by Tara Westover
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
“On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping…. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.” Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
It is hard to imagine that a child in the US today might go uneducated by a her parents’ choice. It is even more difficult to imagine that this child, who had neither been educated at home nor stepped foot in public school, could successfully educate herself adequately to take the ACT test and pass it with a score that would allow her to enter Brigham Young University at sixteen years old. Yet Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir (Penguin Random House, 2018), not only achieved this coup, she went on to crown her formal education with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
Westover, the youngest of seven children, writes that some form of homeschooling had been in place for a few of her older siblings, but by the time she was born it had devolved into a random, rare occurrence. Westover’s parents believed that learning to read was necessary but, “That other twaddle is just brainwashing.” Tara notes, “Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted I learn it.”
The Westovers were a survivalist/separatist Mormon family from the mountains of Idaho. According to Tara’s memoirs, her parents had established a family goal of being entirely off the grid and self-sufficient. They hoped to attain this status by means of hard manual labor and the money collected from a scrap metal business which was run by Tara’s father at their farm. Tara’s mother also contributed to the family income through sales of homemade herbal remedies and her earnings as a midwife. The motivation for their lifestyle was a religious one — readiness for the End of Days, which they believed was imminent. A defining event that fueled the Westover’s urgent preparations was the Ruby Ridge Incident of 1992, which took place not far from the Westover farm and resulted in the deaths of several separatists and a U.S. marshal. If there had been some attempt at homeschooling prior to Ruby Ridge, it was completely abandoned afterward; readiness and survival measures now took high-priority in the Westover household.
It was in this atmosphere of fear and agitation that Tara grew up. Despite the unsettling lifestyle, Educated is a memoir written with love for family and appreciation for the work ethic that Tara’s parents modeled for their children.
As Westover relates the events of her childhood, she describes a disturbing series of injuries in her family, most of which happen in the junk yard. Tara’s father didn’t believe in using protective gear while scrapping out the metal contents of the junkyard. The result was that over time, while sorting sharp, heavy metal pieces, several members of the family were badly injured; some injuries were life threatening. Multiple accidents occurred in the scrap yard and one might wonder how the author remembered all the traumatic episodes. Westover did not depend on memory alone for her memoirs but referred to numerous journals which she had kept since she was ten years old. Throughout Educated, Westover corroborates her journal entries with her siblings’ memories and notes the differences in their recollections.
Amidst the hardships, including emotional and physical violence suffered at the hands of an older brother, the author includes some heartwarming stories. One such story involves Tara’s gift for singing which she discovered during her first solo at church:
“Mother’s fingers hovered over the keys. The pause had become awkward; the congregation shifted uncomfortably. I thought of the [Mormon Tabernacle Choir] voices, of their strange contradictions — of the way they made sound float on air, of how that sound was soft like a warm wind, but so sharp it pierced. I reached for those voices, reached into my mind — and there they were. Nothing had ever felt so natural; it was as if I thought the sound, and by thinking it brought it into being. But reality had never yielded to my thoughts before.
“The song finished and I returned to our pew. A prayer was offered to close the service, then the crowd rushed me….”
It was her brother, Tyler, who had introduced Tara to the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and it was he who planted in Tara the idea of going to school. Tyler told Tara that although their parents feared the “brain washing” of public schools, education itself was a good thing. Education could lead to a better life away from the junkyard, away from her abusive brother. Tyler reminded her that a few years earlier, he had taught himself enough math to gain entry to college, and had scored high enough on exams to earn a scholarship. He encouraged Tara to do the same.
Tara writes that her curiosity about school was piqued by Tyler’s words. She also saw what Tyler had become after his time at university – he was now a stranger to the family. She worried that if she left, she wouldn’t be able to adjust to life away from home. She was certain that university-level classes would be too hard for her. Where would she get the money to pay for college? Surely this whole idea was impossible… wasn’t it?
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is a brilliant, beautifully written story of a young unschooled woman who prevails over tremendous obstacles to become her own person. Sections of this book are gruesome; parts tell of disturbing violence. Still, if you desire to read a moving, true story about the triumph of education over ignorance, pick up a copy of Educated posthaste.