Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover
*Some Spoilers Within*
‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds’
– Redemption Song – Bob Marley (as quoted in Educated)
Welcome to one of the lengthiest book reviews I have ever written, as there was a lot to find here and many poignant quotes to share. What follows is a mix of summary, commentary, and admiration for the fierceness of a woman who was able to persevere in the face of endless adversity.
After having spent the first 15 years of my life caught in the crosshairs of an unstable and abusive alcoholic father, without the assistance of any adults that would stand up to him, there was much I could relate to in Tara Westover’s struggle. Her story personally affected me much more than I had expected, and I was all in from beginning to end.
Educated is a candid recounting of Tara’s sojourn to self-discovery. With an obvious gift for writing, hers is a memoir that reads like literary fiction, so at no point did I feel trapped in the depths of her despair. I was often taken away by her contemplative and affective prose instead of feeling laden with sadness, as can sometimes be the case with life stories.
I have always supported homeschooling (done right), and had I the patience and resolve for such a task would have had my son learn at home as well. The Westover’s, however, were unaware of their limitations. What Tara and her siblings endured on that mountain was merely indoctrination that left them woefully unprepared for the real world. The minimal instruction their parents provided them was instead of an education, willful neglect, and dereliction of duty.
With a parent often floundering in the recklessness of mania, the disregard the Westover children met with due to their bipolar father and silent mother frequently caused me to seethe. The persistent bodily harm the children were subject to was shameful. Whether when being coerced to work in the family junkyard or whilst enduring the near-fatal car wrecks they landed in when their father was in a depressive episode, their fate was always in his hands. The continual isolation from school and doctors meant no checks and balances from the authorities, and the children were left to fend for themselves.
The hypocrisy in the home was rich and would be laughable if it were not so disastrous. They were strictly monitored concerning clothing choices, fraternising with members of the opposite sex, or being a part of a dance class, only to be left unprotected while dodging flying objects – or being set ablaze – in their junkyard.
A lack of parental guidance may force a child to depend on instinct, instilling in them a sense of hypervigilance. What forms as a necessity for survival when younger can root into a fortress of fear and isolation later in life.
‘Those instincts were my guardians. They had saved me before, guiding my movements on a dozen bucking horses, telling me when to cling to the saddle and when to pitch myself clear of pounding hooves. They were the same instincts that, years before, had prompted me to hoist myself from the scrap bin when Dad was dumping it, because they had understood, even if I had not, that it was better to fall from that great height rather than hope Dad would intervene. All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine – that the odds are better if you rely on yourself.’
Trauma can turn you to stone, may convince you that you are impervious to pain, that you could never fall victim again. And this, in and of itself, is the effect that renders you impenetrable. This imposed encasing of your emotions leaves you incapable of letting in the good while you incessantly battle against the bad.
‘How I hollowed myself out…. I had misunderstood the vital truth: that it’s not affecting me, that was its effect.’
Tara commenced her education by reading math textbooks in the balcony section of the local theatre, where she was allowed to sing. Finding a way to make sense of the world was a step towards enlightenment, while the logic and order found within trigonometry helped to eclipse the chaos she was living.
‘I began to study trigonometry. There was solace in its strange formulas and equations. I was drawn to the Pythagorean theorem and its promise of a universal – the ability to predict the nature of any three points containing a right angle, anywhere, always. What I knew of physics I had learned in the junkyard, where the physical world often seemed unstable, capricious. But here was a principle through which the dimensions of life could be defined, captured. Perhaps reality was not wholly volatile. Perhaps it could be explained, predicted. Perhaps it could be made to make sense.’
It can be impossible to break the chains of dysfunction that tie us to our abusers, as we instinctively push anyone who tries to love us away, unable to reconcile what love even is. When chaos is all that you know, how can you feel comfort or solace in the calm embrace of an outsider? When will they realise who you are, and from whence you came?
‘If someone had asked me, I’d have said Charles was the most important thing in the world to me. But he wasn’t. And I would prove it to him. What was important to me wasn’t love or friendship, but my ability to lie convincingly to myself: to believe I was strong. I could never forgive Charles for knowing I wasn’t. I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and ever-evolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me.’
Tara continued to struggle with her identity when making choices based on her newly acquired knowledge. Her personal growth and strength implanted with it a sense of sadness, as it served to further divide and alienate her from her family, pushing her nearer estrangement. Although finding her own way was a necessity, as well as a reflection of her inner fortitude, it left her with a void that a family of origin fills, be they toxic or safe, loving, or detrimental.
‘ The truth is: that I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me and that difference is not good…I am not sorry, merely ashamed.’
The mistreatment Tara suffered was never exclusive to her father, her relationship with her brother Shawn mimicking that of a battered wife trying to survive her tyrannical husband. After countless beatings that kept her mired in shame, she blamed herself, as a traumatised brain is wont to do. It seemed that over the years, she coped by vacillating between fear and fondness for what she told herself was a special relationship they shared.
