One of the reasons I joined a book club earlier this year was because I tend to read the same kinds of books (literary fiction or science/social/political narrative nonfiction) and I thought it would be great to open myself up to new books. While I certainly haven’t loved or even liked some of the books chosen by my peers, it’s always a good idea to open your mind. This month my book club read Educated: A Memoir and frankly I never would have read this book had it not been selected by a member of my book club. And that would have been a shame because this was a wonderful memoir.
Tara Westover’s story is remarkable and so well written. I’ve read my share of books and seen movies about people who have overcome great odds in life (Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken comes to mind), but few have come from such an unassuming and surprising protagonist. In this case, the narrator in question is a young woman who grew up isolated from mainstream society in the Idaho mountains. Tara Westover’s parents raised her on the family homestead with no formal schooling, no visits to doctors, no significant interaction with the world outside her home or the nearby small town made up of mostly members of the LDS church. To say she led an isolated life is an understatement — something she reiterated in a TV interview I watched online after finishing this book by sharing that when she arrived at Brigham Young University at age 17 she thought Europe was a country and she hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. She’d also never seen a doctor, wasn’t immunized and didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine years old.
But hers is a story of survival more than isolation. Her father was a survivalist who didn’t trust the government or modern medicine. He was a religious zealot who ruled his family with an iron fist and treated his children as employees at his only means of income, his scrap metal business and junkyard. Westover’s mother was an herbalist, who treated any medical condition with homegrown “tinctures” and salves. She was an untrained midwife who delivered children across the community and frankly it’s amazing she didn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone. She “survived” a terrible car accident that probably caused a brain injury. She treated one son’s terrible burns from a fire with home remedies and “healed” her husband’s life-threatening explosion injuries with the same salves and herbs. And despite being a strong-willed woman, she deferred to her powerful husband at every turn.
Westover was also physically and emotionally abused by one of her older brothers, and her recollections of these incidents were heartbreaking. In fact, when she discovered her older sister had also been mercilessly abused by the same sibling and the two sisters decided to confront their parents about the attacks, her sister’s eventual decision to back off the claims led to Westover’s near-complete estrangement from her parents and several siblings that still remains. Her mother agreed to back the girls, but also eventually changed sides and demured to the patriarch of the family.
All of this abuse is the backdrop for a remarkable journey into mainstream society for Westover that began with the encouragement of one older brother to try to go to college despite never having set foot in a formal classroom and having been “homeschooled” with very little beyond religion. Westover purchased a few books and taught herself enough algebra and grammar to get a good enough score on the ACT to get admitted to BYU and that launched a career in academia that eventually led to degrees from BYU, Harvard and ultimately a Ph.D. from Cambridge. That is quite a feat for someone who didn’t go to a proper school until she was 17.
Early in the book, Westover wrote that her memoir was not a story about Mormonism. I heard her say in an interview she wanted to nip that narrative in the bud and that she has no hard feelings about the religion in which she was brought up. That said, she recently wrote that she is no longer a member of the LDS church and describes herself as agnostic. This is important to the underlying theme of her story, and given my personal feelings about religion, this is the point in the review where you might expect me to rail on the LDS church and religion in general. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to rail on ignorance because that is what truly is at the heart of Westover’s upbringing and the reason why I think her scholarly attainments are notable.
Westover’s father was indeed a religious fanatic and that played a significant role in her life up until she left for college. Her mother also put religion before knowledge. It is that lack of knowledge that led to her unique childhood. No school because they feared knowledge. No doctors because they feared science. No birth certificates because they feared the government. Which came first for the Westover clan — religion or ignorance? I think for the Westover’s it was ignorance. And fear. And a little psychological dysfunction. Val (or Gene as she called her father in the book) was and is a classic paranoid schizophrenic who used religious text to justify what he didn’t understand. Even Westover herself said she didn’t think her father meant any harm, but rather he didn’t know any better. And that right there is the trouble with America in 2018.
Ignorance leads to hate. Ignorance leads to anti-science. Ignorance leads to misogyny. Ignorance leads to fear of the other. Ignorance leads to voting for Donald Trump.
Val Westover isn’t that unique. His views are extreme, but he’s not that different from people who don’t “believe” in climate change, or who think Mexicans are rapists and murderers so we need to build a wall to protect ourselves. Tara Westover’s story is extreme, but she’s not that far off from a child who is raised in a household that doesn’t trust the New York Times because their parents claim it’s fake news. There are a lot of Tara Westovers in America in 2018. Ignorance is the enemy.
Tara Westover overcame ignorance out of sheer will. She is a survivor in the sense that she transcended the ignorance that she was force-fed. She will break the cycle going forward and raise educated children. She should be celebrated for this and her book is a good reminder that we have a long way to go in America.
And that’s how you turn a book about a survivalist family in the hills of Idaho into an anti-Trump diatribe. 🙂