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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Educated: A Memoir
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Publisher: Random House
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Imagine you were born and raised in a family with radical religious beliefs. And imagine you didn’t have a birth certificate until the age of 9 and were not allowed to go to school until 17. Would you be able to muster the strength to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge? “Educated” by Tara Westover reads as if a barely believable novel. And yet, it is a true-to-life memoir. So, get ready to relive a life stranger than fiction – through the eyes and heart of a fascinating firsthand witness!
Tara Westover was born in a small Idaho farming town, the youngest of the seven children of Mormon survivalists Val and Laree Westover, hidden under the pseudonyms Gene and Faye in the book. Due to the beliefs of the couple, Tara was born at home, and she was not issued a birth certificate until she reached the age of 9. Until then, there was no way for anybody outside of her family to know she had been born at all: Gene and Faye had decided to live in isolation after the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, in which federal agents ambushed and gunned down a woman and her 14-year-old son for, at worst, a minor offense.
Even before that event, Gene had firmly believed that public schools were just a way for the socialist American government to brainwash individuals into obedient slaves of the system, which is why neither Tara nor her six siblings ever got a proper chance to experience education. Gene didn’t believe in hospitals either, meaning Tara’s concussions or burns over the years were treated with herbs and home medicines. On the other hand, Gene did believe in a Mormon God, and this god (like, unfortunately, most other gods) didn’t seem to be that fond of women, proclaiming their place to be in the house – which is where Faye was all of the time.
Tara’s grandmother wanted her youngest granddaughter to get a proper education, so one day, when Tara was 7, she offered her a chance to escape to Arizona and go to school. Tara, however, stayed. To nobody’s surprise, really, not even hers. To this day, she claims, she has very fond memories of her childhood. In view of what followed, that is somehow hard to believe.
At the age of 10, Tara’s mindset changed abruptly. It happened when her 18-year-old brother Tyler, the third son of Gene and Faye, announced one day his intention to go to college. Gene, of course, objected to this choice, both because Tyler’s older brothers Tony and Shawn were not around the house anymore to help and because, well, he believed that going to school would not teach him how to support a wife and a few children. However, Tyler persisted, and this inspired Tara to start reading a bit more, mostly the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.
Soon after Tyler left, Tara’s older sister Audrey left the house as well; and the only ones who remained were Luke, Richard, and her. Due to the lack of helping hands, Gene had to move away from farming and Tara had to help him. So, already at the age of 11, she was scrapping old cars for parts. However, she felt that she could do better, so one day, she posted a flyer at the local post office, offering her services as a babysitter. This opened her up to the world.
One of her clients, a woman named Mary, offered Tara an opportunity to visit a dance school. Tara enjoyed the experience very much, but her father soon forbade her to go anymore, believing that dancing inspired immodest and unfeminine behavior. By then, however, Tara had started taking voice lessons as well, and these were something even her father could find nothing wrong with. Especially after they helped Tara impress the congregation at their local church one Sunday. In fact, she was good enough to even get a part in a play at the local Worm Creek Opera House. More importantly, she was starting to enjoy life.
As far as Gene was concerned, Tara’s 13th birthday should have been her last. Not because she had done something to drive him mad, but because it was supposed to occur sometime during September 1999, about three months before the end of the world. A Mormon survivalist, Gene believed that on January 1st, 2000, all the computer systems in the world would fail and that there would be no electricity or telephones anymore. Everything would sink into chaos, he claimed, and this would usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said that there exists nothing worse than a man believing to have had a revelation, since no argument would convince them of the opposite. Not even if reality invalidated their beliefs. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, and we all suffer from it. In the case of Gene, the problem was far more severe than it is for the rest of us. Case in point: even when the end of the world didn’t arrive with the year 2000, he didn’t change his beliefs. He just changed the dates. Even so, his worldview was visibly shaken, so the family finally left Idaho for Arizona to visit Tara’s grandmother.