‘I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoke clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decided that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this [in her journal] until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.’
Not until Tara had heard accounts of Shawn’s abuse towards other women – even needing further admission from the men in their lives – did she trust her thoughts or the words in her journal.
We can speak endlessly about the damage inflicted by her father and brother, but I feel her mother needs to take a fair share of the blame, as well.
Not only did Tara’s mother not protect her, in many ways, she ‘parentified’ her. Like when trying to guilt her into caring for her abusive brother; that which her mother certainly had not prioritised the time to do herself, given how he turned out.
This ‘mother’ was often more concerned about covering up the image and fragility of her son, to the detriment of her daughter, and was quick to cut her off if she did not comply with the instructed narrative.
The exemption that Tara’s parents afforded their son at her expense saw her struggle with self-reliance and self-worth. I assume their allegiance to him is due to him being male, but it may also be for them to stay firm in their denial of how he turned out.
She found solace in her studies, as she took the ACT admissions test (twice) and stumbled through Brigham Young University. Accustomed to isolation, Tara suffered from social awkwardness and untold ignorance regarding societal issues and events in history. But, she stayed the course, and through ability and dedication, found herself with an opportunity to take her education to England.
In what seems like poetry, Tara went on to study historians at Cambridge. By escaping the dark shadow of misinformation cast by her father’s teachings, she was enlightened and able to study experts in the details of the past.
‘From my father I learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. Books that were of God – books written by the Mormon prophets or the Founding Fathers – were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself. I had been taught to read the words of Madison as a cast into which I ought to pour the plaster of my own mind, to be reshaped according to the contours of their faultless model. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself. Books that were not of God were banished; they were a danger, powerful and irresistible in their cunning.’
In the eyes of her father, all of her hard work and fearless determination still were not her own. He dared to take credit for her successes, declaring that it was on behalf of her homeschooling that she achieved such honours. He believed she should publicly relay more gratitude to her parents for this.
No matter how far she travelled, she forever felt tethered to her family and her responsibility to her roots. Often there were opportunities for the Westover’s to drag Tara back into the family fold of delusion and deceit.
Being asked to forsake all that she had amassed, to fall right back into that which marred her start, was not only selfish on the parts of her parents but impossible for such a devoted and transformed person to allow. To do so would have been a sure contradiction to the mountainous acts of bravery, grit, and dedication that she channeled to become the person she now knew herself to be.
‘Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.’
The rejection she received because of her integrity almost caused her to fail her Ph.D. at Harvard. She became consumed with depression and loss as she bore witness to the tug-of-war between where she was going and where her family needed her to be.
‘The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.’
The entirety of her family’s love, save that from her brother Tyler and his wife, was conditional. An offer of reacceptance into the cult of Westover was eventually put forth, via ultimatum, that would see Tara throw herself on the altar of their perceived righteousness, seemingly as a sacrificial gesture of humility.
In the end, the fool’s paradise that her family expected her to reside in was too ridiculous for her emotional education to allow. She could exist with the guilt that she continued to allow them to assign her, or she could move on and live a life grounded in truth, taking pride in herself and her hard-won achievements.
‘But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.’
Ultimately, I think the unresolved conflict that she waged within herself was rooted in her need to accept the different parts of who she was without shame or guilt. She had to reconcile that the girl that hailed from that dangerous mountain, living in the shadow of its demons, was also a part of the woman she now was. The convergence of these two personas would allow her to move forward in good faith and good health. Sadly – or graciously – this would have to be without the stranglehold of her family.
When perusing Goodreads, I saw that Tara’s mother had written a retaliatory book to her daughter’s claims laid out in Educated. From what I observed in various reviews, it was nothing more than an attempt to gaslight and invalidate Tara’s experience of her childhood.
She vehemently denied that Tara and her siblings were insufficiently educated or raised. In fact, she spent a lot of time defending her husband and his deranged behaviour.
In my view, their book provides proof that Tara continues to be the recipient of bad parenting. The Westover’s had no interest in protecting their children when they allowed unmitigated mental health issues to fester, and it was their (ignorant and paranoid) way or bust. She could not have proven Tara’s case any better than with the writing of their tone-deaf book.
Educated has made me a fan of Tara and her writing. I patiently await any lead she has left in her pencil.
I found myself thinking about Landslide by Fleetwood Mac a lot when reading this book, and even took a break to listen to it; it feels like a song that just fits the story.
Almost forgot to post this! My Free Bird Pencil Bookmark, inspired by Tara.
Have you read Educated? What is an inspiring memoir that you favour? I’d love to expand my collection with some stories of resilience, and would be interested in what you’ve enjoyed.