Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

By Sabrina Völz

As some­one who reg­u­lar­ly teach­es cre­ative non-fic­tion to uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, I’m always look­ing for new mate­r­i­al. Ear­li­er this year, I came across a high­ly acclaimed mem­oir that last­ed thir­ty-one weeks on The New York Times best­seller list. Edu­cat­ed: A Mem­oir is writ­ten by Tara West­over, the youngest daugh­ter of Mor­mon fun­da­men­tal­ists and sur­vival­ists from a remote area of Ida­ho, near Buck’s Peak.

Westover’s father repeat­ed­ly preached that the end of the world was immi­nent and that the right to exist with­out inter­fer­ence from the gov­ern­ment took prece­dence over all oth­er per­son­al needs. Self-suf­fi­cien­cy from his point of view meant life with­out any for­mal edu­ca­tion and health care. As a child, West­over was taught to obey, not to ques­tion. And when tragedy struck – which was often brought upon by the patriarch’s poor judg­ment – father still knew best. Fam­i­ly life was marked by dan­ger­ous, hard phys­i­cal labor, pover­ty as well as the con­stant stock­pil­ing of sup­plies, be they canned food or sur­vival­ist gear. Para­noid that the gov­ern­ment would some­how inter­vene, the fam­i­ly was pre­pared to defend their way of life by any means necessary.

Keen­ly aware of her sur­round­ings, West­over noticed – already at the age of sev­en – that her fam­i­ly was dif­fer­ent. Before enter­ing col­lege at the age of sev­en­teen, the young woman had nev­er set foot in a pub­lic school. Her edu­ca­tion was large­ly lim­it­ed to the Book of Mor­mon and Mor­mon doc­trine. One day, when West­over men­tioned that she want­ed to go to school, her father quick­ly rebuked her: “In this fam­i­ly […] we obey the com­mand­ments of the Lord.” And that was that. So how was Tara West­over able to gain uni­ver­si­ty admis­sion and lat­er earn her doc­tor­ate? Let’s just say her path was filled with numer­ous obsta­cles, the great­est of which was her own guilt and shame.

Severe burns and deep gash­es caused by acci­dents work­ing with met­al in the fam­i­ly sal­vage yard repeat­ed­ly taught the West­overs that life was lit­er­al­ly full of suf­fer­ing and pain. Nobody was spared. The junk yard and the father’s work in con­struc­tion only secured the fam­i­ly a mea­ger exis­tence. In order to sup­ple­ment the fam­i­ly income, Westover’s moth­er, Faye, became a skilled, but unli­censed mid­wife and herbal­ist. The chap­ters deal­ing with Faye as a mid­wife and faith heal­er pro­vide read­ers with an inter­est­ing diver­sion from oth­er, more grim parts of the book.

And grim are the pas­sages about Westover’s abuse. Her old­er broth­er, Shawn, put her in her place when she showed inter­est in make-up, teenage endeav­ors, and a young man named Charles. In addi­tion to repeat­ed acts of ver­bal abuse, episodes of phys­i­cal vio­lence include drag­ging the teen down the hall by her hair, sub­merg­ing her face in the toi­let, vicious­ly chok­ing her, and encour­ag­ing her to com­mit sui­cide. Need­less to say, West­over lived in ter­ror of her brother’s rage, espe­cial­ly since pro­tec­tion from her par­ents was vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent. And so when the young woman learns about the pos­si­bil­i­ty to attend uni­ver­si­ty with­out a high school diplo­ma, she imme­di­ate­ly buys a book to help pre­pare her for the col­lege entrance exam. Uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion becomes her one-way tick­et out of a cul­tur­al­ly script­ed, pre­de­ter­mined life.

Instead of find­ing a high­ly inno­v­a­tive mem­oir (it is a best­seller after all), Edu­cat­ed is writ­ten in a straight­for­ward, acces­si­ble man­ner. It is reflec­tive at times and sprin­kled with dia­logue in the right places – as are dozens upon dozens of oth­er mem­oirs. So why did this one attract so much attention?

The answer is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple. Edu­cat­ed is an escape mem­oir with­out being writ­ten like one. It is a good read with a com­pelling sto­ry about peo­ple on the mar­gins of soci­ety, whom the aver­age per­son is not like­ly to meet. And although the pro­logue is told in a lyri­cal voice, the rest of the mem­oir is most­ly marked by econ­o­my and sober­ness, even those episodes depict­ing abuse. It is unusu­al for a pre­vi­ous­ly unknown writer in her ear­ly thir­ties so tem­po­ral­ly close to her sub­ject mat­ter to achieve such dis­tance. Westover’s voice is nei­ther bit­ter, nor melo­dra­mat­ic. And that is not the only sur­prise in store for readers.

If book­worms are look­ing for a trea­tise on the dan­gers of fun­da­men­tal­ism or a stark con­dem­na­tion of Mor­monism, they might be dis­ap­point­ed. The nar­rat­ing I explains in the front mat­ter that Edu­cat­ed is nei­ther about Mor­monism nor about reli­gious beliefs. Some­how the mem­oirist gets away with most­ly side­step­ping those sen­si­tive issues with­out it neg­a­tive­ly affect­ing the book. And that feat alone makes this book worth read­ing. It also makes Edu­cat­ed some­what less like­ly to iso­late those close to the topic.

Instead of dri­ving a spe­cif­ic mes­sage home, West­over trusts read­ers to glean their own mean­ing from her non-fic­tion­al life nar­ra­tive, anoth­er fea­ture of fine writ­ing. Absent from the mem­oir are, for exam­ple, pas­sion­ate mono­logues about home­school­ing or the need for edu­ca­tion. Even with­out them, I found myself tru­ly pon­der­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of home­school­ing, a fea­ture of the Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem I had pre­vi­ous­ly tak­en for granted.

When read­ers are fin­ished with the book, they might want to lis­ten to the intrigu­ing NPR pod­cast episode on Fresh Air, in which Tara West­over can­did­ly talks with Dave Davies about her expe­ri­ences and mem­oir. Edu­cat­ed is dri­ven by an action-filled plot, sus­tained ten­sion, and good ole sto­ry­telling. It is what it is. Inspiring.

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