In best-selling memoir Educated, Tara Westover chronicles her emergence from a somewhat off-the-grid upbringing in the hills of Idaho by conspiracy-theory-laden Mormon parents who do not believe in many of the practices of modern medicine or sending their kids to school, either public or private. Along the way, Westover takes a swipe at homeschooling as practiced by her parents—or rather, the lack thereof. Although the book is not really about this for the most part, the fact that Westover wasn’t run through the modern education establishment seems to appall reviewers of a certain stripe.
But it is Westover’s descriptions of her family’s medical travails as she grows up that are actually shocking, and the most macabre and interesting aspect of her account. According to Westover, during the 1990s and 2000s, several severe physical injuries in her family were treated only with herbal remedies and rest. Westover’s older brother, the pseudonymous Shawn, seems to have been most affected, particularly by head trauma he received in the course of a car wreck, a work-related fall, and subsequent re-injuries.
Westover presents Shawn—the second among seven Westover siblings, five boys and two girls—as the family bully. A major portion of the memoir deals with her coming to terms with her feelings about him and the way he treated her younger self.
Westover hints that Shawn’s problems may be the result of his head injuries. She claims he is protected by her parents from facing the consequences of his psychological aggression and physical abuse of others. Westover says Shawn choked her on two occasions when she was a teenager, and shoved her head into a toilet bowl while calling her a whore. He also threatened her when she was an adult with a bloody knife he’d allegedly used to kill a dog. (There is no hint in the narrative, by the way, that there was ever sexual abuse or sexual exploitation in the family at any point.)
Westover also details her early learning, or lack thereof, and bemoans her uneducated state as a child. She was homeschooled, but in Westover’s account, the teaching soon fell away, and the children were left to their own devices for years. Nevertheless, inspired by her older brother Tyler (not a pseudonym), who decided to go to college against his father’s wishes, at fourteen, Tara Westover considers the possibility for herself.
‘Go where I went,’ Tyler said. ‘Go to college.’
‘BYU takes homeschoolers,’ he said.
‘Is that what we are?” I said. “Homeschoolers?’ I tried to remember the last time I’d read a textbook.
‘The admissions board won’t know anything except what we tell them,’ Tyler said. ‘If we say you were homeschooled, they’ll believe it.’
‘I won’t get in.’
‘You will,’ he said. ‘Just pass the ACT. One lousy test.’ Tyler stood to go. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. ‘And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.’
Westover did go for it, and, by dint of assiduous application over two years, she managed to score well enough on the college ACT to apply to Brigham Young University in Provo. She was accepted and started attending when she was barely 17.
Westover’s freshman year at BYU was difficult, as she struggled to catch up on various things she’d missed as a teenage autodidact. She didn’t know what the Holocaust was, for instance. Yet catch up she did, and quickly. In fact, Westover’s grades were good enough to win scholarship aid by the end of the year.
This allowed her to return as a sophomore, paying her living expenses from a summer job with her father—although Gene Westover (another pseudonym) offered to help pay if she did not receive the scholarship she was trying for. Westover discounts her father’s offer as an ephemeral gesture, as he mostly opposed her attending college (he opposed it for all his children, male and female, since he expected Armageddon and the apocalypse at any moment).
After her junior year at BYU, Westover was invited on a summer student exchange trip to Cambridge University in England. There she impressed a tutor and notable historian with her intelligence, drive, and scholarly acumen. After graduating from BYU, she returned to Cambridge as a full-fledged student, where she eventually acquired a doctorate in history, Westover’s strongest subject.
As Tara Westover’s cultural horizons widened, she struggled to come to grips with her upbringing. After a harrowing note from her sister that confirmed her angry brother Shawn’s abusive behavior, Westover attempted to confront her parents and perhaps put a stop to it. They were having none of it, and instead, claims Westover, pushed her sister to rally with them to form a united family front against Tara Westover, whom they threatened to expel from the clan if she didn’t recant her accusations. The book’s finale deals with Westover’s subsequent actions, and the reactions of the remainder of her siblings to this state of affairs.
The modern memoir of a painful childhood and coming-of-age story took off as a genre after the huge success of Frank McCourt’s tale of his harrowing Irish upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic father, Angela’s Ashes. Westover’s book fits solidly in this tradition. Yet even though the writing of this type of memoir is taught in many an M.F.A. program as if it were legitimate, it has from the start been a problematic form.
The author purports the narrative is true. We are in no position to affirm or deny it. Does this give us leave to indulge? Not really. It’s not fiction. The characters are not said to be based on real people. They are purported to be real people.
What are we to make of a child publicly excoriating her parents and her family in print? Did Westover tell the truth? Probably. Does that justify publishing a book about how bad your family is?
We become adults in that moment when we realize our parents are mere mortals who made sometimes terrible mistakes. To demand redress, reparations, or even a simple apology becomes ridiculous after we know this. We are no longer someone they could apologize to. That time has passed. To continue to pine after such an empty gesture on their part is pointless and a way of harming ourselves.
