February 18, 2018

describes the struggle of a young girl who escapes from violence and an emotional prison. It is a conflicting story of fierce family loyalty as well as that of the intense sorrow that arises from the division of one's closest ties....

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describes the struggle of a young girl who escapes from violence and an emotional prison. It is a conflicting story of fierce family loyalty as well as that of the intense sorrow that arises from the division of one's closest ties.

Educated: A Memoir is a 2018 memoir by American author Tara Westover, published by Random House on February 18, 2018. The memoir concerns Westover overcoming her survivalist Mormon family to go to college. It details her journey from her isolated life in the mountains of Idaho to getting into the PhD program at Cambridge University. Westover describes her journey of having no formal education to suddenly being in college at the age of seventeen; as well as her struggles to fit into the world her survivalist father created for her and the world beyond the mountains.


As of January 2020, it has spent 97 weeks on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list. It won a 2019 Alex Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.


The memoir is told in three parts. The first part describes Westover's birth on Buck's Peak, a mountain in rural Idaho, until the point at which she was accepted at Brigham Young University (BYU). She describes being raised by her parents, Gene and Faye Westover (pseudonyms), and how her father had a strong paranoia of hospitals, the public school system, and the government due to the events of Ruby Ridge. Convinced that the government used the public school system to brainwash children, Tara was homeschooled by her mother and taught the "rhythms of the mountain" by her father. She also describes sneaking away to visit her paternal grandparents, how she did not receive a birth certificate until she was about nine, and how her mother received a serious brain injury that her father refused to get seen by a hospital. Her attempts to attend school or seek normalcy in her life were denied by her father, who would later become depressed when the Y2K apocalypse did not occur and also would refuse to take Westover to the hospital after she received a neck injury from a car accident. Westover's injury is fixed by her estranged brother Shawn and the two initially grow closer, only for Shawn to start physically abusing her and call her a "whore" when she begins growing close with Charles, a boy she met while performing in theater. The abuse is discovered by another of her brothers, Tyler, who encourages her to leave home and to take the ACT so she could apply to BYU. She ultimately succeeds in getting into BYU, as well as growing close again with Shawn after he stands up to their father on her behalf and when she takes Shawn to the hospital after a serious motorcycle accident.


Part two covers Westover's time in BYU until she begins attending school at King's College and receives financial awards that will allow her to remain there. She describes the stress she felt from the pressure of having to maintain her grades in order to keep her scholarship, as well as the issues she runs into due to her alienation from the outside world and lack of formal schooling. She manages to get high enough grades to receive a half-scholarship and Westover reconnects with Charles, with whom she begins a relationship that she cannot act romantically/physically upon because of her conservative upbringing. She also begins to question the abuse she continues to receive from both her father and Shawn, abuse that results in breaking off her relationship with Charles. Meanwhile Shawn begins to date a younger girl, Emily. Westover discovers that one of her teeth is rotting, the pain from which causes her to fall behind in school. She initially refuses any financial assistance from her church and suggestions that she apply for government assistance but later chooses to seek out assistance after returning to Buck's Peak for Christmas. Westover eventually realizes that she no longer sees Buck's Peak as her home and also begins to suspect that her father has bipolar disorder. Attempts to talk to him end with Westover temporarily cutting ties with her father. They reconnect after her father gets into a potentially fatal accident and he expresses interest in her life at school; however, she's dismayed when Shawn proposes to and marries Emily, despite Emily's occasional fear of him. Though some of her more conservative friends discourage her from pursuing the fields of history and politics, Westover confides in her Jewish History professor Dr. Paul Kerry about her entire past. Dr. Kerry encourages her to apply for the study abroad program at the University of Cambridge. After arriving at King's College, Tara is assigned to work with Professor Jonathan Steinberg who, along with Dr. Kerry, encourages her to graduate school from either Cambridge or Harvard, especially because Steinberg would take care of all her fees. Despite some initial self-doubt, Westover applies for and wins the Gates Scholarship. She also makes a temporary truce with her father, as the two had a falling out over how she spoke about her past to local newspapers and news outlets and choosing to go to school in England. Her father states that if/when the End Days arrive, her family wouldn't be able to save her if she was in England.


