Two things strike immediate concern with Tara Westover’s highly lauded Educated: A Memoir: author J.D. Vance offers the first blurb on the back cover and the opening line of the book proper is “My strongest memory is not a memory.” Okay.
Educated recounts author Tara Westover’s childhood and some of her adult life as she is raised by (and eventually leaves) strict Mormon parents in the mountains of south Idaho; parents so devout that they, especially the father, view their own Mormon neighbors as ungodly whores. The father refuses any help from the government, including medical, and boy are there a lot of medical issues. In fact, that’s the first red flag of the narrative: the amount of injuries this family suffers through would kill Mötley Crüe. Westover herself lives through numerous car wrecks and work accidents, never going to a hospital for care. The most suspicious is the father’s survival of an explosion that almost killed him, which as Westover remembers, “Dad hadn’t swallowed anything — no food, no water — for nearly three days.” The burns were so bad according to Westover that her father kept his forehead and nose in tact but “below his nose, nothing was where it was should be. Red, mangled, sagging, it looked like a plastic drama mask that had been held too close to a candle.” Her mother and siblings have to take turns scraping the layers of burned flesh off of the man to the point where her brother Tyler notes that he had “scraped off so many layers…[he] was sure that one morning [he’d] hit bone.” All of this, and Westover’s dad never receives medical care from a doctor or nurse, only ointments and essential oils produced by her mother, as is her wont for treatment of ailments throughout Westover’s life. However, a cursory glance on social media, and one can find an image of a very damage-free gentleman who is supposed to be Tara Westover’s father. (Her mother notes on the same image that the picture was taken after the burns.) Someone is lying here.
The father, of course, is adamantly against proper education in any type of school setting, denying his children the public school system as one would keep a toddler from the medicine cabinet. He wishes not to expose them to any liberal agenda, so he keeps them at home where he practically forces them to work in extremely dangerous settings in his junkyard. This is the heart of Westover’s tale: how, despite formal training, she miraculously excelled at the A.C.T. by studying diligently at home once she decided she actually wanted a life somewhat apart from her Idaho mountain and Mormon sect. And despite worries even getting into college — not even knowing what the Holocaust was in her first year of proper education — she manages to hit the upper echelon of renowned academics. Even without researching, some of it is a little hard to swallow.
Therefore, the whole “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” trope rings a bit false and somewhat hinders the book as a memoir. Assuming the story is fully true, Westover was extremely lucky in many cases. Though she doesn’t speak for everyone, there’s a hint that you can do this too if you just try hard enough. America knows that’s not the case.
Also bringing the book down to some degree are the repetitions. Westover often leaves, comes back to find that her family are as awful as she remembered, leaves again, comes back, and so on. (It may be of note to say that a family so poor as Westover’s was should have a hard time covering frequent plane tickets back and forth to England and Massachusetts.) This aspect does help establish the abusive motif.
Although the book is problematic, it doesn’t take away from how immensely readable it is as a whole. It’s definitely a page-turner. Once the basics are established — hard workers, no medical help, a mother that is a midwife in various scary situations, abusive brother and caring sister who come and go — the story picks up pace. It could be argued that there is no bigger antagonist in the last few years of literature than Westover’s father, who’s dumb religious piety nearly kills his family over and over. That is, until older brother Shawn comes back into the fold. Shawn’s an asshole of the highest order, and believe me, it’s a tight race between him and the dad. Never mind that the father likely endures issues with either bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or both, his and her brother’s Shawn presence amps up several anecdotes with the tension of a horror movie.
There’s an author’s note to begin the book that request readers not to view the memoir as a story about Mormonism or religious beliefs. Yeah, right. That’s more impossible than convincing her dad to give away his guns. (Also, what the hell is up with Mormons lately in the media? With this book and the documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, are Mormons the worst parents or the worst parents ever?) Perhaps Westover should’ve given a note not to compare the book to A Million Little Pieces instead.
All that said, taken with a grain of salt, the book is incredibly engaging. It’s mesmerizing and quite well written. It’s even a powerful work at times. It just wouldn’t work as a piece of fiction — it’d be too unbelievable — so with the glut of memoirs on the shelves, it makes sense if the author had to embellish a little for the sake of a fable if that’s the case.
Of course no matter the truth, to see someone in charge of her own story is still a powerful and worthy ideal. Education: A Memoir is a fascinating look at life on the fringes of society and how one becomes her own person in spite of such austere bondage.