Book Review: Educated
Imagine reading a work of fiction in which the main character is physically and verbally abused by her father and one of her brothers... and her mother chooses to ignore the abuse. In addition to this, the main character and her siblings are not allowed to attend school; instead, they are expected to work at the family junkyard. They also are taught that doctors and any kind of organized medicine are evil, so anytime they are ill or injured, treatment comes only by way of their mother's homemade tinctures and herbal remedies .
Some of this unconventional upbringing can be attributed to the fact that the parents are Mormon, but most of it is because the family patriarch is mentally ill, and the matriarch is a dutiful wife who chooses to ignore a lot. Her choice actually enables her husband to create a scary alternate reality that justifies all of the horror he has inflicted on his family.
Sad But True
As you read this book, you might feel that the plot involves so many shocking incidents that it lacks credibility... until you realize that the name of the main character, Tara Westover, happens to be the name of the author. Yes, Educated actually is an autobiography (or "memoir', as the cover of the book states) of a young woman who survived the real-life scenarios created by a maniacal father and nurtured by a mother who was in conscious denial.
The fact that Tara Westover had no formal education until she was seventeen years old becomes even more amazing as the reader follows her on the road to becoming far more than the word "educated" implies. The roadblocks she encountered along that journey far transcend the perimeters of teen-age angst. How many children of any age, for example, grow up on the top of a mountain eons away from civilization as most of us know it? For many years, Tara knew nothing beyond the convoluted, destructive dynamic generated by a father who was mentally ill. Forced to work surrounded (and eventually seriously injured by) huge pieces of metal in the junkyard that served as the family business; watching her father amass supplies so that he would be prepared for The End of Days; abused by a brother who belonged in a mental hospital... no one could be expected to survive. Tara, however, not only survived; she triumphed.
Not Your Average Family
The frightening vacuum in which the Westover children grew up left little room for escape. It seemed that their father, with his broken mind, did everything possible to break their spirits. (Of course, he thought he was doing what he considered "right.") From the moment of their birth (whenever what might have been, since in Tara's case, at least, neither of her parents could recall her actual birthday), they had been inundated with and stifled by their father's twisted beliefs and practices. They also had many, many accidents and injuries which could have been avoided.
For example, Tara's father and brothers were in the habit of draining the gas from all the cars at their junkyard using a shortcut method developed by Mr. Westover. One day when Tara was ten years old, her older brother, Luke, forgot that his leg had been drenched in gasoline earlier that day and lit a small torch, immediately engulfing his leg in flames. Rather than calling 911, however, Mrs. Westover, with closed eyes and crossed fingers, queried out loud as to whether or not there was an infection. This was always her first step in "treating" a medical issue. (It also lends something of a science fiction aura to the book.) Then she and her husband cut away the dead skin and treated the burn homeopathically, which was the way every injury or disease in the household was treated... including the time Tara fell quite a distance from a bin filled with iron and ended up with a deep gash in her leg. (When Tara was very young, her mother had been trained in midwifery; later she became something of an expert in the field of homeopathic medicine. In fact, her expertise in creating various tinctures and healing oils was so highly regarded that eventually she earned quite a bit of money from this home-based venture.) Quite a few family members, including Tara's father and her brother Shawn, suffered such severe injuries that it was amazing they survived. In Shawn's case, his injury seemed to cause him to become even more verbally and physically abusive, particularly towards Tara and later with his wife.
Looking for some kind of respite from all of this, Tara grew up listening to tapes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and despite the fact that she was forbidden to attend school, she was allowed to take voice lessons. She went on to perform in various musicals, including Annie, in which she played the lead. (Before she took voice lessons, she had taken dancing lessons...until she was forced to quit because her father decided that dancing was the work of the Devil.)
And Then There Was Education . . .
At the age of seventeen, prompted in large part by the fact that one of her brothers had graduated from college and also by the fact that she truly loved to learn, Tara announced that she was going to attend Brigham Young University. What made her decision so amazing (aside from the courage it took to defy her father) was the fact that this was a young woman who had never been formally educated; she had only been, in a very loose sense of the word, "home schooled." She could not bring herself to tell anyone she met at Brigham Young anything about her home life, though. For one thing, she was too embarrassed to reveal the environment that had enshrouded her for so long. For another, she seemed to feel that once she gave voice to all of the atrocities to which she had been exposed, that would make them real; at this point in her life, she was not prepared to face her reality. When, some years later, she did verbally acknowledge the truth, Tara had a very difficult time dealing with all that "truth" meant, particularly when some of her siblings refused to support her claims. Sadly, her parents reacted as she had feared they would.
No Spoiler Alert Here
To reveal what Tara Westover encountered on her journey toward becoming "educated" would require a spoiler alert. Let me just say that this amazing young woman (Tara currently is in her early thirties) gives a whole new meaning to the word.
(If I may offer a piece of advice: As you read this book, remember to remind yourself that it is not a work of fiction...and prepare to be truly amazed.)