Tara Westover’s astonishing debut memoir, Educated, chronicles how she grew up on a southern Idaho mountain in a survivalist Mormon family, never setting foot in school—but eventually earned her doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge.
“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion,” Westover writes. Her father, a charismatic and self-reliant but often unhinged man—imagine Pa Ingalls with a few screws loose—exercises that dominion in myriad ways.
Westover’s father, whom she calls by the pseudonym Gene, limits his interactions with the government and the medical establishment to an extreme: He doesn’t want his kids born in a hospital, issued birth certificates, vaccinated or educated in schools where they could be “seduced by the Illuminati.” He makes a living as a junk dealer, and trains each of his seven kids to perform dangerous work, using metal-cutting machinery with no safety equipment, and hauling sharp and heavy scraps.
In 1992, when Tara is 5, news of the FBI standoff at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho spikes Gene’s paranoia. He stockpiles weaponry and food and builds a hidden bomb shelter. His preparations intensify as Y2K approaches, an event after which he believes “all would sink into chaos, and this would usher in the Second Coming of Christ.” We feel Westover’s sense of perplexity and loss when Jan. 1, 2000, dawns and she looks at her father. “The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this.” A less subtle writer might have caricatured or demonized some of these people, but Westover writes with understanding, love and forgiveness.
Gene encourages Westover’s mother to train as a midwife, assisting a woman who “had no license, no certificates,” Westover writes. “She was a midwife entirely by the power of her own say-so.” Westover’s mother eventually becomes a revered midwife and “wise woman,” crafting herbal treatments and essential oils for healing—ultimately launching a business that has become a major community employer by the time Westover heads to college.
Because Gene believes that his wife can heal anything, the Westovers never receive treatment, even for serious accidents and ailments, including hard falls, severe burns, gashes and car crashes. One of Tara’s brothers, whom she calls by the pseudonym Shawn, suffers so many head injuries that it’s tempting to armchair diagnose him with brain trauma; he becomes sadistic and controlling, brutalizing everyone in his orbit, especially women.
Tara’s desire to escape Shawn’s abuse eventually motivates her to pursue college—aided and encouraged by her brother Tyler, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Brigham Young University accepts homeschooled kids, and Tyler suggests she study for the ACT. Despite learning little beyond how to read and write (the Bible has been her primary textbook), Tara grinds through an ACT prep book and scores high enough to be admitted with a scholarship.
Tara’s initial experiences at Brigham Young are a huge culture shock; it’s as if she had been raised by wolves and then brought into human society. Tara’s roommates are Mormon, but they scandalize her by wearing sweatpants emblazoned with the word “Juicy” on the derriere. She appalls them, in turn, by refusing to wash her hands after using the bathroom, following her father’s instructions.
Westover writes about her studies with extreme humility. She’s never heard of the Holocaust and is flabbergasted to learn that black people didn’t begin to obtain equal rights until 100 years after the Civil War ended. She’s frequently lost in classes and fears failing, yet performs well enough to keep the full scholarship she needs to remain in school. Her professors, struck by the extraordinary quality of her mind, mentor her, eventually boosting her to a scholarship at Cambridge, a fellowship at Harvard University, and a doctorate.
Westover chooses history as her focus. She writes: “What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.”
Westover still loves her family and many aspects of their way of life—including the mountain she grew up on, and her singular mother, “that docile woman” who “had a power in her the rest of us couldn’t contemplate.” As Westover becomes increasingly dedicated to seeking the truth, though, a confrontation with her family about Shawn threatens to prompt her expulsion from it.
Whatever Westover’s father may think, his daughter’s life has, in fact, embodied the ideal of individual sovereignty that he modeled. It’s just that her pursuit of self-dominion led her on a quest for knowledge, resulting in a broader perspective than the one offered on the beloved Idaho mountain where she was born. This gorgeous, heartbreaking memoir, the product of the thoughtful reflections of a seeking mind, has the ring of a classic.
This review was originally published in High Country News.
Educated: A Memoir
By Tara Westover
352 pages, $28