Hi, everyone! Recently, I told one of my IRL friends from music school (and a fellow avid reader) that she was welcome on the blog anytime for a guest post or guest review. And guess what? She delivered! Blair is an excellent writer, musician, and human, and I’ve really enjoyed following her reading journey in 2018 (she’s on a mission to read 100 books this year) through her social media. Without further ado, I’ll let Blair tell you her thoughts on Educated by Tara Westover (which, by the way, I am DYING to read)!
An unforgettable memoir in the tradition of The Glass Castle about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University
Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag.” In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, 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.
I recently read that critics who give perfect scores are considered less credible and intelligent than ones who can find something to criticize. Well dear reader, I am willing to put all of my nonexistent credibility on the line for you.
Educated by Tara Westover is the best book I have read in a very long time. It is certainly one of the best contemporary books out today, and it is perhaps the best memoir I have ever read (and I’ve read Bossypants!). It is tough, it is tender, you feel growing pains and triumphs in perfect sync with Westover, and it is beautifully executed.
Tara Westover was born in 1986 to fundamentalist Mormon parents in rural Idaho. The memoir details her upbringing with seven siblings in a household where she didn’t get a birth certificate until she was nine. The extent of her trips to town were church on Sundays and working full time at a gas station, which she began as a preteen to avoid working in a scrap metal heap with her father. At 17, her brother encouraged her to apply to Brigham Young University to study music, the only pursuit outside the family Westover was allowed. She went on to receive a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge and eventually graduate with her PhD in history.
The book jacket reads like inspirational porn, and while Westover’s story is exceptional, full of cheerful platitudes it is not. Using the diaries she began at 11 years old, Westover shares detailed accounts of her father’s descent into mental illness (which Westover identifies as probable bipolar disorder, though it has not been diagnosed). Westover also writes of her treatment at the hands of a violent, manipulative older brother, and the constant suppression of her personhood as “whorish” behavior.
As Westover attends college and moves into the world, she credits her success more to the insistent support from others than she does her own diligence. No instance of kindness is too small to merit Westover’s attention, including her roommate Robin taking her to the outlet malls to pick out professional clothing, something Westover had never owned before. Used to constant cruelty and negativity, Westover struggles, even in her own book, to accept kindness and praise. In a passage where she meets with an instructor during a study abroad program, Westover says that her mentor’s kindness is worse than cruelty, because she cannot grasp it.
Wrapped around the story of her education is her dissolving relationship with her family, and that is the true drama. Emotions and accusations bounce around the pages so fiercely at times that it is almost dizzying. Westover clearly consulted her brothers and sisters in order to provide the most accurate accounts possible of events, but in the end this is HER story to tell as she sees fit, and the academic falls away to reveal a heartbroken woman.
Westover does not shy away from describing her struggles with trauma, panic attacks, depression, and low self-esteem. While many such narratives shy away from or euphemize periods of struggle, Westover leans in harder, and is candid and bare in a truly refreshing way. Her “meteoric” rise to success is marred with self-doubt, trouble forming friendships, imposter syndrome, and many, many instances of wanting to give up, of wanting to return to what she had before. Not because it is better, but because she understands it. In a society that increasingly pressures us to see the silver lining in every cloud, it is a breath of fresh air to see someone acknowledge the existence of the cloud.
Not only is Westover’s story wildly captivating, her writing is similarly compelling. She mixes the vocabulary of a Harvard fellow with the syntax of her rural upbringing seamlessly. She describes the mountain of her upbringing, Buck’s Peak, with the same reverence as the ancient stone of Cambridge University. She includes exactly as much detail as is necessary to round out the story; it is not florid but it is not terse. You get an incredibly accurate and complete picture of who she is as a person and how she moves in the world.
While this is ultimately the story of losing your family in order to find yourself, it is more than that. It is a detailed account of the far-reaching impact of abuse and trauma. It is a look inside the psyche of an exceptional person who does not consider herself as such. It is a manifesto on how strong love is, even when that love is dysfunctional, hurtful, and tarnished by betrayal. It is a coming of age story. It is an education.
Thanks so much to Blair for being on the blog today! Have you read Educated? If so, what are your thoughts? What’s the best memoir you’ve read recently?