***5 Goodreads Stars**
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
“My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs.”
Educated is a memoir of Tara Westover’s unusual upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon household in rural Idaho. It is a heartbreaking, gritty account of life in a family who believes the Second Coming is near, who abandon formal education for homeschooling, Western medicine for essential oils and herbs, and the outside world for family. God, Westover’s parents reasoned, would provide, and His will would be done without the perceived constraints of the external world.
Had I not spent the last 9 years in Idaho, I might not believe that some of Westover’s story could possibly be true. Reading about how Westover’s parents eschewed hospitals when their children had severe injuries and burns, ripped seatbelts out of their cars because God was in control, and avoided public schooling because they perceived the government as corrupt and sinful was not shocking or surprising to me. The extreme remoteness of much of Idaho’s geography allows radical groups to flourish and go unnoticed by local authorities, giving them complete control and reign over their children and sometimes even local communities. For Westover this meant that any abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents and brothers would stay within her household until she could pry her way out of it tooth and nail.
The most miraculous part of Westover’s story doesn’t involve God but rather Westover’s sheer will to access education and break free from her family’s toxic household. In order to access college, she had to carve out time to study books on the ACT, a college entrance exam. Her father makes this hard, forcing her to work in his junk yard during the day, salvaging and sorting through brittle, dangerously sharp metal to be resold. Westover has to petition the county clerk for a formal birth certificate since she and her siblings were born at home; her mother cannot remember what year or month she was born.
Westover’s admittance to the Mormon Brigham Young University is met with familial disdain. In one instance, her parents throw all her clothes out in the rain when they find out she is heading back to college. When she comes home in between breaks at college, her father tries to assert control and authority over her as does her abusive and violent brother, Shawn. Both want her to be back in the fold, and try to manipulate her to stay through both emotional and physical violence. Ultimately, her choice to pursue an education forces her to make a choice between her parents and the siblings who work for them and the siblings who have left her family’s homestead for education and a life beyond their purview. Her parents convince her uneducated siblings that Westover has been turned by the devil, and tell them she is not welcome back home.
It is education (hence the title of the book, “Educated”) that thus creates a vast chasm between Westover’s siblings and parents; two of her brothers left home and managed to get Ph.D.s, both of whom choose education over their family, and both of whom become lifeboats for Westover. Education makes Westover realize just how much of her inner world was controlled and conditioned by her father and mother. Like a number of fundamentalist groups in Idaho, Westover’s father preached that slavery was good, “that slaves in colonial times were happier and more free than their masters, because the masters were burdened with the cost of their care.” Westover discovers how anti-Semitism colored her understanding of the past when she takes an introductory course on Western civilization at Brigham Young. Her parents never taught her about the Holocaust, leading to a series of intellectually embarrassing moments for her at college.
Because Westover was deprived of what many Americans consider common knowledge, the outside world is daunting for her. Westover was not merely deprived of a formal education; she was also deprived of the very knowledge she would need to survive in daily life. Since her parents were anti-government and believed that the Illuminati had infiltrated the US government, she had no idea how any sort of formalized processes worked. Her parents didn’t have auto insurance. They didn’t register their cars. They avoided hospitals at all costs. Westover has to learn to navigate everything on her own. Visiting a doctor for the first time is terrifying. She has never done it before, so she takes a friend with her to help. When she’s prescribed antibiotics for strep throat and mono, she’s scared to take the medicine:
“I thought of Mother, and of the many times she’d told me that antibiotics poison the body, that they cause infertility and birth defects. That the spirit of the Lord cannot dwell in an unclean vessel, and that no vessel is clean when it forsakes God and relies on man. Or maybe Dad had said that last part.”
For readers unfamiliar with extremist religious groups, this is an eye-opening tale of personal redemption and struggle amid a violent, abusive upbringing. This book offers more than just a shocking account of life in a fundamentalist household, however. It is breathtakingly written. Passages like the one below make the story come to life and feel as though you were in the author’s shoes:
“For two days we explored Rome, a city that is both a living organism and a fossil. Bleached structures from antiquity lay like dried bones, embedded in pulsating cables and thrumming traffic, the arteries of modern life.”
Thank you to the author, Tara Westover, the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy of Educated.