Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’m grateful to my friend Kerry for recommending this book. It beggars belief that I let it sit by my bedside for many months before turning the first page. But once started, it demanded to be read, holding me firmly in its grip until the very end.

“EDUCATED is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties … Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”

Mark Twain once wrote: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

In this memoir, Tara Westover writes of her truth – the youngest child of a large family of Mormon survivalists, living off-the-grid in the mountains of rural Idaho; denied formal education or indeed, proper home-schooling, as well as access to medical care; subjected to physical abuse at the hands of an older brother, and both physical and emotional neglect by her misguided, dysfunctional parents; compelled by a desire to expand her frame of reference, challenge the world view she was raised with and take responsibility for her own learning. And it is a truth stranger than fiction.

Many critics of this book struggle to fathom such a life so far beyond the realms of possibility as they see it. Others highlight clear inconsistencies between Tara’s recollections of certain events and those of other members of her family. In each case, the truth of the story seems called into question. And by extension, the authenticity and credibility of Tara herself.

For me, the essence of memoir is the personal experience and observation of the writer. I accept that it may not amount to a complete, objective account of a series of events or circumstances. But I choose not to get bogged down in the minutiae, preferring instead to focus on the underlying themes. In this book, those themes are education and family, and it raises many important questions that we would all do well to consider.

Education is the process of acquiring knowledge and skills, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and preparing intellectually for adult life. Therefore, is it not incumbent upon educators – parents, guardians, teachers, preachers, counsellors – to expose their children/students to a range of viewpoints, perspectives and experiences? Encourage them to challenge and question what they see and hear? To know their own mind and find their own voice?

So often the environment in which we learn shapes our world view and our understanding of reality. This is possible because those in control of the environment – home, school, church or some other institution – have the power to limit access to information, ideas and encounters and shut down debate. It begs the question then: Is independent or self-directed learning more effective in preparing us for adult life than being taught or instructed by others?

And what does it mean to be part of a family? What are our obligations to family members? Do those obligations differ for each relationship within a family – parent/partner, parent/child, child/sibling? What about obligations to self? What should we do when familial obligations or expectations conflict with what we owe ourselves? How can we maintain a healthy, loving relationship with a family member whose beliefs and behaviours have caused us trauma and harm?

Educated chronicles Tara’s relentless pursuit of answers to these questions. Her determination to construct and control her own mind, to find her own voice, is inspiring. Her struggle to reconcile this with a loyalty and natural connection to home and family is honest, painful and heart-rending.

It’s a provocative and haunting book that will stay with me for a long time.

Do yourself a favour …

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