It’s hard to describe or summarize this book. Educated is a memoir about growing up in rural Idaho to very religious parents who do not trust public education or the medical establishment. Westover’s father believes that the end of days will be on them soon, and he takes prepping to an extreme. Consequently, most of the family never goes to high school. As Westover watches some of her siblings leave home, either to college or ventures of their own, she wonders what is out there for her. But she and the remaining children at Buck’s Peak must first endure many more years of abusive or negligent behaviour, until eventually Westover makes it into Brigham Young University and beyond.
But this makes it sound like Educated is a journey of self-actualization and escape. Instead, what becomes so tragically apparent is that it is very difficult to escape from one’s family, even when one has physically removed oneself from their control. Westover’s narrative structure will be familiar to other abuse survivors. For others, I suspect this is a book that we will all try to read into based on our own biases. Libertarians will see the triumph of an individual who pulls herself out of a situation on her own (she doesn’t—she gets a lot of help along the way and is in fact incredibly privileged in the opportunities that fall into her lap). In contrast, I see the failure of systems.
The American healthcare system is just so broken, I won’t go into all the details here. But the failure of the system to recognize midwifery, driving Westover’s mother and other women like her underground pretty much, is one factor. The exorbitant cost of American healthcare is another—whether it’s physical care after debilitating accidents (so many accidents in this book) or mental care for issues like bipolar disorder, which Westover eventually speculates might be a factor in her father’s irregular behaviour. And, while I’m not opposed to homeschooling in principle, the failure of a child welfare system to check in on children supposedly being homeschooled is another factor in this tale.
Westover’s story is intense and inspiring, for sure, and she should be commended for all the obstacles she has navigated throughout her life. Yet for all the Tara Westovers who worked hard and received help rising above these issues, there are so many people who did not escape, people like Tara’s pseudonymous sister, Audrey, or even her brother Shawn (who himself needs some help).
This is a difficult book to read. Westover recounts what she remembers, backed by her journals and consulting with people who were there, with as little editorializing as possible. She often speculates about people’s intentions but tries to avoid moralizing about it. She wants you to understand where she is coming from, as clearly as possible, without injecting too much hindsight bias. So we experience, over and over, the repetitive traumas of Westover’s life. The car accidents. The child labour accidents. The emotional abuse and manipulation. The stunting of emotional and psychological growth—when Westover finally makes it to university and realizes how little of the outside world she has been exposed to, it’s heartbreaking all over again.
As disturbing as Westover’s childhood is, it’s her experiences after leaving Buck’s Peak that really resonated for me. I teach adults who are trying to achieve their high school diploma. Most of them do not come from such an extreme background as Westover, but all of them have some trauma in their past that contributed to them not graduating as a teenager. So when Westover talks about having to choose between books or food, about not knowing how she will have the money for another term, about considering dropping out, over and over … oh man, I feel that. I never had to go through that myself, because I am privileged, but I have seen students struggle with that. I have seen parents drop out of my classes because they don’t have reliable childcare. Students drop out because they need to work instead to pay the bills. People who have so much grit, so much potential, who are being told once more they have to delay bettering themselves just to survive. I can’t imagine how having to deal with manipulative parents on top of that would work.
Like many stories about overcoming abusive relationships, Educated demonstrates how it is easy to fall back into the same destructive cycles even when one knows they are destructive. Most of the criticism of this book feels so rote and predictable at this point: why didn’t she leave sooner, why did she go back, why didn’t she stay away from Shawn if his behaviour was so vicious, how could she be so successful if she didn’t go to school…? People are incredulous because it just sounds unbelievable, if one hasn’t experienced it oneself. People don’t want to believe that it happens, want to believe that if you are just “strong enough” you can pull yourself out of any situation. And that is not true. There are so many moments in this book where Westover isn’t strong enough—and there are so many moments where she is strong enough, but the timing or something else means she can’t quite pull away.
One of my favourite moments of the book actually isn’t something Westover does but her sometime-boyfriend Charlie. He leaves:
We met one final time, in a field off the highway. Buck’s Peak loomed over us. He said he loved me but this was over his head. He couldn’t save me. Only I could.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
Obviously now, looking back and writing that, Westover does understand. Smart boy, that Charlie. Too often those of us who are around people experiencing abuse fall into a saviour mentality—and that is not healthy for anybody involved. I was very impressed to see such a young person recognize that he couldn’t swoop in and save Westover from that life. And I hope that, in modelling that behaviour for her, Charlie helped Tara understand something important about her own life and her role vis-à-vis her siblings or friends in similar situations.
Because however you slice it, it’s complicated. Yes, Westover’s parents abuse her and neglect her. But they also love her. They believe what they are doing is best for her, what they are doing is right. Some of her father’s behaviour could be a result of mental illness. Some of it is ignorance or misguided religiosity. Whatever the case, I totally understand why it takes Westover so long to extricate herself from their influence—because at the end of the day, they are not solely this negative, draining force in her life. People and relationships are seldom black-and-white, good-or-evil, positive-or-negative, and these relationships are no exception.
Another criticism I encountered as I read reviews of this book is that Educated is beautiful but ultimately fails to have an overall point or message. It’s just a recounting of family drama. Westover doesn’t actually explain what she is doing now, where she is going from here. She hasn’t fully healed or moved on; she isn’t ready to write this. All of these things may be true, but I fail to see how they are criticisms, given that this is a memoir. Memoirs don’t need points or messages … that sounds like a marketing gimmick. And I think that’s the problem—this book might have been marketed to some as this big exposé of what ultra-religious and isolated parenting might do to someone, and I don’t think that’s this book at all. This is an incredibly personal story, and as such, it’s neither perfect nor is it supposed to represent some powerful point.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find it hard to be too hard on Educated and Tara Westover. It would be different if she were writing a political manifesto or if this were actually a book syncretizing 19th-century philosophy and Mormonism. It is neither of those things. This is a story of one woman growing up in an unhealthy household. It is raw, and it is flawed, and no, the book itself is not perfect, and yes, it is painful at times. This is not the end-all, be-all of memoirs or stories of abuse, nor could it ever be. So in that respect, I guess Educated might become a victim of its own positive hype. In reality, this is not an amazing book, and I don’t see why we have any right to expect it to be, beyond the inflated expectations conveyed by rave reviews.
This is a story. It’s one person’s story, one person’s personal story, and it is going to be biased and inaccurate and sometimes it won’t deliver the closure we demand of our narratives. Beyond that, though, what matters is whether or not Educated captures Westover’s own feelings about what she experienced and endured. Does it communicate to us her understanding of her life and her upbringing? Yes. It is one story, another story of abuse among so many others already out there, for us to read and consider as we ponder how we can improve this society we’ve built.