Tara Westover's memoir details how she went from being raised in rural Idaho, receiving no formal education until she was 17, to earning a doctorate from Cambridge, where she lives today
Review: Educated is a modern fairytale that charts one woman's extraordinary trajectory
To describe Tara Westover’s awe-inspiring memoir Educated as a modern fairytale is the best way to capture just how astonishing a transformation it tells. Westover was born into a fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. She and her siblings were raised by their parents – her father, Gene, made a meagre living “scrapping” in a junkyard, and her mother, Faye, is a herbalist-turned-midwife (despite possessing no medical qualifications or training) – on Buck’s Peak, a “flawless spire” rising out of the Earth that, from a distance, looked like a woman’s body.
Gene called the mountain “the Indian Princess”: “her legs formed of huge ravines, her hair a spray of pines fanning over the northern ridge. Her stance was commanding, one leg thrust forward in a powerful movement, more stride than step”. Yet despite this magisterial female presence towering above them, the Westover home is one in which patriarchal rule is the law.
It’s Gene who instills the fear of God in his family, who instructs them all in daily preparation for “the Days of Abomination”. He thinks the new millennium will bring with it the End of the World, at which point his family will thank him (and the Lord) they’d spent so much time stockpiling guns and fuel, bottling peaches, and hoarding silver in lieu of dollars.
When he’s not busy preparing for the end of days, Gene’s ranting against the government, or, as he sees the powers that be: the socialist Illuminati that’s out to get him. He refuses to register four of his seven children’s births, Westover included, and she’s a full nine years old before she’s issued with a Delayed Certificate of Birth that was quite a struggle to obtain since no one can agree on the exact date she was born.
Gene also doesn’t believe in the medical profession, convinced God will heal the faithful. The only “medicine” he allows in the home are Faye’s herbal remedies.
Perhaps most significantly, none of his children attend school, nor do he or Faye undertake any significant homeschooling programme in an attempt to educate them. Somewhat amazingly, by the time Westover put pen to paper to write this memoir in her late 20s, she had earned a doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge.
Educated tells the gripping story of her journey from Buck’s Peak, through her first degree at Brigham Young University, and eventually to Cambridge, where she still lives today, having cut ties with her parents and some of her siblings after a long battle to establish her own agency and identity. “You could call this selfhood many things,” Westover writes at the very end of the book. “Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
“How marvellous,” exclaims her first tutor at Cambridge, when she explains that she received no formal education until she was 17. “It’s as if I’ve stepped into Shaw’s Pygmalion.” And yes, it’s not as if we haven’t heard versions of this story before. There are echoes of earlier memoirs, both J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, as well as novels such as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and last year’s My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. In addition to which, the disenfranchised white American working class has made an increasing number of headlines of late – something, no doubt, that adds to the interest in Westover’s story, as the much-hyped manuscript was acquired for a six-figure sum. All the same, there is something about the quality of Westover’s writing that shines through – not least because she’s self-taught – elevating this to something more than classic misery memoir.
The details of Westover’s upbringing are indeed fascinating. Reading about Gene’s insistence that everyone has a survival backpack ready to flee up into the mountain at a moment’s notice (as a little girl, Westover sleeps with hers in her bed), or Faye’s belief that she can cure cancer by means of “energy” alone is like studying some anthropological tract about an unfamiliar tribe. Then there’s the gut-wrenching descriptions of the violent abuse Westover suffered at the hands of her clearly disturbed brother Shawn, coupled with Gene’s apparent disregard for his children’s physical safety (when she eventually learns about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in college, Westover is shocked to recognise a description of her father’s mania and paranoia), not to mention the series of horrific accidents and gory injuries that befall family members in turn, some of which are so severe it’s genuinely gobsmacking that they survive, especially given their rejection of orthodox medicine. But the elements of Westover’s story that struck me the most were subtler but more all-encompassing struggles.
The fact that she has to raise her hand in a college class to ask what the word “Holocaust” means. Everyone is shocked, thinking she’s making a joke in very poor taste, but she genuinely has no idea what it means.
Or the confusion she faces reading Les Misérables for the first time since she can’t distinguish between the fictional characters and historical fact.
“Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean,” she says. “I had never heard of either.”
Occasionally a little repetitive and in need of a tighter edit, these quibbles aside, quite frankly it’s extraordinary that Westover has managed to wrest such a meaningful and evocative narrative from the chaos of her origins.