Tara Westover’s Educated is a memoir about the author’s journey from zero formal education—not even legitimate homeschooling—to a PhD from Cambridge. I bought it in the airport* on Pee Wee’s and my big Midwestern adventure, having read several reviews. Educated has been compared to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Janette Walls’s The Glass Castle. I’d add to that Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors. All are memoirs in which the facts seem more like fiction.
My cousin (see below) told me that I should write about our family. She said it would be so weird that people would think I made it up. Educated is like that.
Educated is the true story of a girl growing up in an off-the-grid Mormon family in Idaho. The family does not believe in the medical establishment or formal education. The mother is an herbalist and midwife. The father is a survivalist and fanatical holy man, likely stricken with bipolar disorder and a resulting paranoia about the government and the End of Days.
As a child, Westover works alongside her father in a dangerous junkyard on their family farm. His recklessness almost kills her on the regular. Westover’s brother, who suffered a near-fatal head injury while working alongside their father, beats and harasses her throughout her childhood. As adults, he threatens to kill her by handing her the bloody knife he’d just used to murder his dog. This all transpires in front of their parents, who write it off as a joke. Westover grapples with the love and loyalty she has for her family but comes to accept that she cannot exist as an educated woman within their realm.
One of the most interesting technical aspects of this book is the treatment of her memories. An asterisk is used to denote where Westover’s memory of a given situation differs from that of another sibling’s. This is not only highly self-aware, but also an interesting aspect of the philosophy of the mind and epistemology. By admitting that she may have misremembered, she allows for the possibility that her father, for example, may not be as cruel as he would otherwise be if her memory were true.
It’s the best damn book I’ve read in a long time.
Here are some interviews with Westover:
The book club
All this thinking about books brings me to another recent development: this 1990s-inspired book club chain letter I received.
Growing up, I remember these letters circulating at school. Sort of like pen pals, they promote interaction with people who may not otherwise interact. I send a book to a stranger and receive several books from other strangers in return.
Now as an adult, the book-sending part is made easy by Amazon Prime. I sent off my book to a little girl in Maryland and received notification that it was delivered. The recruitment of six other moms to do the same is proving to be the hard part…
Desperate, I sent the letter to my cousin (same cousin as mentioned above), thinking she might like to participate on behalf of her new grandchild. (She’s a young grandma. I’m still processing it.) She suggested that we make a book club chain letter for adults, but only requiring three instead of six recruits. She also said she’d send me a book on midget wrestling. (No disrespect to either.)
The book buying
Being fresh out of reading material after Educated, I thought this was a great idea. I love when people buy me books. Partly because books are expensive, and I read actual ones instead of virtual ones, but also because it entertains me to see which books people think I’ll like. I tell my husband to just consult Oprah’s Book Club, and he does a pretty good job. I’ve only ever received one duplicate (The Twelve Tribes of Hattie). He’s bought everything from Danielle Steel to Manal al-Sharif. I enjoy seeing myself through his eyes. And I realize that he sees me, through the books he selects, for my true self—which is all over the place.
Homework: If you really want to know how others see you, ask them to buy you a book. Give them no guidance. Or, if you know someone who might be find extreme religiosity, the psychology/philosophy behind prepper mentality, and/or the effects of an atypical childhood interesting, buy them Educated.