Monday, March 2, 2020


Educated, Tara Westover

This is a book that will stay on your mind long after you have read it. Westover has provided a riveting and very challenging account of her childhood and early adult years. If it was a fiction book you would think the author had gone a bit overboard, but the fact that it is autobiography supports the saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, often much worse as well.

Westover was born into a strict Mormon family in Idaho where the father was convinced at various points that the end of the world was imminent and they needed to prepare. They were against the government educating their children and provided no real homeschooling at all. They were completely against medical care, despite family members suffering numerous major life threatening injuries, all treated entirely with the mother’s ointments and herbal remedies. Her father is strict and reckless, although kind at times. He dominates and controls all of those who do not follow his ways, and Westover later ponders whether he was either bipolar or schizophrenic. Older brother Shawn was very physically and verbally abusive in later years, which is possibly linked to when Tara hit puberty. He was nasty and vindictive, and no one in the family ever stood up to him.

She wanted to go to college, and was encouraged by older brother Tyler to do so:
"There is a world out there, Tara," he said. "And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear."
She teaches herself Maths and English from textbooks (with some help from her brother). After two attempts at the entrance test, she got a high enough mark to be accepted into BYU in Utah, a mostly Mormon college.

Once she gets to college she is almost unable to comprehend the differences between herself and others:
"I’d always known that my father believed in a different God. As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practised it. They believed in God‘s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’ve known that members of my own family were the only true Mormons I have ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the intensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between."
She comes to realise how little education she has about everything, and is drawn to history subjects.

Now two concurrent storylines emerge: Westover’s life as she studies and shows remarkable gifts, eventually ending up at Cambridge for graduate study; and then the realities of what happens every time she returns home to Idaho, where patterns of abuse and control reign.

In the end, she concludes it is education that makes the difference. Three of the children left home, got educated and broke the patterns of their children. Four were never educated at all, never left the area and all still operate under the dominating control of the men in their family. She is quick not to denounce Mormonism entirely, and this is no doubt an extreme version of it, yet the warning is there. A man-made version of religion can produce dangerous men, who twist and turn things their way. Of course this can happen without religion too.

This is a gripping story, but it probably needs a bit of a warning about the explicit themes of domestic violence in it. I kept pondering afterwards, what happens to the people in these situations who do not get out? Tara got out. She will live with the consequences for the rest of her life, but chose to be removed from it. What about Shawn’s wife, his sisters and now his children? Fiction you can put down, non-fiction you are left pondering about the real people affected. A sobering but compelling read.

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