On the way there, the family’s van spun off the road and crashed into a field. Everyone survived, but Tara was badly hurt, even losing consciousness for a while. That did not matter one bit to Gene: as far as he was concerned, curing Tara was a job for God and Nature, not for doctors. Fortunately, even though Tara’s neck frequently locked up on her for a while, the accident didn’t leave any permanent damage. Even her neck got back to normal, eventually.
However, untreated head injuries not unlike Tara’s probably contributed to the very unstable condition of her brother Shawn, who continually abused her and her sisters. Prone to violence and as fanatic as his father, he once violently attacked Tara, waking her up from her sleep and dragging her by her hair from her bed. The reason? Tara had started wearing makeup and spending time with a boy named Charles. In Shawn’s opinion, this was not an appropriate behavior for a 15-year-old girl. Gene’s reaction? A little short of, “Way to go, son!”
Encouraged by her brother Tyler, at the age of 16, Tara finally decided to take the ACT test, a standardized test used for college admission in the United States, not too dissimilar from the much more well-known SAT test. Tara failed the test, scoring 22 out of the 27 points she needed to get into Brigham Young University (BYU), a Utah-based university entirely owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – that is to say, the Mormons.
Considering the fact that she barely knew any math, it wasn’t such a bad score; however, she was devastated. It took her some time to recuperate and a lot of help from her mother to figure out algebra and geometry. The effort was more than worthwhile. When Tara took the ACT again, she scored 28! Everybody was happy with the result, except for her father, who didn’t want to let Tara go. His reason? God had told him personally that Tara would greatly displease the Almighty if she ever went to college.
Even so, Tara decided to throw all caution to the wind and three days before her 17th birthday, she left for BYU. It wasn’t long before she started experiencing culture shock. For example, one of the first things she noticed there was that her roommate Shannon wore pants that had the word “Juicy” written on them. In an act that seemed blasphemous to the teenage Tara, her other friend Mary even dared to shop on the Sabbath!
The classes were challenging and scary for Tara. She took English, American history, Western civilization, religion, and music. As you might guess, she didn’t have many problems with the last two, but she had quite a few with everything else. The history she had been taught at her house was very different from the history being taught at university, and the whole idea of Western civilization seemed as strange to her as Einstein’s theories of relativity would seem to a novice in physics.
Just one quick example. One day, she asked her professor what the word “Holocaust” meant. The professor thought she was joking and scolded her. She wasn’t, of course. Her father had talked at some length about the Boston massacre and the Ruby Ridge incident, but he had never mentioned the Holocaust. So, Tara believed that, at worst, it was just some small conflict that very few people would really know about.
The Holocaust incident didn’t discourage Tara. On the contrary, she started studying harder and, after overcoming the initial issues, she eventually sailed through almost all of her exams, Western civilization being the only exception. Not wanting to leave any gaps in her knowledge, she didn’t back off. So, eventually, she aced that exam as well.
But that was always her philosophy. It wasn’t, “Stay away from things you don’t understand,” but rather, “Where trying doesn’t work, try again and try harder.” Consequently, even though she had come to college to study music, she kept signing up for history and politics classes. Her professors noticed her enthusiasm, and one of them referred her to a study-abroad program at the University of Cambridge.
Tara applied and, soon enough, she was headed to King’s College, Cambridge, to study a course under world-renowned professor of European history, Jonathan Steinberg. Just a short time prior, she didn’t even know what the word “Holocaust” meant and now Steinberg, a Holocaust expert, was supposed to grade her words and ideas. Amazingly, he had only nice things to say about them, telling Tara that her final essay was one of the best he had ever seen in his long career. Because of this, he promised to help her with her graduate application.
And that’s how Tara managed to win the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, only the third BYU student to achieve this feat in the long history of the university. After enrolling at the prestigious Trinity College, Tara became a celebrity back in Idaho and was revered by almost everyone who had ever known her. Everyone except her father Gene and her brother Shawn, that is.
