To write a compelling memoir, the author must be 100 percent honest, implicating themselves, their family and their friends. Tara Westover does this in her spellbinding tell-all, “Educated: A Memoir.”
Readers will note, throughout the book, that the Bucks Peak, Idaho, author suffered more pain in her 31 years than most people can imagine. Her poetic prose soaks all 334 pages with passages of pain, pathos and her path to success. Her triumphs do include being the third BYU student ever to win a Gates scholarship, becoming a visiting fellow at Harvard and earning a doctorate in history from Cambridge.
Her father, Gene (a pseudonym), a junkyard owner, is draconian in his beliefs and delusional in his thoughts. He is a fundamentalist Mormon who believes “Satan was shrewd. … By calling it ‘dance,’ he had convinced good Mormons to accept the sight of their daughters dancing about like whores in the Lord’s house.” In addition, he did not file birth certificates for four of his children (including Tara), he believes doctors are “minions of Satan,” and he was paranoid that the Feds were after him, mirroring the August 1992 Ruby Ridge tragedy. The main point of contention between father and daughter, though, is Gene’s belief in formal education: “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around.”
Westover’s mother Faye (also a pseudonym) is not as delusional or mercurial as Gene, but her medical beliefs are bizarre: She does not believe in antibiotics, even when Westover had strep and mono at the same time; rather, she believes her homemade tinctures cure all, and, “To create her formulas, Mother took up something called ‘muscle testing,’ which she explained to me as ‘asking the body what it needs and letting it answer.’ ” Her mother also moonlighted as a midwife, taking the author with her on birthing calls.
Because Westover’s parents did not enroll her in the town’s schools, she is a self-taught academic. In other words, she never saw a classroom as a child. Her primary education consisted of reading the Old Testament and her father’s books “which were mostly compilations of the speeches, letters and journals of the early Mormon prophets.” This exercise did aid her reading comprehension skills. She learned physics from working in her father’s junkyard, and to pass the entrance exam for BYU (which she did with a score of 28 on her ACT), she drove 40 miles to the nearest bookstore to purchase a study guide.
Because of her sheltered childhood, Westover did not believe she belonged at BYU. She did not own “cool” clothes suitable for the latest fashion trends, and she was out of touch with current (and historical) events. In fact, she did not know what the Holocaust was until she arrived in Provo, but a bishop recognized her talents and understood her plight and offered to help. First, he offered to pay for her dentist bill and later helped her secure a grant so she could continue at BYU. Then, at Cambridge, two professors noticed her abilities right away. One, professor Steinberg, said, “I have been teaching at Cambridge for 30 years … and this is one of the best essays I’ve read.” Steinberg ensured that Tara would gain acceptance into the graduate school of her choice, leading to her Harvard placement.
Most parents would be proud of a child who earned a doctorate, but not Gene and Faye. Gene disapproved of her going to Cambridge, and her parents did not attend a dinner in which Tara received the “most outstanding undergraduate” award from BYU’s history department. When Gene visited Westover at Harvard he told her, “You have been taken by Lucifer.” Ever the survivor, Westover did something about her nerves, enrolling herself in Cambridge’s counseling service to brush away her father’s negative voice. The counseling helped the author push through her dissertation and secure her doctorate.
As stated, a convincing memoir implicates the author and his or her family and friends, and Westover masterfully does so throughout “Educated.” Specifically, she is not afraid to eviscerate her father throughout the book. One can finish “Educated” in two to three days because it moves at the pace of a movie script, deeming “Educated” a candidate for the big screen — just like its counterpart “The Glass Castle” — with Sam Rockwell or Steve Carrell perhaps playing the part of Gene.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.
“Educated: A Memoir”
by Tara Westover (Idaho native);
Random House ($28)