EDUCATED by Tara Westover
Random House, 2018
Well, Tara Westover is certainly a remarkable woman with a remarkable story. It’s not difficult to see why Educated has been so well received, and if you’re interested in reading it I’d implore you to take my 3 stars with a grain of salt, as I mainly think I just wasn’t the right reader for this book.
Educated is Westover’s memoir of growing up in a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Though she was technically supposed to have been home-schooled, her lessons stopped when she was fairly young, and her sporadic self-teaching hardly was able to prepare her for setting foot in a classroom for the first time when she was accepted to BYU at 17. But we know from the blurb that she ends up getting a PhD from Cambridge, so from the beginning it’s clear that Westover’s memoir is in many ways going to be a success story. But it isn’t a smooth journey, owing to the ongoing abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father and older brother, well into adulthood.
The first half of this book chronicles Westover’s childhood, and to me this was undoubtedly the weaker half of the story. The anecdotes selected, though extreme and shocking and therefore compelling in a morbid way, I think rely a bit too heavily on their shock value to engage the reader. I felt this fell into that trap of too much recall/not enough analysis. Though Westover expertly evoked the setting of her childhood with details like her father’s rejection of hospitals and the sense of impending doom with which he navigated their survivalist life, the scene was set early on, and the sheer number of car crashes and burns and other accidents recounted actually served to bog down the narrative for me.
The second half, which details Westover’s experience with her education, improved the memoir in leaps and bounds. At this point in the story the self-reflection kicks into a higher gear, as Westover begins to reconcile her parents’ view of the world with her own experiences. This particular kind of resilience I guess resonated with me more than the kind of strength it took Westover to survive her childhood – I’m not diminishing that in any way, just to clarify, but I can’t deny that I found the second half of this memoir twice as stimulating as the first.
I’ve been browsing some of the negative reviews for this book, and noticing that there’s a common thread of not believing Westover’s account of things. And I admittedly get that. I would describe myself as a rather gullible person, but even I started questioning certain details in her story – more having to do with the smooth trajectory of her education than with her childhood abuse. I actually found the eccentric and violent survivalist family much more believable than the fact that someone who didn’t have a birth certificate for nearly a decade, who doesn’t even know her own birthday, was able to seamlessly enroll in college and obtain a passport. But despite my conflicting feelings about this, I think when you choose to read a memoir, you’re doing so with the knowledge that you only have the author’s truth. Occasionally you’ll hear stories about memoirs and nonfiction books being debunked, but for the most part, you’re never going to find out the objective truth behind the story you just read. So rather than torture myself over this, I’m choosing to believe Tara Westover, and believe that perseverance and passion is sometimes all it takes to turn your life around, difficult as the challenges may be. If you’re interested in that kind of story, Educated is definitely the memoir for you.