One Woman’s Education
By Marcia Allen
Manhattan Public Library
Imagine growing up without ever attending school, without ever visiting a doctor, and without ever being issued a valid birth certificate. While that sounds fictitious, those facts are among the many astounding realities of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. I was captivated by this book as soon as I began reading, and I’m sure that many others will be equally rapt. Tara’s story will remind readers of Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls in that it’s an inspirational read about overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Here’s what the story entails.
Tara was born one of several children to a fundamentalist religious father and an herbalist/midwife mother in the wilds of Idaho. The family had little contact with the outside world, because the father distrusted the government, and he felt that his religious views were law. His ownership of an adjacent junkyard enabled the family to have some income, but the dangers and serious injuries that the children suffered while working there were unbelievable. Those serious injuries were routinely treated by the mother with a variety of herbal treatments.
It became clear early in the story that Tara’s dad was bipolar. While things went smoothly in the home for some time, at other times he became unpredictable and violent. Most family members, the mother included, learned to stay away from him during bizarre episodes. In fact, he made elaborate plans for the millennium chaos and was deeply disappointed when nothing happened. One of Tara’s brothers was just as troubled as the father and often brutalized Tara in an attempt to force the girl to repent for her transgressions. These imagined sins repeatedly earned Tara violent dunkings in the toilet.
As Tara matured, she realized that things were very wrong in her household, and she decided to attend school. She failed a first attempt at the ACT, but was determined to try again. And so she began a regimen of self-education that gave her the opportunity to attend Brigham Young University. There she learned about humiliation. Having no past experience in education, she found herself woefully unprepared to deal with college issues. During one particular class, she appalled her classmates with her lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.
But Tara was determined to succeed. She had an older brother who broke with the family and attended college, and so she had his successful experience for a model. Tara astounded her instructors and her classmates with her dedication to her studies, and she eventually earned a PhD from Cambridge University.
What’s to like about this book? The author’s determination and her hunger for better things. Her enthusiasm despite many setbacks demonstrates an incredible strength of character. Her willingness to gain life experiences is admirable. She refused to perpetuate the ignorance from her upbringing and traveled to see the world.
What’s not to like about this book? The family rift caused by Tara’s goal to make a new life. Other family members distrusted her educational experiences. Her brother, who had abused her when she was young, resumed his torment, until Tara realized she had to avoid all contact with him. The fact that her parents came to one of her graduations was heartbreaking, not because they were proud of her, but because they wanted to make one last attempt “to save” her from herself. Tara ultimately realized that there would be a permanent break with her family, one that would cause her a great deal of sadness and loss.
Though this book was released a couple of weeks ago, it has already earned a spot on the New York Times list of bestselling books. You’ll want to read this outstanding memoir.