Educated – Tara Westover

Back in April, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at the Stratford Literary Festival in which Tara Westover discussed Educated, her book about growing up in Idaho in a Mormon survivalist family. The book was still on my library reservations list so I was approaching things somewhat blind, but I knew I’d read it eventually. Finally, in July, I was able to link the speaker who so impressed me with the words that she wrote.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children. Her father – who likely suffered with bipolar disorder, although was never formally diagnosed – was opposed to public education and pretty much every other form of state-sanctioned enterprise. Her mother initially practised as an unlicensed midwife, before establishing herself as a renowned healer and herbalist. As a child, Westover spent her time helping her mother prepare her essential oil and herb blends, laying in supplies for the ‘end of days’, or working up on the mountain behind their home in the junkyard run by her father. The latter work was physical and dangerous, and both Tara and her siblings sustained serious injuries on the site.

The first time Westover attended a school she was seventeen. Prior to that, although her parents claimed to be home-schoolers, she’d had little to no formal education. In one of her first lectures at Brigham Young University, Westover shocked her professor and classmates alike by asking what the Holocaust was. No one genuinely believed she didn’t know and it was less embarrassing for her to admit it was a joke in poor taste than to confess the truth about her lack of education.

Once begun, Westover’s learning journey accelerated, taking her from BYU to Cambridge, then to a visiting fellowship at Harvard, before she achieved her PhD at Cambridge in 2014.

All of which is a staggering achievement given the obstacles she had to navigate to get there.

It’s hard to read Westover’s book.  It’s hard to stomach her parents’ neglect and the abuse she suffered repeatedly at the hands of one of her brothers. It’s hard to imagine the kind of parenting that wouldn’t insist a child wore a seatbelt in a car being driven at speed through a snowstorm, wouldn’t rush them immediately to hospital when they sustained a terrible head injury or a burn that stripped most of the skin off their leg. I’d imagine the hardest task for Westover in writing her book was trying to help readers understand why she didn’t leave sooner, or seek help, or condemn her family more publicly: it’s too easy to judge a situation when you aren’t living all the emotions it entails.

One of the things that struck me while reading is that it takes a special kind of wisdom to be insightful about your own family. While they’re often people you know very well, emotion tends to cloud judgement. I thought Westover had an incredible ability to understand her family, and particularly her parents, despite the pain they caused her. I loved this quote about her father, ‘Gene’, and the land that shaped him:

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation… It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

While the emotions in the book are undoubtedly complex, there is a lot of love and respect in the way that Westover writes about her family and the place in which she grew up. Which makes sense given that her family was both the source of great betrayal and also the strength and support she needed in order to leave. Westover explores the notion of memory in her writing and repeatedly acknowledges, when describing significant incidents, that there is often more than one version of events. The extent to which she struggles with the idea that her own recollection may be faulty (when so many of us assume it’s correct by default) is really interesting and sheds light on why she chose her particular field of study:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement – since realising that what a person knows about the past… will always be limited, to what they are told by others. […] Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. […] maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong, and the great historians… could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in.”

It’s public knowledge that Westover is now estranged from much of her family and that some of them have disputed, through lawyers, many details of her book. Westover herself reminded me that I was reading one of many versions of events and my overall impression was that she was fair and measured in her approach. It feels like her training as a historian shines through – she is adept at separating emotional response from fact, and at distinguishing fact from recollection. Given how much I felt myself judging people throughout, she is remarkably careful not to judge anyone too harshly for their actions.

When speaking in Stratford, she made a really interesting point about the timing of the book, describing how she wanted to write it while she was still in conflict about the decisions she made. Her view was that many books about estrangement were written some years after the fact, when reflection and time had changed the emotions involved. She also explained in part what caused her to write the book. Namely that stories tell us how we should feel about things/experiences and that her experience didn’t come with a story that allowed her to understand and process what happened to her. So she wrote it. Despite being so personal, she was quite happy for people to interpret the story and her decisions in whatever way they needed to depending on their own circumstances.

Westover’s education is the most fascinating of journeys. Some of it might be passive, sitting at home listening to her father expound at length on his latest obsessions, and some of it is dynamic as she struggles to fill cavernous gaps with knowledge that the rest of the world seem to take for granted. All of it represents an empowering attempt to put herself and her experiences in a context that she can understand and that will allow her to exist and to move forward.

Education for Westover is not always an unequivocally ‘good thing’: it brings with it complications and pain that make it far from the easy choice. But there’s a hunger in the way Westover acquires knowledge that feels deeply authentic. It’s like getting an insight into the way a child learns because, this time, the child in question has the ability to communicate their experience in a masterful, cognisant way. Westover learns in order to live, to experience, to understand, to grow and to break free. Not every student can be a Westover (and to be honest, nor would they wish to be), but her book reminds us of many of the underpinning tenets of education that we must be careful not to lose sight of.