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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

May 18, 2018



Westover didn’t know her birthday. Nobody in her family could tell her for sure. There was no birth certificate. Her survivalist family, in rural Idaho, wasn’t much for formalities. They were fundamentalist Mormons with radical spiritual and political beliefs—complete faith in a backward god and irrational suspicion of formal institutions. What started as a run-of-the-mill paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories evolved to extremist positions with Ruby Ridge, the bungled FBI raid of a neighbor’s home (Ruby Ridge would also plant the seed for the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco years later).

For Westover, it meant her already reclusive family would withdraw from society even more. Her father and brother were mentally and physically abusive, sometimes shockingly violent. Her father, who owned a scrap heap, also put the kids in dangerous situations with no seeming regard for their physical safety. They were often severely injured. Her mother, a mid-wife and herbalist, offered only quack medicine when the inevitable accidents did happen.

From the outside, it’s easy to see the madness of this situation and wonder why Westover didn’t just leave. In reality, the abuse, religious fanaticism and isolation compounded to create a family-sized cult. For most of her life, the gravitational pull was too strong. Until, despite her lack of formal education, she managed to get into BYU. There, she had some caring faculty who saw both the damage and the potential in this girl who hadn’t heard of the Holocaust until she stepped into a college classroom. After BYU, she was accepted into a fellowship program at Cambridge, where she eventually earned her PhD. A remarkable testament to her grit and fortitude.

This book has a kind of “The Shocking Story of…” tabloid appeal that made me a little uncomfortable, but Westover is clearly intelligent, so there’s a thoughtfulness as she reflects on her story. She let us in as she confronts a lot of what is still relatively raw.

There is a lesson in here about how much a product of environment we are, no matter how screwy that environment is. For most of her life, Westover was trapped in a bizarre world, but it was the only world she knew. Getting out took incredible courage. That feat alone makes this worth the read. And for others in abusive relationships of any kind, Westover’s story of escape is one that could provide hope.

Related reads: 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief  by Lawrence Wright

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

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