Tara Westover, the author of Educated, grew up in the country, in view of Buck’s Peak, in Idaho. Previous books I’ve read about the ‘heartland’ and its ‘real American’ inhabitants—whatever that is supposed to mean to those that use the term to describe themselves while denigrating urban folks—idealize rural life. Westover has a very different story to tell.
Tara is the youngest of seven children, born into a fundamentalist Mormon family. As the book begins, her father, Gene, seems perhaps only quirky—he preaches against drinking milk. As we read on, we realize he must be mentally ill. He is so afraid of the outside world and so insistent on protecting his family from it that he has no birth certificates for many of the children (no records for the government to use to track them—and, in his mind, the feds are always working to track them down). He doesn’t allow visits to the doctor since those exhibit a lack of faith in God. He insists that his wife become an uncertified midwife to help birth children for other parents they know who also want nothing to do with doctors.
Most important of all, Tara and her siblings are kept out of public school so that the government will not teach them evil ways. Their parents are supposedly home teaching them, but, in reality, almost no teaching is going on. Tara and a few of her siblings who are interested in being educated work hard to have the opportunity to learn. Eventually, Tara, with the help of a brother, teaches herself enough to take the ACT test and get into Brigham Young University. But before she can use education as an escape route, she suffers severally at the hands of one of her brothers, Shawn, who exhibits traits of sociopathy. Though she tries to get her parents to stop the abuse, they shrug it off, insisting that it is not happening, or, when confronted with real evidence, that it was accidental or horseplay that had gone too far.
That Westover and her siblings survived their upbringing is, quite honestly, the most astonishing thing to me. They do not however, come through it unscathed. Not only were they psychologically abused and mentally damaged, but they were physically harmed in completely unnecessary accidents. Their parents have more than one collision in the family car through sheer stupidity and a refusal to accept that nature and weather are not under their control. Their father demands that they work in his junkyard in very dangerous conditions; he insists that they use heavy equipment without proper safety garments and without fail safe plans. He even hoists them into the air to work on an open platform, telling them that a bucket such as a donkey lift is for sissies. As you might guess, there are many falls, concussions, third-degree burns, open wounds, and, yes, near deaths. This never stops Gene from repeating the same mistakes, over and over.
Each time the parents risk the lives of their children, they put it in God’s hands. To them, this is a deep act of faith. To the reader, it is a criminal refusal of responsibility.
Once Tara is grown and off to university, the Westover parents, particularly her father, begin to have a cultish following of employees and extended family members. They make a good deal of money selling essential oils and natural cures. They reinvest much of it in preparations for surviving an apocalypse or a raid by the federal government.
Because Tara will not allow the lie that her brother Shawn didn’t really abuse her; because she refused to continue to bow to their soul-crushing religious fanaticism, as well as their fear of outsiders, the government, and formal education, her parents cut off all communication with her. While it’s hard to leave family behind—and thankfully, Westover has one brother who also separated himself from the tribe and backed her up in her bid to remove herself from Shawn—it is the only way for Tara to move forward.
High school housekeeping: While this is an adult memoir, I highly recommend it for teens as well. I know many students who loved The Glass Castle. (I reviewed here.) All of them will not be able to put Educated down. While The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is about wildly negligent parents, Educated is about wildly dangerous parents—a pair who physically, emotionally and mentally harm their children, all in the name of being free of government constraints and honoring God. Any teen going through difficult times might take heart at what Westover is able to do as she works all the way to Cambridge University and a doctorate in history.