Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
“Educated” by Tara Westover
December 30, 2019
“I am not the child my father raised,
but he is the father who raised her.”
Tara Westover (1986-)
Because of a snobbish belief that most people are not discerning in their reading, I tend to shun books that have spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, feeling they are there because of Herd Mentality Syndrome. Consequently, I miss some good books. Fortunately, my daughter urged me to read this one. It was purchased a year ago and marinated on my bedside table for months. A few weeks ago, I picked it up and was blown away by the story Ms. Westover tells.
The author is a remarkable young woman, the youngest of seven, born in 1986 to anti-government survivalists. She had no birth certificate, until issued a Delayed Birth Certificate at age nine. Her Mormon parents lived in the shadow of Buck’s Peak, part of the Teton Range, in Franklin County, Idaho, about an hour’s drive north of Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah.
It is difficult to imagine what growing for Ms. Westover was like. Her father was both demonic and charismatic. He became the central person in her young life. He believed that government and institutions, including schools and hospitals brainwashed students and patients, part of a conspiracy to lead youth away from God. They represented the “Illuminati.” As a young girl, he forced her to work in his junkyard. He was not, she writes, “…a tall man but he was able to command a room.” He believed the Apocalypse was coming, so prepared for the end by storing food, ammunition and gasoline on his property. Tara’s mother, a midwife and herbalist, produced remedies for every conceivable disease or accident, including over the years, two of her badly injured sons and her once horribly burned husband.
Tara never went to school. Her mother taught her the basics of reading and arithmetic, and she studied algebra on her own. She was obviously intelligent and curious. She was also musical. As a child, she had listened to her brother Tyler’s recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She joined her church’s choir. She had talent; the pastor told her parents that “she sang like one of God’s own angels.”
But her home life was impossible. Her father, she later concluded was probably bipolar. Her singing led to musicals, which meant she spent time with other young people, denigrated by her brothers and father. Her brother Shawn (all of the names in the book have been changed) called her a whore and beat her. At the same time, Tyler told her she reminded him of “the greatest prophets of all.” Remembering Tyler’s words, but having suffered from the bruises Shawn had imposed, she reflected: “Suddenly that worth felt conditional, like it could be taken or squandered. It was not inherent; it was bestowed.”
Tyler went to Brigham Young University, so encouraged Tara to apply, which she did. Her dream was to teach music. The second two-thirds of Tara’s story take the reader through her gradual escape from Buck’s Peak to Brigham Young University, Cambridge University, Harvard University and back to Cambridge for a PhD. Her horizons expanded, as did her interests, but the trip was not easy. When still at BYU, having won a full scholarship, she learned her father had been badly burned in an explosion of his own causing. She drove home, anxious for her father, but still frightened of Shawn: “This remembered world was somehow more vivid than the physical world I inhabited, and I phased between them.” Her father survived, but the ties binding her to her family and their way of life had begun to fray. While a graduate student at Harvard, her parents visited. Her father wanted to visit Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, where God had appeared to Joseph Smith: “My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man…” She had changed; he had not. She recalled the words of Sancho Panza: “An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.” Later, she wrote in her notebook, and then wrote it everywhere: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”
Writing this memoir, she tells us, was therapeutic: “We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed the truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words…” Tara Westover has invited us along on this personal pilgrimage in a search for herself, and, while her experiences were far more extreme than what most of us have experienced, she reveals universal truths – the complication of families, the search for one’s self, and for truth, love and respect.
And I have learned not to look down on books simply because they have spent weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Sometimes there is a gem. This is one.