Educated: Abuse, Trauma and Escape

Tara Westover‘s memoir Educated is a harrowing read of one person’s experience growing up in an abusive family steeped in religious extremism. Beginning in her childhood and progressing through her late twenties, we see a family with a deep distrust of public education, medical science, and the government. The Westover family puts their day to day life and healing in the hands of God. The result is a level of carelessness that should’ve resulted in the children being taken away from the parents. Seatbelts aren’t worn, children get hurt from heavy equipment, burns and cuts disfigure limbs. In two instances, head traumas occur which seem to permanently change the victims. But, according to the parents, that’s all part of God’s plan.

Tara “escapes” through education. She manages to score high on the ACT by just studying for the test and gets into Brigham Young University. Through the power of her intellect and the mentorship of faculty, she goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard. I use, escapes, in quotations, because while she physically is no longer at Buck’s Peak, the emotional abuse and trauma take a long time for her to move on from.

Educated in Writing

Westover dazzles with descriptions. At times the reading is difficult because it’s so visceral; but, she’s immensely talented and has a powerful story. One aspect I thought about is the choice to publish the memoir now. Often, when writing about family there is a decision to wait until one’s parents are dead so as not to cause a rift. Some family may remember events one way, while others remember it differently. There can also be resentment toward sharing personal family history. In Westover’s case, I wondered if the family rift was so great that it was already beyond repair? Also, there is the audience for the book to consider. Who is the book for? Is it part of Westover’s healing process? Is it to shine a light on the abuse in her family and to try and protect those still in the thrall of her parents and brother?

Mental Illness and Paranoia

Westover brings up the possibility that her father is mentally ill. It’s an explanation that fits, but is it too easy? Can his behavior be explained away? Does that hold him less accountable? Is her brother also mentally ill? There is no diagnosis, just the musings of a student in a psychology course. In that section of the book, she’s taking her first psych course at BYU, and it is something of a clichĂ© for new psychology students to see everyone through the lens of what they’re learning.

Mentally ill or not, her father is deeply paranoid and the standoff at Ruby Ridge made a huge impression on him. He buries a 1,000-gallon drum of gasoline, stockpiles weapons and food. If the Feds aren’t coming from them, then it will all be used to help them survive the End Times.

No one in the family thinks this behavior is strange or alarming.

The Power of Education

While most of the memoir is about Westover’s traumatic experience, the subtext is the power of education. We see from Westover’s point-of-view how the world opens up and expands. Ignorance gives way to knowledge and the process is humbling.

I was impressed with Educated. It let me experience a perspective I’ve never experienced before, and although parts of it were difficult to read, it was enriching to share in Tara’s life.

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