Educated is a multi-dimensional memoir in which Tara Westover traces her voyage from an isolated and troubling childhood to the highest levels of academia. She grew up in a religiously conservative Mormon family in remote surroundings in the Idaho mountains. The family outlook is more than conservative – as Westover describes it, the ethic is survivalist, isolationist, and distrustful of outside influences, even those from mainstream Mormon sources. Telling are her father’s extensive preparations for Y2K and his ultimate disappointment when those preparations were proved unnecessary. The isolation grew, such that the older children attended community schools for a few years, but Tara never attended school, and her home schooling included little beyond the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
The dominant themes of her youth are dangerous work in the family junkyard and controlling and abusive behavior by an older brother. The picture is more nuanced, however, as she was exposed to outside forces in several ways. One set of grandparents lived in town and provided some contact with the larger world. She developed a singing talent and participated in church music and community theater. She occasionally held jobs in town and developed some trusting friendships with other young people. An older brother went to Brigham Young University and ultimately opened an awareness of that avenue to Tara.
These conflicting forces built Westover’s growing awareness of her talents and opportunities. This section of the memoir left some of our group unsatisfied; some readers would have liked more description, for instance, of how she prepared herself for college admission without the benefit (or burden?) of any formal scholastic training. Other themes were just as important as academic preparation, however. Westover covers how leaving for college allowed her to deal with mental instability and abusive relationships, her own sense of integrity, and the values of family relationships compared to academic work. Ultimately that is unfinished work and she is still wrestling with being part of family without being trapped by it. She deals very honestly with the reality that some of her observations and memories differ substantially from those of other members of the family.
Our group had an interesting discussion of memoir writing. Westover writes from the perspective of the age of about thirty. This gives her an advantage of proximity to the events she writes about, but limits the perspective that may come with more distance and maturity. We expect that the bulk of Westover’s professional and personal development still lies ahead of her and might lead to new reflections of her forming experiences. The etymology of “educated” suggests a drawing out. Usually this implies drawing lessons from the past or work of others or drawing the best out of oneself. This tale also evokes Westover drawing herself away from the complexities of her birth family into the world of higher academia as she studies at Cambridge and Harvard. As education should never end, we await what will fuel Westover’s future memoirs.
— Bill Smith