Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, is difficult to digest. She’s the youngest of seven children in a fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Her father rules with the proverbial iron fist. He’s a survivalist, a millennialist, a conspiracy-theorist. He keeps his children out of school, refuses them medical care, continually places them in physical danger. Her mother resists in small ways but ultimately caves whenever the father demands her submission. One of her brothers educates himself well enough to get into BYU and encourages Tara to do the same, while another brother becomes a more grotesque version of their father, getting into fights and abusing women, including his much younger sisters.
Tara eventually gets away by doing well enough on the ACT and misrepresenting her educational background to gain admission into BYU at 17, but she struggles in the new environment without any formal educational experience, without enough money to live on, without the social skills to interact with other students. She returns home for vacations and falls back into old patterns, but she somehow keeps going back to school and eventually does well enough to earn fellowships at Cambridge and Harvard. Even then, she still can’t escape her family’s hold and nearly wastes her opportunities.
I knew I was in trouble when I read the “Author’s Note” at the beginning, where she states that her book is not about Mormonism or religious belief at all. That is, there are good and bad religious people, and there are good and bad non-religious people. Which . . . yes, but. Yes, but opening with such a blanket statement was a huge red flag. Yes, but religion is used by a lot of people to excuse bad behavior in general, and in particular, the bad behavior of men who treat women as objects, existing solely for their gratification. Yes, but it’s clearly the central issue in this book even as the author protests it isn’t.
This book is incredibly well-written. I normally avoid memoirs because I find the organization poor, the prose generic, and a general sameness. Not so with Educated. Westover somehow conveys the horror of her abuse without sensationalizing, and equally impressive, she relates the difficulty of retrieving and then trusting memories across many years and many people’s differing perspectives. It’s a powerful and moving personal story, one that deserves to be told and needs to be heard.
I expected a painful read — and it was — but not only for the reasons I anticipated. There’s nothing ambiguous about the way women are treated in this family, and Westover is brutally explicit in describing the physical and psychological abuse committed by her father and brother. The misogyny is overwhelming, and there were times I wasn’t sure I could keep reading. What really broke me, though, were the ways the other family members — her mother and adult sister in particular — enabled the abusers, encouraged their delusions, and actively participated in Tara’s gaslighting. They were certainly abused themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t culpable for their own actions.
But the reason I so disliked this book rests with the author herself. She equivocates to the very end, unable and unwilling to decisively condemn her family members’ actions. She accuses them in one paragraph and defends them in the next. She claims her freedom and education in the final chapter but gives it all back in the epilogue “A Note on the Text” that comes after the acknowledgements and endnotes. It’s a classic response to brainwashing and gaslighting. I get it, and I’m in pain for her, yet I still hate the message she sends. By walking back her accusations, she says that her father and mother and siblings may be right to call her crazy and possessed and hateful. She absolves not only them but also other people like them who use religion as a weapon against women and children.
I almost didn’t write this review. I’m so torn in my reaction, and I initially thought my stance would soften if I gave myself some time to digest what I read. Tara Westover is clearly damaged by her experiences, still under her family’s spell even after all of her time away, even after all her years of formal education at the highest levels, and my heart breaks for her. I truly hope she finds some kind of peace. That said, I still don’t think this a good book, and I honestly wish I hadn’t read it.