Tara Westover is one of seven siblings who grew up in rural Idaho. The family is strictly Mormon, but is also convinced the world’s going to end any moment, so they’re hoarders and “survivalists.”
The book is essentially the story of Tara’s escape through education, although she doesn’t always see it. The first part of the book (the largest part) recounts the years leading up to her decision at 17 to leave her family junk business and enroll in college at Brigham Young University. When she arrives at BYU, it's the first time she has been in a classroom because the "socialist schools" aren't to be trusted. As a result, she’s woefully unprepared and ignorant. She suffers a range of humiliations when she has to ask what the Holocaust was and has never heard of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The second part of the book takes place after she graduates and receives a scholarship to study at Cambridge, where she takes a Master’s. The third part is when she returns to America as a visiting fellow at Harvard for a year before returning to Cambridge to do a PhD in history.
It sounds like a clean escape, doesn’t it? It is not, unfortunately.
What makes Tara’s story so gut-wrenching is her father and one of her brothers. Her father is quite possibly bi-polar or schizophrenic, but in his delusions and paranoia, of course he doesn’t believe in doctors or hospitals. His whole existence is a conspiracy theory. He even takes the Ruby Ridge incident from the news and turns it into a family story of persecution that he feels has, or might happen to his own family. He tells the story so often, it’s one of Tara’s most vivid childhood “memories,” and it didn’t even happen to her family.
Her father is paranoid, he’s a religious zealot, and he’s a bully. He’s also a reckless parent, responsible for major injuries to most of the children through his carelessness, and when they’re injured, he refuses to let them get proper medical treatment, favoring the homeopathic remedies his wife concocts.
I know a lot of people will cut him some slack because of his mental illness, whatever it actually is. But whatever his mental illness, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a relentless, monumentally cruel asshole. His treatment of his own family is beyond any redemption. There are no excuses.
And Tara’s brother Shawn is actually worse. He’s violent, sadistic, and manipulative, and his own parents are unwilling to see it and stop it. As a result, Tara and all of her siblings suffer Shawn’s regular dangerous mistreatment.
The book is told through a series of incidents as Tara is forced to make major decisions regarding her family, and every time she seems to pull free of them, she’s sucked back in. It’s maddening.
Educated is being marketed as similar to Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and that comparison rings true for me. Both are written by daughters trying to understand dysfunctional families and parents who abdicate the responsibilities of that role. The big difference is that Walls’s memoir is almost a tale of benign neglect by parents who are on the borderline between madness and genius. Tara Westover’s story, on the other hand, is run through with violence and willful cruelty. It may not be as masterfully written as Walls’s memoir, but it’s far more infuriating and painful to read. It's a compelling memoir, but it's not pleasant reading.