Many families have a troubled, aggressive family member they might be better off disowning, but don’t. The point is, except for the exotic (to some) rural trappings and opportunity for homeschooler-bashing, Tara Westover’s story is fairly mundane.
One hears it argued that maybe some boy or girl will come across a book like Educated and gain hope from the fact that Tara Westover made it through what might seem a similar situation to theirs. Or perhaps an adult will see his own childhood reflected in it and gain solace. These seem far-fetched scenarios designed to soften the real reason for memoirs. They are a pseudo-sophisticated form of gawking. I came away from Educated feeling like I’d just stepped in something nasty.
As with most family melodrama, it’s impossible to form a final judgment on who is telling the truth here without knowledge that cannot be acquired by an outside observer. Tara Westover tells her side of her family story in a winning, unornamented style for the first half of the book, making no emotional claims without a deliberate, scholarly laying out of the facts as she has experienced them.
Several times in the narrative, I paused to reflect that I would be terrified if she were a prosecuting attorney and I were a defendant she was determined must fry. Her accused brother’s side of the story is not presented, of course. This is Tara’s story. I did end up believing that her brother is a jerk, if that means anything.
Her indictment of her parents for not turning to modern medicine when people in her family were seriously hurt is also affecting, if taken to be true. While her mother became a widely respected midwife and herbalist in Franklin County, Idaho, Westover makes it clear that it was her father who insisted on avoiding modern medicine.
Then, after Westover’s father experiences a horrible injury from an exploding automobile gas tank (Gene Westover made part of his living by scrapping old cars in a family junkyard while Tara was growing up), her mother used poultices and herbs to nurse him back to health (at Gene Westover’s insistence).
This incident, together with her mother’s decades of skill at using medicinal herbs in her midwifery, resulted in regional fame—and a lucrative family business in herbal remedies that now employs a portion of Tara Westover’s extended family. It was these same remedies that had earlier been practiced on young Tara and the other Westover children without their having any say in the matter. Tara Westover’s first encounter with taking Ibuprofen when she was a college student was quite an eye-opener for her.
For as long as I could remember, whenever I was in pain, whether from a cut or a toothache, Mother would make a tincture of lobelia and skullcap. It had never lessened the pain, not one degree. Because of this, I had come to respect pain, even revere it, as necessary and untouchable.
Twenty minutes after I swallowed the red pills, the earache was gone. I couldn’t comprehend its absence. I spent the afternoon swinging my head from left to right, trying to jog the pain loose again. I thought if I could shout loudly enough, or move quickly enough, perhaps the earache would return and I would know the medicine had been a sham after all.
One thing is clear: Whatever failings Westover’s parents may have had, they were geniuses—either perverse or otherwise—at somehow getting a portion of their kids to excel at secondary education. Tara Westover’s older brother Tyler acquired a PhD in mechanical engineering from Purdue. Tara Westover’s younger brother Richard has a PhD in chemistry from the University of Oregon. Westover, as mentioned, has a history doctorate from Cambridge. The other kids, who ended up with GEDs, haven’t become destitute wards of the state, either, but have jobs, families, and normal lives.
A Real Education
Tara Westover lays out the assertion that she did it all in spite of her upbringing, not because of it. Yet the evidence she presents might just as well support the opposite of this claim. Her narrative is selective, perhaps of necessity given that her theme is to expose her brother and her parents as at best neglectful and mean, and at worst crazed and sadistic. Other considerations such as scene-setting fall to the wayside.
The litany of personal struggle she chronicles is thin on detail and nuance. We have little idea of what her childhood was like beyond her problems. We don’t get a clear picture of the Buck’s Mountain countryside or the local culture. We hardly get to know any of her siblings as people except as they relate to Westover and her burdens.
One imagines another narrative that could emerge from the same set of facts, one that celebrates the privilege of growing up in the beautiful Idaho countryside, that expresses relief at escaping a childhood in the filth of a big city or the anonymity of a nondescript suburb.
“I’d learned to read and write by reading only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young,” Westover tells us, as if that is a bad thing. Whatever the defects of such literature, it certainly taught her how to write well—one detects a fine nineteenth-century complication to her style—and very likely gave her a foundation in the intellectual history that became her profession.
Anyway, there are much, much worse upbringings one could have. I know a few people who have had them.
Furthermore, Educated is hardly an indictment of homeschooling in general. The Holocaust is only the beginning of the many things of which students who graduate from American public schools are unaware or that they misapprehend. What’s more, the pure products of our educational establishment often are convinced of so many, many things that simply are not so.
One begins to suspect something might be rotten with the system. At least, by avoiding that system, Westover started out with the Socratic gift of knowing that she knew practically nothing at all. It’s not a bad place to begin if you want a real education.