Everything was going well after Tara returned to England, this time as a graduate student. So, well, in fact, that Tara began feeling as if she was a new person, one who was allowed to drink coffee and wine, and even tell stories of her fabulously strange upbringing. However, back at home, things were stranger and darker than ever.
First, Gene suffered an accident which almost killed him and left him with severe burns all over his body. Even so, he refused medical help and, once again, stayed alive against all odds. Then, Tara received a letter from her sister Audrey, in which she informed Tara that she was planning to confront her parents about the abuse she suffered from Shawn. Tara stood by her side and went back home to testify in her favor.
However, Gene and Faye were left unconvinced by the claims of the sisters, even though Shawn had explicitly threatened to kill them in their presence. To make matters worse, he repeated the threat to Tara by phone, not long after ceremoniously hugging her during the peacemaking sessions with their parents. Simply put, he was beyond treatment.
The same could be said of Gene, who, as Tara learned at one of her psychology classes, suffered from a severe case of bipolar disorder, which was getting worse by the day. On the bright side, while Tara was in England, he had started a line of medicinal oils with Faye. The business brought them local recognition and a lot of money. It also brought them a lot of interest from big companies. One of them offered Gene $3 million to buy the recipes. Gene declined the offer.
Tara’s trips back to her family opened her eyes to a strange discovery: that there were now two Taras. One of them was the respected student of a prestigious university, and the other the lost daughter of a couple of Mormon survivalists. Gene and Faye loved the old Tara much more than the new one and they were trying to get her back at all costs. However, it was the new Tara who was really experiencing life, and the one who was starting to understand the world.
Among other things, the new Tara realized that she had been lied to all of her life about one fundamental thing: the real value of women. “I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft,” she writes, “but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: ‘It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.’ The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.”
Soon after, Tara began reading more about Mormonism, but this time she read with a much more open mindset. It didn’t take her long to realize that, compared to almost many other intellectual and religious movements, Mormonism was downright radical. She decided that she didn’t want to remain an adherent. Quite the opposite: she wanted out.
One day, while Tara was doing research for her Ph.D. at Harvard (where she had won a visiting fellowship) her parents appeared at the doorstep of her dorm room. The reason was that Gene had had another one of his revelations. This time, the angels had told him that Tara’s soul had been taken away by Lucifer and that the only way for her to save herself from Hell was by accepting his blessing and by coming back to her hometown.
Everything Tara had worked for – as she writes at this crucial place in her memoir – had been to acquire for herself just one simple privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to her by her father, and to use those truths to construct her own mind. “I had come to believe,” she goes on, “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.”
This was a price she wasn’t interested in paying. Even though she suffered a mental breakdown in the process of severing the ties with her family, she eventually persevered and opted to finish her thesis instead. The breakthrough came one seemingly ordinary day, when, looking in the mirror, Tara realized that it was time for her to bury her old self in the past. “The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones [the old Tara] would have made,” she writes. “They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.” Tara says that different people might use different words to describe this new selfhood: transformation, metamorphosis, falsity, betrayal. She chooses to call it an education.
There are really not enough superlatives to describe “Educated.” Alluring, courageous, heartbreaking, heartwarming, beautiful, propulsive, best-in-years, one-of-a-kind, fascinating, extraordinarily evocative – these have all been used by different reviewers. And all of them quite justly.
A unique memoir, “Educated” seems almost too strange to be believed. And yet, despite its singularity – as one Vogue reviewer has noted – the questions Tara Westover’s book poses are universal: “How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”
To quote the Sunday Times, “Educated” is a book “fit to stand alongside the great modern memoirs.”
Be curious. Research. Contrast and compare. As Tara Westover learned, the only way to create an authentic self is through the evaluation of many ideas, histories, and points of view. Everything else is dogma.
Tara Westover is an American writer. Born in rural Idaho into a Mormon survivalist family, she spent her childhood almost entirely isolated from the outside world. Since her father didn’t believe in schools, Westover di... (Read more)
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