Part three covers Westover's life in Cambridge and her life after successfully graduating with a PhD. During this time she becomes more interested in feminism and discovers Bob Marley's "Redemption Song", which prompts her to learn that Marley died after refusing traditional medicine, which then convinces her to finally get her vaccinations. She occasionally returns to Buck's Peak, where she discovers that Shawn is still abusing Emily and that her sister Audrey was aware of her abuse, but that their mother did not believe her. This results in Westover and her mother emailing each other and her mother referencing the possibility that her father has a mental illness, as well as saying that she and her father are going to get help for Shawn. On another trip she learns that her mother's essential oil business, something she had gotten after her accident and believed was responsible for Westover's father surviving the near fatal accident, has grown large and powerful. Westover also learns from Audrey that no one believed them about Shawn's abuse and her sister begs her to stay, only for Westover to leave to resume school at Cambridge. On her next trip to see her family Shawn briefly shows signs that he could be changing, only for him to later accuse Audrey of lying and threatening to kill her. Westover's attempts to tell her parents about Shawn's threat on Audrey's life are not taken seriously. They inform her that Shawn wants to speak with her over what she's said and Shawn brings with him a bloody knife that Westover later discovers he used to kill his family's dog while his son watched. Terrified of what he would do, Westover lies and claims that her father lied about what was said. She also later realizes that her mother had never been on her or Audrey's side. After returning to England Shawn makes a threat to Westover's life and her parents begin to deny the existence of the knife. Her sister Audrey also cuts Tara out of her life, as she is now going to forgive Shawn and believes that Westover was being controlled by Satan, making her realize that she has now lost her whole family. Eventually Westover begins school at Harvard and her parents briefly visit her, during which time they unsuccessfully try to re-convert her to their lifestyle. This causes her to enter a deep depression that causes her to skip classes and have night terrors, leading her to return to Buck's Peak. Once there she discovers a series of emails between her mother and one of Shawn's ex-girlfriends, whom Westover had spoken to while trying to come to terms with Shawn's abuse and believed to be supportive of her. The emails instead show that Westover is being delusional and demonizing Shawn, which cause her to realize that she is now completely different from her family. She returns to Harvard and eventually returns to England, where she has panic attacks and emails her parents stating that she was cutting them out of her life for a year till she got a handle again. She begins failing her PhD program, however a series of emails from her brother Tyler to Westover and their parents where he supports her and condemns their treatment cause her to get her life back together and successfully graduate with her PhD. Years later Westover returns to Idaho for her maternal grandmother's funeral, where she is reunited with Tyler and his wife, as well two of her maternal aunts. She is also reunited with her siblings, most of whom still take their father and Shawn's side. At the end of the book Westover states that she is only in contact with a few of her family members and that she has finally accepted that she needed to be away from the mountain to live in peace, as well as not feel guilty for taking care of herself over her family.

Tara Westover (born September 27-29 1986) is an American memoirist, essayist and historian. Her memoir Educated (2018) debuted at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for a number of national awards, including the LA Times Book Prize, PEN America's Jean Stein Book Award, and two awards from the National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times named Educated one of the 10 Best Books of 2018, and in a piece written by Bill Gates, Westover was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2019.




Michelle Dean

We hear a lot about the edges of the US these days. Geographically, these places might be in the middle of the continent, but they are on the periphery of the country’s economic life, and often the social one too. The people who live there are desperate and pitiable, we are told, just as much as they are brutal and superstitious.


Tara Westover’s memoir is about being from just such a place and people. She was born to Mormon fundamentalist parents in Idaho, the youngest of seven. Her father Gene was the prophet of their small family, convinced the world was going to end at the stroke of the millennium. (When it did not, the author observes, the “disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this”.) He does not believe in sending his children to school, but does believe that dairy products are sinful, owing to a message from God. “Isaiah doesn’t say which is evil, butter or honey,” is how he delivers the good news. “But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!”


Faye, Westover’s mother, largely defers to her husband, in spite of what evidently were some doubts about the divinity of his testimony. She finds some independence in her roles as a kind of faith healer and as an experienced but apparently unlicensed midwife. Eventually, she takes up essential oils, something called muscle testing, and “energy work”. That all these activities appear somewhat contrary to Mormon religious doctrine is something Westover never explicitly addresses. In the same manner that her child self once did, she seems to accept her mother’s explanations. Muscle testing, for example, is an “act of faith in which God spoke through her fingers”.

In this account – Westover’s family dispute her version of events – life is grim in all the ways one might expect. Money is a constant struggle; Gene works largely in scrap metal but it isn’t enough. Cars driven by exhausted family members crash during long drives, but hospitals and western medicine are forbidden so injuries persist and fester. An amazing number of freak accidents befall the male Westovers: leg shreddings, burnings. The author herself is repeatedly beaten and abused by an elder brother who charges into her room while she’s sleeping and fastens his hands around her throat, calling her a whore because of her friendship with a local boy.

And she gradually makes her way out of all of it. She has no formal education but manages to study her way to college. She struggles initially but gets good enough marks to do a PhD at Cambridge. And in the course of all that, Westover writes, she found herself – through what some might call a “transformation” and others a “betrayal”. As she puts it in the last line of the book: “I call it an education.”


If this were the 1990s, a snarky columnist might have already slapped a genre label on this book from the summary alone, deriding it as an example of “misery lit”. These chronicles of tough beginnings were enormously popular; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors topped bestseller charts. Critics are apt to castigate the sentimentalism that often thuds through these books – people in them are villains and heroes, the messiness of real life condensed into easier answers about who was right or wrong. And when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces turned out to be largely bunk, critics everywhere secretly rejoiced. They knew it, they said. They knew these books were dishonest melodramas.

Westover’s narrative style – episodic, meditative and repetitive – doesn’t embrace melodrama to the extent that many of those books did. Her voice is slightly flimsy, scaffolding with sheets of plastic floating off, as if still in the process of building itself. Other than as a sort of articulate vortex of suffering, one hasn’t much of a sense of her. Educated relies on the conceit that Westover was saved by books, but at the end I had a sense of our narrator still hiding behind her degrees and certificates, not quite ready to step into the light. I kept thinking of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, a memoir of her hardscrabble Texas upbringing, and how Karr’s voice was one you couldn’t ignore.


Like Karr, Westover has a story to tell that shouldn’t be ignored. Her background says something important about the US: that even in a place of great opportunity, you can grow up without any idea of how to touch its white-hot centre. This memoir tracks all the ways that traditional American life puts up roadblocks and actively dissuades you from outgrowing your “roots”. There are insights here that could compete with JD Vance’s problematic and more ideological Hillbilly Elegy – if only they were more directly articulated.


Book Awards

Goodreads Choice Award for MemoirABA

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