounding up feral horses and selling them for slaughter. Yes, wild horses were yet another source of income for Westover’s family. They lived as far off the grid as possible… as wild as the feral horses on the hill. Tara’s father relied on his family members to help him make a living. According to Tara, he tried to force them to work for him on multiple occasions. She had to be careful about the help she accepted from him.
The story of how Westover arrived at BYU is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was in her teens. Because her parents did not register five of their seven children at birth, the children ran into problems as they came of age. They had no school records or medical records, so doing things like getting a driver’s license or entering college was a real challenge. In fact, they weren’t even completely sure when their birthdays were. Westover writes that she’d pick a day every year during her birth month– never on Sunday, because it’s not fun to celebrate a birthday at church.
Tara’s brother told her about the ACT exam, for which many youngsters prepare for years. Tara took it the first time and got a respectable score, even though she had never been to school. She took it the second time and got a high enough score to get into Brigham Young University, known in LDS circles as a “tough” school. She achieved admittance when she was sixteen. Most kids at that age are in their junior years of high school.
When she arrived at BYU, Westover knew pretty much nothing. She hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust. When she told a professor she didn’t know the word “Holocaust”, he thought she was joking. She had no concept of how to do algebra and worried that her grades in college algebra would cause her to lose her scholarship.
Even her living situation was strange. BYU students are known for being very religious and clean cut. Tara took the religious standards to extremes, becoming distinctly uncomfortable when she’d see her roommates in tank tops or drinking Diet Cokes. When she got a very bad headache, she suffered with it until her boyfriend introduced her to the miracle of ibuprofen. The same boyfriend insisted that Tara learn to wear seatbelts and would not drive the car until she put one on.
A friend had to take Tara to a clinic to be treated for strep throat and mono because she had no idea of how to access medical care; she’d never been to a doctor for any reason. When her mother found out Tara was taking antibiotics, her mom sent her herbals, not to cure the strep, but to “flush” the toxic antibiotics out of her system.
When Tara finally applied for a federal grant to help her squeak by in school, she panicked when she was awarded $4000. She had only wanted $1400 so she could get a tooth fixed. Her friends and a kindly bishop had to explain to her that she could use that money to make herself a little more comfortable. Grant money does not have to be repaid. And… it did not go unnoticed by Tara’s roommates that she didn’t wash her hands after she used the bathroom.
Another kind professor had noticed how fine Tara Westover’s mind is and encouraged her to apply for a program at Cambridge University. Despite the steep learning curve Tara faced as she entered 21st century living, Tara was a success in school. But she still had to be convinced that she belonged there and deserved to use her academic gifts. And that is what I believe is the main idea of this fantastic story.
Years ago, I read The Glass Castle, a famous book written by Jeannette Walls. Walls similarly grew up in a very unconventional way with parents who were both abusive and neglectful. Walls’ parents believed in their children learning from their own mistakes. If you’ve read The Glass Castle, and a lot of people have, Educated will probably remind you of it somewhat. I’m pretty sure I read The Glass Castle when we were in Germany the first time, so it’s been about ten years for me. I’m glad it’s been that long. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to compare the two books.
Westover’s story is complicated, yet fascinating. The book is divided into three parts. The last part seemed somewhat less compelling to me than the first two, possibly because Westover had grown up and was now realizing that she couldn’t go back home again. Tara Westover’s decision to go to college caused a rift in her family. She no longer has contact with some family members. Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are interesting– especially the one star reviews, a couple of which were apparently written by siblings. Some reviews are also left by people who claim to know the Westovers and are offended by Tara Westover’s account of growing up in that family.
As I was finishing the book, it occurred to me that Bill’s daughter might be experiencing something similar. In fact, my perspective of Mormonism has shifted somewhat as I’ve heard more about her story. I still don’t like Mormonism, but I do think it can be a lifesaver for some people… Bill’s daughter included. As for Westover, I have a feeling that she’s figured out the truth about the church, but may remain in it because of what it’s given her.
Anyway… I highly recommend Educated. It’s a great read and an excellent example of what one can accomplish even when the odds are stacked against them. It wouldn’t surprise me if this book doesn’t turn into a movie someday.
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