Educated, is a haunting memoir of stark contrasts embedded with layers of insidious disparities.
Brightness darkness, love hate, healing pain, fatigue energy, music dissonance, tenderness brutality, faith reason, knowledge ignorance are opposing themes that challenge and lay bare the bones of a powerful and inspirational literary work.
Her book Educated, is a tale of metamorphosis, revealing how author Tara Westover was not nurtured by her primary environment. Her process of transformation from a member of her father’s crew in his cruel and dangerous junkyard to a highly acclaimed contemporary writer and historian of talent and dignity, is a wonder.
She bewilderingly created her own unique ingredients and conditions to liberate her physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. Tara’s persistence and vision supported her move from a fear based existence that generated cruelty, injustice, shame, horror, abandonment, anger, insecurity and ignorance to a core foundation of that embraced acceptance, honour, belonging, empathy and education.
The setting of the mountain, the beloved Indian Princess, was a picturesque and beautiful backdrop to the ugly dangerous junkyard with its discordant cacophony of metallic sounds. The mountain still remains a compelling physical and aesthetic attraction for Tara.
“I had never before left the mountain and I ached for it, for the sight of the Princess etched in pine across the massif.”
The fear of the Feds was menacingly brainwashed into the family’s daily life by Tara’s father, Gene. These irrational suspicions instilled disquiet into the aura of the family home and dread and anxiety into its members.
Gene’s unreasonable view escalated into an obsession with continually stockpiling weapons and supplies. Danger and safety were antagonists in the household, generating perilous levels of terror and apprehension both internally and externally.
Safety was never a consideration and as a consequence there were horrific accidents both in the workplace on the farm and within cars on the road to far away destinations.
The absolute denial of mainstream medical treatment for the family victims, including Gene himself, was shocking. The pain endured by the victims was punishingly intense and their survival unbelievable. Tara’s mother Faye was a herbalist and complicit in following her husband’s controlling commands. Her remedies were the only ones approved of by Gene.
When Tara writes about her first friend Chares who “like most Mormons, if he was ill, he was as likely to call a doctor as a Mormon priest” she is always mindful that her narrative is her story not a religious treatise. Her father’s beliefs were often in direct contrast to the spiritual truths of the Mormon religion where parents are to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of their children.
The extreme overtones of interpretation of supposedly fundamental Mormon beliefs within the confines of this isolated family are self- imposed by Gene, the family prophet. Her father said “Isaiah doesn’t say which is evil, butter or honey.” His perverse literal interpretation led to the purging of all dairy products from the home and the purchase of fifty gallons of honey. The constant ambiguity within doctrines was a source of continual oppression and uncertainty in the home.
The relentless and repeated patterns of violence within the home and equally disturbing explicit denial, in particular by her brother, Shawn, is an appalling case of harrowing neglect and complete abdication of parental responsibility. The mental, emotional and physical abuse is horrific to read yet Tara is not judgmental but I believe uses detachment, as a form of survival mode which is highly plausible.
One of the major conflicts within the tale is the challenge between acquiring an education and remaining ignorant. Tara’s father “said public school was a ploy by the government to lead children away from God. ‘I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself,’ he said, ‘as send them down the road to that school.”
Who would think children in the western world in the twenty first century would be deprived of a basic right, the right to education? But in the foothills below a secluded mountain, at Buck’s Peak in the state of Idaho USA, most of the seven children of Faye and Gene were denied this right.
In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed at the National General Assembly on 10 December 1948 it is clearly stated in Article 26. ‘Everyone has the right to education.’
In this first book by Tara Westover her father refused to allow his younger children to attend school instead insisted they be home schooled and even this form of instruction was abandoned.
This puerile denial meant Tara didn’t walk into her first classroom till the age of seventeen when she successfully achieved admittance to the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Here she started her ‘new life’ and studied history, ultimately winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Tara’s determination and persistence (these prerequisites according to Calvin Coolidge “are omnipotent” for learning) led her to travel forty miles to the nearest bookstore to purchase ‘a glossy ACT study guide.’ In the mathematics practice tests she was bamboozled by algebra and was so motivated and focused she repeated the round trip again to buy ‘a large algebra textbook.’ The notion of self-direction and studying mathematical theories, formulas and equations with almost no formal prior knowledge is baffling. Her unwavering attitude and arduous study techniques are examples of the tenacity of her inner strength, dauntless patience and physical stamina.
Tara’s resolve and yearning for education was fuelled and encouraged by her older brother, Tyler. “Tyler liked books, he liked quiet.” He also loved listening to music and introduced Tara to his collection of classical music CDs and ultimately “music became our language.” Tyler courageously and successfully got away from Buck’s Peak.
Often Tara’s academic and social encounters at the educational institutions she attended were painful reminders of her uninformed past. She suffered humiliation and was ostracised when she disclosed not knowing the meaning of the word ‘Holocaust.’ It was a painful and sobering incident, where sadly her innocence was shrouded in personal guilt that she was in no way responsible for. he never raised her hand to ask a question for a very long time after.
In spite of everything Tara is always drawn back to her family that has vehemently rejected her. She is constantly torn between the antitheses of her two worlds. Compelled to gain the acceptance, respect and love from her family she continued to return to her tortured roots.
This is always extremely disturbing for her, and the reader automatically becomes her advocate, almost pleading with her to stay away, to keep safe and avoid the family below her precious mountain.
Tara Westover articulates “what my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”
Her extraordinary narrative of reclaiming herself and academic achievements are a verification of Nelson Mandela’s wise words. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
In 2009 Tara earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PHD in history in 2014. Today she lives in the United Kingdom and her occupation is historian and author and her world is full of possibilities.
Tara Westover has generously shared the tribulations and intimacies of her passage from ignorance to education. Her honourable book is not only confronting but also a story of extraordinary courage, hope and conviction. It is the story of her ‘education.’
Rose Niland, Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018