Educated by Tara Westover

I am not practiced in evaluating biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. I don’t often read them. In fact, I only just learned (by asking Google) that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former generally consists of key facts about a person who just happens to be the author, whereas the latter is more about “emotional truth”.

So what do I think of the emotional truth of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated? I’m not sure. I could go at it one of several ways. Maybe it’s an indictment of a backward Mormon family. Maybe it’s the story of the triumph of a determined individual over uniquely challenging circumstances. Maybe it’s the literary equivalent of a sordid reality TV-show. Probably it’s a little bit of all those things. See below for more on what I thought of the book and why.

Are there spoilers in the post? Well… memoirs don’t have plot, and you know that Tara became a successful author in the end, so… no. Not really.

Indictment of a backwards Mormon family?

Oh gosh. The Mormons. Unless you live in Utah, you probably don’t know much about them, except that they’re (historically) polygamous. Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is, according to my arguably limited understanding, one of the stranger Christian sects, though any religion surely appears strange to outsiders. The musical The Book of Mormon transforms this strangeness into comedy gold.

Before I read Tara Westover’s book Educated, I thought it was going to be a story about escaping an abusive Mormon family. In 2008 I read a story like that—Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck—so I didn’t feel any particular need to read another one. Besides, the more critical a memoir is, the more controversy results from its publication. Was the controversy the point? Were the facts stretched, or even invented, for effect? Martha Beck’s book hinges on so-called “recovered memories”, which some psychologists suspect are pseudo-memories and not real ones. But then, who am I to question what someone says about her own life? I set the book aside with an uncomfortable feeling.

At the beginning of Educated, Tara Westover’s Author’s Note specifically says that the book is not about Mormonism, that people can be kind or unkind regardless of their religious beliefs, and that she “disputes any correlation, positive or negative” between kindness and religious belief. Regardless of what Tara did or did not set out to do, we can still ask: Is her book an indictment of her Mormon upbringing, or the people who raised her?

Tara does not shed much light on the LDS church. We know from what she says that her family does not practice Mormonism in a very typical way, but what stands out most about her parents is not their approach to religion. It’s their approach to education (which would seem to be the theme of the book, since the title is Educated) and their approach to medicine, which I personally find much weirder.

Tara’s homeschooling was anything but systematic. She learned reading and writing and some practical skills, but lacked a lot of content knowledge that her peers were taught in elementary, middle, and high school. Nevertheless, various family members supported her efforts to improve her own education, and ultimately she was accepted to an undergraduate program where she found even more support for her studies. The degree to which she succeeded scholastically is enviable. Moreover, she is now the author of a bestselling memoir. If the book is trying to say that her family held her back, it’s doing a terrible job.

On the other hand, the book wouldn’t have to change much if you wanted to change the title to It’s a Miracle I Survived My Teens. If anything makes Tara’s parents look bad, it’s their refusal to seek outside medical help for serious injuries, their own and their children’s.

It’s interesting to consider the “right not to be treated”. After all, in a high-tech modern hospital, you can choose to sign DNR papers if you do not want to be resuscitated. Your life surely belongs more to you than anyone else. So if a person’s religious beliefs are such that he or she believes an herbal treatment suffices for an injury, isn’t it his or her right to forego other treatment? What if a parent makes that decision for a child? It’s horrifying to contemplate the possible harm. On the other hand, who has more right than the parent to make such a decision? Children don’t belong to the state or their neighbors. But they won’t necessarily live long enough to belong to themselves if their well-being is grossly mismanaged.

The biggest threat to Tara’s well-being is not her parents, but her brother Shawn, though one could certainly blame them for not protecting her from him. Storytelling conventions require a villain, and he’s a frightening and despicable one. Accidents are accidents. Malice, manipulation, and death threats are a whole different ball game.

The incident with Shawn and the candy bar was chilling. Shawn sent a girl named Sadie to buy him a Snickers. When she returned, he said she’d made a mistake. He wanted a Milky Way. She gave the Snickers to a guy Shawn was envious of and bought a Milky Way for Shawn. Shawn said he didn’t want it, he wanted a Snickers. Specifically, the one she’d bought earlier. Sadie, in tears, obeyed him and retrieved the Snickers.

I hate the idea that there really are people like Shawn. I hope I never meet one, or if I do, that I notice before I start playing a game I can’t win.

Triumph of a determined individual?

We are all the heroes of our own stories. Thus, unsurprisingly, Tara makes a fantastic underdog protagonist. She is the ugly duckling turned swan, the little engine that could, the misfit who finds her place in the world. Her story is the story of hope. She wrote her own future. If you’re reading her book, you’re holding proof that things get better. People can grow from ignorance to knowledge, childhood to adulthood. They can change their circumstances. They can learn to fit in. They can discover their talents and shine, if only they’re true to themselves. This is the book’s appeal.

Tara worked hard and ultimately succeeded. But is it necessarily the case that if you work hard, you will succeed? Of course not. It only looks that way if you listen to the stories of people who succeeded, but—naturally—it is people who succeed whose stories we listen to! Yet for every success story, there are dozens of failures—people who worked hard and never achieved anything worth telling a story about. Persistence isn’t everything: there’s luck, and more than that there’s savvy. Hard work is worthless if you’re working hard at the wrong thing. So what’s the lesson we can take away from Tara’s life experience? What part of her life is relevant to anyone else’s?

Asking someone successful why she is successful is like asking someone who’s 110 years old to share the secret to everlasting health. In the latter case, you’ll get a fascinating but worthless answer like “I eat two strips of bacon every morning” or “I touch my toes fifteen times four times a day”. Emulating that behavior might be a good idea, or it might not. But it certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll live to 110, and Tara can’t teach you the shortcut to a PhD from Cambridge.

Is Tara’s story inspiring? That’s a matter of opinion, and certainly many people have found it inspiring. I was rooting for her, as one does when one is sucked into a compellingly told underdog story. But I didn’t come away with a positive feeling in the end.

Literary equivalent of reality TV?

I happened across an article that objects to Tara’s memoir (and to memoirs in general, which are characterized as a “pseudo-sophisticated form of gawking”). I don’t agree with everything the author says in the article, but I was struck by this statement:

I came away from Educated feeling like I’d just stepped in something nasty.

That. That is the feeling I came away with.

When and Why I Read Educated

I don't usually read memoirs, but people keep talking about this book.

Genre: Memoir
Date started / date finished: 22-Mar-20 to 23-Mar-20
Length: 384 pages
ISBN: 9780099511021
Originally published in: 2018
Amazon link: Educated