“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.” Educated, by Tara Westover
Educated is, truly, an astounding memoir.
Tara Westover grew up on a remote mountain in Idaho, the youngest daughter in an extreme Mormon survivalist family cut off from mainstream society. She and her siblings, born at home, had no birth certificates, so in the eyes of the US government they did not exist.
“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.”
Tara and her siblings did not attend public school because public education was a government plot to lure children away from God. Tara wasn’t home schooled, either: When they weren’t stockpiling food and amassing an arsenal, Tara’s father salvaged metal in his junkyard while Tara’s mother, an uncertified midwife, practiced healing and herbalism as an alternative to established medical care. The family avoided professional medical care altogether, no matter how serious their injuries – and some of them were catastrophic. For one thing, Tara’s older brother was violent, and she often bore the brunt of his terrifying outbursts.
Tara’s family lived according to the dictates of her paranoid father as they prepared for the Days of Abomination. (In addition to religious fanaticism, there is, of course, mental illness at work here.) Someday, the Feds would come for them as they had for the family at Ruby Ridge. The Westovers had to be ready to defend themselves.
(I had to refresh my memory as to what Ruby Ridge was about, hence my link in case you want a refresher, too.) Some historians and sociologists believe overkill by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge led to the beginning of the militia movement in the US and a growing belief in conspiracy theories.
Tara needed to escape from her family, and college was a way to do that, but could she be accepted anywhere when she’d been denied an education? At sixteen, Tara taught herself just enough grammar, math, and science to pass the ACT. Off she went to Brigham Young University where, for the first time, she learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and other major events in US and world history.
Ten years after entering Brigham Young, with enormous effort and persistence, Tara completed a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University in England. Along the way, she constructed a new “self,” almost from scratch. A reckoning with her family was inevitable.
“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”
Here, she writes about her relationship with her mother:
“I knew what unspoken pact I would be making as I walked through the door. I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms, the same terms they had offered me three years before; that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.
My mother’s message amounted to an ultimatum: I could see her and my father, or I would never see her again. She has never recanted.”
The quality of Tara’s writing and her psychological insights are enough to recommend this memoir, but there is much more to her complex story. In separating from her family, Tara, the budding historian, explored the conflict between obligation to family and culture and the need to individuate. This layer of Tara’s journey is fascinating. In her memoir, she charted her own breaking away while, in her thesis, she explored four intellectual movements from the 19th century – including Mormonism – and how they “struggled with the question of family obligation.”
“My dissertation gave a different shape to history, one that was neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age. Instead, it treated the Mormon ideology as a chapter in the larger human story. In my account, history did not set Mormons apart from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.”
I’m quoting a lot of text here, but I want to show you how Tara writes of her maturing as an intellectual and how she found her calling as a scholar:
“I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, ‘Who writes history?’ on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”
“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.”
Memoir is about the personal and specific and how transformation manifests in a life. If done well, the story becomes both universal and familiar to the reader. Tara writes eloquently about a key moment in her journey of change. Who hasn’t recognized the split between our younger self and the older, wiser person we’ve become?
“Until that moment she [my sixteen-year-old self] had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.
That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.”
Have you read Education by Tara Westover? What do you think? Which memoirs have you read that you feel are extraordinary?