Educated – Tara Westover

I read a lot – around 50 books a year. Each year, there are usually about fifteen books that I really like, and five or six that are great. If I’m lucky, one or two will be truly spectacular. Last year, I read All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and was blown over by how gorgeous his descriptive language is, how perfectly he executes his dialogue, how he explores the big human questions with such a subtle touch that never veers into didacticism. The year before, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is possibly my favorite book ever. It’s so good that I still haven’t written any kind of review, because I’ve tried at least three times, and every time I end up abandoning the project because I just can’t quiet get my words around what makes it so excellent.

This year, I just finished what is not only the best book of the year so far, but one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life: Educated, by Tara Westover. It’s gorgeously written, one of those rare books that combines all the best elements of writing. It asks enormous human questions, and treats complicated situations with the delicacy due to them; it tells the most bizarre and emotionally loaded stories from a dispassionate angle; it makes you laugh, cry, and rage; and it does all this while ticking off all the boxes that make a great memoir so wonderful: A moving story, good research, fairness to everyone involved, and, most importantly, a strict sense of what constitutes telling the Truth (yes, with a capital T).

You want to read this book.

I’m using a new format to review my books, so it’s easier and faster to get through the ones I want to write about. Here’s how Educated breaks down accordingly:

The General Plot:

A memoir, Educated follows Tara Westover as she grows up with her large survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. None of the children go to school, because Tara’s father believes public schools are a product of the government and the Illuminati – dangerous, corrupting, evil. The same goes for hospitals, doctors, news organizations, and even other Mormons who aren’t as observant as the Westovers (so, basically, everyone). God is going to stage His return at any moment, and Tara’s family is well prepared for the preceding calamities with extensive food storage, a giant underground gas tank, and plenty of heavy weaponry.

Things begin to change when Tara is slightly exposed to the outside world through her singing, which brings her opportunities to perform with other kids in normal settings. As things deteriorate on the homestead and Tara’s father becomes increasingly deranged and dangerous, Tara looks more to the outside world to escape from her home life. Amazingly, she tutors herself (with the help of a brother and a friend) into a good enough score on the ACT to go to BYU on partial scholarship, against her father’s wishes. She has been so sheltered that when a history professor mentions a certain word in class, Tara raises her hand and humiliates herself by asking what it means. The word? Holocaust. Everybody in the class thinks she’s telling a horrible joke. So she stops asking questions.

Slowly, Tara begins to adjust to normal life; she learns to shower regularly, to keep her house clean, to wash her hands after she uses the bathroom (Why would you wash your hands, reasons her father, when you don’t pee on them?). As she struggles to catch up with classes and health problems, a brilliant intellect begins to emerge. Tara goes on to earn funding for spectacular educational experiences at Cambridge and Harvard, and spends plenty of time worrying about whether she’s betrayed her family, even as she grows further away from them.

It’s not really a story about Tara’s faith, although Mormonism is featured heavily in the book simply because of its predominance in Tara’s life. The crux of the story is Tara’s struggle to define herself outside the intensely abusive environment of her possibly schizophrenic father, her brutally abusive brother, and her parents’ carefully cultivated fear of the outside world. It’s a fascinating read purely on the merits of the storytelling, but the deeper connections Tara makes and the lovely literary writing makes it a work of creative, reflective brilliance.

What I liked: 

Everything. See what I loved for more.

What I didn’t like: 

Nothing.

What I loved: 

Everything. Truly, everything.

The writing is impeccable – the metaphors always make sense, always flow smoothly, and are never distracting. At times, the literary writing was so gorgeous that it gave me chills. The dialogue is well-executed and appropriately reconstructed. The descriptive scenes suck you in so well that I actually had to take breaks from reading because some scenes were so painful.

The entire story is well-paced. You won’t be bored or wonder where the book is headed. The “HOLY SHIT” moments (and there are a lot of them) are interspersed with reflection that is thoughtful and smart. You’ll be rooting for Tara’s educational future while you simultaneously hope she stays alive. It’s incredible.

The reflective pieces are wonderful, too. Westover navigates some really heavy topics, like the question of whether she actually believes the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. Although the Mormon Church disavowed the practice of polygamy long ago, the official church doctrine hasn’t changed. Righteous men will be rewarded with multiple wives in the afterlife. Men can still be sealed to more than one woman in the temple, but women can only be sealed to one man. Westover is a descendant of polygamists, and at one point she asks herself the question: What if God commanded you to be a polygamist? “I wouldn’t do it,” she answers, knowing with certainty that doing so would require her to violate her sense of womanhood and integrity.

The book feels redemptive, and yet totally unsentimental. The best and the worst of humanity is explored without casting judgment on the particular behavior of each person; you are mostly left to form your own opinions of the characters. Westover refuses to vilify her parents, and doesn’t spare herself from inspection under the harsh lens of reality. This is always hard to do in memoir, and here it’s especially remarkable, considering that there are things that Westover’s parents do that will make you want to throw your copy of the book as hard as you can in their faces.  Westover details her personal struggles without feeling sorry for herself, and doesn’t hesitate to describe her own poor choices and behavior when it’s appropriate to do so.

The Big Questions: 

How and when do we make the decision to separate ourselves from what we know and love in order to pursue a better life?

How far should one go to protect their family?

Can we escape and heal from the cycle of abuse?

Great quotes: 

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”

“But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It ha nothing to do with other people.”

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