By Tara Westover, a personal journey about a childhood in a survivalist home
Educated, by Tara Westover, was one of the bestselling books on 2018 and has continued to top the charts even now, despite being released over a year ago. I put it on my to-read list thanks to Bill Gate’s book blog, and Ellen Degeneres read it after Michelle Obama recommended it to her.
Point is, if you’re reading this book, at least you know you’re in good company.
Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom.
Educated is a memoir by Tara Westover, a woman who grew up as the youngest of seven in a rural Idaho Mormon community.
It opens with an episode from Westover’s childhood. She is six years old. As it was explained to her, a nearby family, the Weavers, has been under seige and shot at by the government for being “freedom fighters,” resulting in the deaths of the mom and a 14-year-old boy. (In reality, the Weavers were in a raid gone awry for possessing illegal weapons.) It’s a formative experience, marking the point where her father starts to transform into a radicalized survivalist, and Westover wonders in the book a few times what he would have been like if she’d known him before that.
She and her siblings were all born at home and are homeschooled, and her parents are deeply suspicious of the government. Her father fears the influence of the Illuminati, thought that Y2K would be the harbinger of the Second Coming, and believes public education standards are just brainwashing.
The story is told in three parts. Part One details her childhood. Westover describes her father’s radicalization and the many serious (and often gruesome) injuries that her family members refuse to get medial treatment for.
In Part Two, Westover ventures to college at BYU. She describes the culture shock of being confused about what the Holocaust was or having to learn about slavery, and she struggles through her first romantic relationship. Finally in Part Three, Westover goes to Cambridge for her PhD and brings us up to date with her life now.
Book Review: The Good Stuff
Educated is a fascinating novel on multiple levels. As a personal journey for Westover, it’s triumphant and hopeful. Westover goes from receiving very little education to eventually getting her PhD at Cambridge.
As a story, it’s unique. Westover’s experiences make for a distinctive perspective, accented with colorful anecdotes.
And as a reader, it’s interesting to consider how her perspective is shaped by the usual fallacies of memory and perspective.
For example, as I was reading, I wondered if the event she describes in the first chapter was as dramatic as she believes, or if the drama of it was heightened by being told about it at a young age and slowly building a mythos out of it. How would she have viewed her father if no one had ever later described the scene to her?
Book Review: Some Criticisms / Caveats
To be honest, Educated is not the type of book I would’ve selected if it weren’t for its overwhelming popularity. It’s highly personal and not a topic I’m particularly interested in. But the story was compelling enough that I found myself invested in it, even if it did drag in a few parts.
I couldn’t help feeling, though, that perhaps Westover wrote this book too soon. It seems like the story we’re reading is the one she’s constructed to make sense of everything that happened to her, but I imagine she still has a longer journey to really process it all and what it means.
Some parts of the book, especially when it comes to her own behavior seem too neat and tidy to be the whole story. When her father offers her a blessing, she responds “I love you. But I can’t. I’m sorry, Dad” and he just walks out of the room. Scenes like that feel more like a made-for-TV movie than the truth.
When the book concludes, things are essentially unresolved with her family. I would be surprised if that’s where their story ends, even if they made some big mistakes.
Tara Westover’s Family and Responses to Educated
I went through a lot of the comments that her family has made publicly (on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads, etc.) about the book, and it seems Westover’s family members have been vocal about their disagreement (“lies”, according to them) with some of the parts of the book. However, throughout Educated, Westover often acknowledges the question marks in her memories, and it seems like they mostly take issue with the overall portrayal as opposed to disputing specific facts.
To be fair, it does seem like her family members are not quite the bumpkins she makes them out to be. At one point in the book, her mom has to force her dad’s hand in getting a phone line installed, for example. However, in reality they don’t seem as backwards — they run a business and are pretty active on Facebook and whatnot. Her mom comments frequently on the book.
Tara gives many of her family monikers in the book, but in actuality her parents are Val (“Gene“) and LaRee Westover (“Faye“). “Shawn” is the nickname for Travis. Her older sister Valaree (“Audrey“) and her mother run an essential oils business together. It has a Facebook, Instagram and even a YouTube channel. The family’s lawyer claims it has 30 employees, multiple facilities and relies on an automated assembly line (PDF version in case that link goes down).
On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that her brother — or at least someone claiming to be him — Tyler (real name) has come out with extensive comments that don’t seem to contradict the book. He noted some inaccuracies in her perceptions (PDF version), but seems to corroborate large parts of the story. Also, Richard (also his real name)’s profile on his university’s website (PDF version) corroborates the spotty education they received as kids: “Westover said he is probably the only ISU masters-level chemist who had to start with a beginning math course at ISU.”
Important Note: While they seem to want to share their side of the story, its seems sad that many people have taken that as an invitation to harass her family. As a reminder, they’re private citizens responding to a story about themselves. John Oliver did a fantastic piece on public shaming. He discusses how it’s often a useful tool, but also how it can be abused. I hope no one reads this book and thinks that the main takeaway should be “I need to go harass these private citizens / people I don’t know RIGHT NOW.”
Educated vs. Hillbilly Elegy
There have been a number of comparisons of Educated with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but they’re fairly different books. Hillbilly Elegy is a much more political novel that’s trying to explain the economic conditions impacting white working-class Appalachian communities. Meanwhile, though Westover’s novel involves a family that’s firmly rooted in Trumpland, her story isn’t meant to be representative of Trump voters or even of her Mormon community in Southern Idaho.
Westover’s father has more radical views than most in their religious community. He firmly believes women shouldn’t work, and he’s a survivalist, busy hoarding food and being paranoid about potential attacks from the government and whatnot. Westover discusses how he likely has an untreated personality disorder.
Read it or Skip It?
I enjoyed parts of Educated. It’s an inherently interesting story, and one that’s worth telling.
It’s not a book I would have normally chosen for myself if it weren’t for all the glowing endorsements, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. For me, it didn’t quite live up to the hype, but I do feel like I got something out of her story.
Have you read this book or would you consider reading it?
P.S. The last nonfiction book I was really enthusiastic about was Bad Blood by John Carreyrou.