by Hugh Gilmore
Nearly all the reviews I’ve read of Tara Westover’s “Educated” have concentrated on the extreme nature of her upbringing. Her parents, especially her father, were devout Mormons, so committed to their beliefs (many of them unorthodox) that they made other Mormons shake their heads in disbelief.
Because they whole-heartedly bought into the belief that the world is corrupting, they moved as far from it, physically and behaviorally, as it was possible to do and still make a living. Her father sold scrap metal mostly and did some construction.
Her mother developed a practice of midwifery and herbal healing, both of which were backed up by beliefs in something far more practical to them than Medicare: belief that whatever happened to a “patient” was either God’s will or a test of the patient’s faith in God. Often both.
The process of moving away from modernity and its corruptions was gradual over her parents’ lifetimes, but it happened in a way that created a divide in the family. The first few of their children went to flatlander schools for a while, though the next few, Tara included, did not. In Tara’s case, she did not set foot in a classroom until she was 17. And yet, today, she has a doctorate from Cambridge University in England and has done postgraduate studies at Harvard.
She’s a celebrated author of a New York Times Bestseller and frequent talk-show guest. Her book, “Educated,” tells the story of how she moved from that one small world in rural Idaho to the world at large.
Unlike presidencies, advanced Cambridge University degrees are not given to those because their daddy is rich. Tara studied hard, worked hard and got a few lucky breaks. But there’s so much more to her story. For all the grandeur of her moving from herbal tea in Idaho to high tea at Cambridge, the most dramatic aspects of this incredible memoir happen subtly. They arise not from the visible changes in the way she dresses, talks or eats, but from the ones that happened in her brain. And, correspondingly, her emotions. I have never read such a detailed and exciting narrative of one person’s transition from inherited beliefs to acquired, earned ones. And she’s still not settled, which is the way it should be for someone who’s genuinely searching for truth.
And who’s to say whether Westover’s transformation really is a success story? There’s a happy-to-be-freed aspect of this story, but there’s also a wistful sense of loss pervading her life as she tells it. That flat title, “Educated,” conveys the irony that marks her transition. She grew up knowing how to drive tractors, automobiles, use a welder and do lots of other rough chores a country girl knows how to do. And now she spends her days in libraries, or behind a computer, and attends banquets where fine wine and educated talk are the menu.
But there’s a loss to every gain in this world. Instead of “Pomp and Circumstance,” it might be better at certain graduations to set Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” to music. The getting of wisdom, the joy of liberation and the opening of opportunity are often sad occasions. Too often, persons must turn their backs to the land they came from, or endure the backs of the ones to which they try to return.
Among persons who read thoughtful books, “Educated” is the single one I’ve heard mentioned most frequently in the past six months. I was no. 61 in line for it from the library when I received it as a Christmas present from my sister, Kathy.
I finished it by New Year’s Eve and then read it again in early January.
Most of the reviews, as I said earlier, focus on Westover’s incredible transformation.
Somewhat neglected in this chorus of praise is the book’s narrative power. It is a flat-out frightening read at times. There are numerous scenes where the author as a child is endangered by her father’s driven, manic carelessness as he tosses about chunks of metal, or commands his children to master large, clumsy and unsafe machines. The injuries pile up.
And Tara has a brother who frequently attacks her, causing her intense pain. A sense of actual physical danger runs parallel to the psychic and spiritual danger in which these children grew up, The book is quite nerve-wracking. I often had to put it down for that reason, but also picked it up again as soon as I could because I had to know what happened next. “Educated” is the most compelling book of any kind I’ve read in a quite a while.
As a final note, I must mention that I was deeply impressed by Westover’s sensitivity to her “education” as it happened. She had kept diaries and journals throughout her youth and used them to help her remember how she used to think. She showed an uncanny ability to notice when a new idea entered her way of understanding the world. And, as often happens in the works of the philosopher John Kaag (whose book, “Hiking with Nietzsche,” I wrote about last month), she is able to see her own personal insights as parts of something more universal in the worlds of philosophy, history and psychology.
Book of the year for me so far. Please send me your recommendations so I’ll have more good books to which to look forward.