Today, at 32, Tara Westover lives in London, England, has a PhD in history from Cambridge University and has been a visiting fellow at Harvard University. But, she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 and had never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement. She grew up without a birth certificate and had never been to a doctor.
Westover is the seventh and youngest child of fundamentalist Mormon survivalists in rural Idaho. Her father (who she gives the pseudonym Gene in the book) wanted to keep the family off the grid and out of the grips of the “Illuminati” who he thinks controlls the government, the schools and the medical establishment.
He stockpiled food, fuel and guns for the approaching End of Days. “I [grew] up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood,” Westover writes in her harrowing new memoir Educated.
Her mother (Faye in the book) was an herbalist who later got into homeopathic healing with “energy work” and essential oils. The family kitchen was crowded with jars of potions made from lobelia, blue vervain, skullcap, cohosh and other herbs to treat everything from cramps to cancer. Faye was also an unlicensed midwife.
Westover’s parent’s believed that Faye’s healing powers were a gift from God and that those who “whored after” doctors and pills were infidels. They also thought that school would only brainwash their children and chose to keep them home instead.
Her parents claimed that they were homeschooling the children but Westover doesn’t remember any actual lessons. Instead, she and her siblings were put to work, first helping Faye mix her potions and salves and later working in Gene’s scrapyard where accidents were common due to Gene’s impatience and disregard for safety measures.
Fingers were lost and limbs gashed; one of Tara’s brothers fell on his head from a 12 foot height onto a pile of rebar; another brother had his leg horribly burned and Gene himself was burned all over his body leaving his face and hands permanently disfigured.
On top of this there were car accidents, truck accidents, a motorcycle accident. All with no doctors or hospitals, just Faye’s elixirs and ointments. Tara was also physically assaulted for years by a violent older brother.
Westover tells this part of the story with grace and without judgement. Her childhood was without doubt unusual, but to her it was the only reality she knew. The community the Westovers lived in was Mormon and conservative and to Tara her father’s extreme views were merely a more devout extension of the Church’s teaching, rather than a radical theology of his own. She internalized his worldview and didn’t doubt his righteousness.
She also writes lovingly about the rural landscape of her childhood growing up on the slopes of Buck Peak. Her love of nature and respect for its power contributed to her sense of self-assurance and ability to persevere.
She assumed that her fate was to be married in her teens and to settle down to a life just like her parents’, as some of her siblings had done. But her brother Tyler, who had managed to get accepted to Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution in Provo, Utah, encouraged her to study for the entrance exam.
She was accepted and began university at 17 without knowing how to take a test, write an essay or even what a textbook was for. (Previously the only books she had read were The Bible and The Book of Mormon.) She was also scandalized by her fellow Mormon classmates’ lack of modesty and consumption of Diet Coke, which she thought was forbidden by the Church.
The last third of the book retells her painful move away from her family and their world as she makes her way as an academic. Her parents believe her to be possessed by Satan or insane and when she tries to get them to accept her brother’s abuse of her and her sister they call her a liar.
Westover’s parents (whose real names I quickly discovered on the Internet are Val and LaRee Westover) have disputed her version of events through a statement by their lawyer, but don’t offer any alternatives. The Westovers are also no longer poor. They own a company called Butterfly Express Essential Oils, with 30 employees and $4 million dollars in annual revenue. LaRee has also written four books on essential oils and I found her series of holistic healing videos on YouTube.
Westover’s story is still completely believable. In the book she alludes to her parents’ change in fortunes, and does mention that two of her brothers also went on to university and earned PhDs. In their lawyer’s statement her parents claim that three PhDs out of seven children vindicates their childrearing methods, but I can’t help thinking that, like Westover, her brothers’ success came despite rather than because of their upbringing.
Educated is a sensitive, beautifully written book that is full of heartbreak at Westover’s rupture with her parents. It is also honest and in many ways a meditation on memories and how different people can remember the same event in conflicting ways.
In the end, Westover holds to what she believes to be true and accepts the person her past has made her into without shame. It is sometimes a difficult read, but it is also full of joy and humour and above all humanity.
Educated by Tara Westover, Random House Penguin (US)
Hutchinson (UK) HarperCollins (Canada) 352pp