It appears on Barack Obama’s Instagram list of favorite books from the past year, and it landed in the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2018. Tara Westover’s story of successful escape from ideological extremism has a unifying quality. In Idaho, one family embodied this anti-establishment, God-fearing mentality to an extreme. Tara Westover is one of seven children born to survivalist Mormon parents in the mountain West. Her memoir, “Educated,” gives a powerful narrative of the life of a sheltered child with a burning desire to participate in the outside world, no matter what it may cost her.
The youngest of seven children, Tara is forced to grow up quickly in terms of physical labor, while maturing far too slowly both academically and emotionally. Trapped in a household that was constantly preparing for the Days of Abomination or a police raid that would send them running for the hills, Tara spent most of her childhood believing in a perversely distorted system of beliefs far outside the realm of 21st century Mormonism. Her father, whose pseudonym is Gene, had a kind of paranoia that she would later pin as a personality disorder. These delusions led Gene to prohibit his children from going to school or the doctor or even having birth certificates.
At age 10, Tara started working with her older siblings in her father’s junkyard, operating around hazardous equipment that could maim or murder with one false move. Her brothers were usually promoted to work on a variety of other construction projects, some so harmful that they ended in lifelong scars or disabilities. Regardless of the injury – brain damage, catching on fire or almost bleeding to death – it was treated with Mother’s herbs, and calling 911 was a last resort.
Tara also endures violent physical and emotional abuse from her older brother, whom she calls Shaun, throughout her childhood and teenage years. He was hot and cold. He broke her wrist, called her a whore, threatened to kill her and then turned around to beg for forgiveness. Yet her parents choose to ignore Shaun’s erratic and severe behavior, claiming that Tara has fabricated these stories in her mind. Their failure to accept the truth pushes Tara further and further away.
Tara follows in the path of her older brother by studying in private and eventually taking the ACT all on her own. By some miracle, she gets a high enough score to be accepted to Brigham Young University. After overcoming resistance from her parents, she is able to attend college at age 17. Her stunted maturity plays out in shocking and humiliating ways throughout the first several years of being away from home. From raising her hand in a crowded classroom to ask what the Holocaust was to her irregular shower schedule, friends don’t come naturally. Yet despite many financial, social and mental battles, Tara graduates from BYU, completes a fellowship at Harvard, and earns a Ph.D. from Cambridge.
Tara is given an ultimatum by her parents: to choose between her family and herself; it is clear, however, that she has been actively making the decision all along. Though the journey was marked by guilt and regret for leaving her old life behind, Tara chose her freedom, her education every time.
“Educated” is a difficult book for a difficult time in America, and its relevance cannot be understated. Tara Westover’s story speaks to the human capacity to change – however drastically – even if it takes a fight.