“Every human should read this” – first posted on Goodreads. Links below.
Educated by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book will stay with me for a long time. SPOILERS AHEAD and TW for DOMESTIC ABUSE.
I am a teacher in the UK and was going to open my first Goodreads review in years with something like “every teacher should read this book” because so much is about the power of education to transform a damaged soul. Then it occurred to me that “every parent should read this book” because so much of the book is about (bad) parenting. Then I pondered some more and thought “every lawmaker should read this book” because the Westover children were so badly let down by everyone in authority who had the capacity to help them. Then I realized that despite all the pain and suffering Tara recounts so eloquently, it’s a story of redemption, of recovery from domestic abuse and will therefore be a beacon of hope for anyone undergoing struggle. So after much consideration, my opening statement has become:
Every human should read this.
Did I say there were spoilers? You have been warned. Also this is another trigger warning for references to domestic violence.
I listened to the audio book, in ten hours over a few weeks. The first half of the book recounts Tara’s disturbing childhood as the youngest of seven children of a radical Mormon “survivalist” who believed “the abomination” was coming and spent most evenings terrifying the children with Old Testament verses about the end of the world. The parents denied Tara any schooling or healthcare, forced her to work in the insanely dangerous family junkyard and turned a blind eye to Tara’s brother Shawn’s cruelty and violence. (Later we learn that older sister Audrey had also been a victim of Shawn’s violent bullying, and that when Shawn married a girl ten years his junior, he manipulated and bullied her too).
The house was filthy, Tara had no friends or social life, and few books. Her father refused her requests to go to school and as brother Shawn got older the violence became more serious. Tara’s Father’s reckless attitude to safety extended to driving – they stayed with Grandma in Arizona when the Idaho winter closed in – and twice the deathtrap family car, without seatbelts, crashed on the way back, not once but twice. The first time, brother Luke was forced to drive through the night until he fell asleep at the wheel, crashing into a telegraph pole and causing a brain injury to Tara’s mother, but sickeningly she was not taken to hospital (Tara’s mother was a “herbalist” and they shunned modern medicine, Father claiming it was a “tool of the illuminati”). Tara’s father was driving during the second accident: way too fast on icy roads claiming “I’m not driving faster than the angels can fly!” before pitching the van into a field. The father’s belief in divine protection seemed to absolve him from any responsibility to protect his children, and this would be an infuriating theme throughout the book.
At this point, you’re probably wondering how long ago this happened? Surely this is frontier stuff, 19th century America when it was every family for themselves? No, Tara was born in 1986 in the richest country in the world. That the children were forced to endure such pain and terror in modern times is unconscionable, and it will make your blood boil. But redemption will come in part two, of sorts…
Tara found solace in books. Her kind brother Tyler taught her to read, and she studied voraciously after that. Somehow, having not attended school at all, she passed the entrance exam for Brigham Young University, graduating in 2008. Her tutor recommended her for Cambridge and she gained a Masters and, eventually, against all odds, a PhD in 2014.
The book is expertly written, treading that fine line between recounting sufficient detail of horrific acts that we can understand and empathise, but without so much horror that we are repelled. We hear her thoughts, Tara’s emotional trauma comes across painfully well, and we completely and wholeheartedly empathise with her. We are in her corner for the entire book and feel like cheering when success comes her way.
The book has left its mark on the teacher in me. It’s impossible to go to work and see the children in front of me and not wonder… is there a Tara among you? Is your home life wracked with misery? Do you have a protector at home, or an abuser?
Before reading this book I already believed in the power of education to change lives, it’s why I am a teacher after all. But I would not have believed, if you had told me, that someone could live seventeen years without any formal education, and then gain a doctorate within ten years. Let alone that someone be the victim of seventeen years of child neglect and physical and emotional abuse.
It is on this that I must dwell a moment because I should not have had to write that last sentence. I would like to think that here in the UK our systems are tighter, that “homeschooling” means just that, we allow precious little of it in the first place, and we monitor homeschooled children closely. Our social services, stretched though they are, often (but don’t always) pick up child neglect. But we must never take this for granted, another Tara is possible anywhere if we all look away, if we trust a “godly” father and don’t listen to the child.
Tara talks passionately in the book about moral philosophers, Hume and Mill and it’s fabulous to sit alongside her as she discovers feminism for the first time aged seventeen, and is enraptured with Wollstonecraft and Greer. We feel her deep shame as she finds out for the first time in the college library why the lecture theatre had gone deathly, glaringly silent, as she earnestly asked in class, “Sir what’s this word here ‘holocaust’?”
Tara writes “Educated” like a PhD of moral philosophy, she examines her innermost feelings and philosophises about them, she analyses her struggle for emotional stability through the lens of first wave feminism and the works of John Stuart Mill. That she eventually has to disown her family is sadly inevitable, especially as they come to Harvard (where Tara was a visiting fellow between first degree and Masters) to offer “a priests blessing” to “save Tara from Satan” (which is really a demand that Tara stops telling the truth about her violent brother). I am aware the family have disputed Tara’s account, but crucially not the part about Shawn’s cruelty and violence.
The book is maddening and uplifting by turns. It’s not an easy read by any means. But it was well worth it. Hopefully it’s given Idahoans pause: that seven children living amongst them could be so neglected and abused. It’s given me fresh desire to be a good teacher, a powerful advocate for my students, and a good father. And a little part of me feels like somehow, travelling this highway of heartache and hope in lockstep with Tara, I gained inspiration, insight, and a new friend.
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