I read this book in a day last week and am still figuring out my thoughts. That it had an impact, there is no doubt, but with a book of this relentless intensity, it’s only once you take a few steps back and away that you can try to assess anything. Even then, this is a very difficult book to review.
For those of you who haven’t read this book, Educated is Tara Westover’s story about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in the mountains in Idaho more concerned about preparing for the “End of Days” by canning peaches and hoarding emergency supplies than going to school or having a birth certificate. It wasn’t until she was 17 that she actually stepped inside a school. Today, she has a doctorate from Cambridge and the book has been lauded by Oprah, Barack Obama and Bill Gates among others.
So, even though I tried to temper my expectations, I wasn’t completely successful. The book, split into three parts, seemed to live up to those expectations at the start. In fact, even looking back, part one, about her childhood years, is probably my favourite section of the book by far because of how absorbing it is, despite the concentration of gruesome content. There was a lot of specific detail that gives the reader a real sense of what it was like to grow up as Tara including how her mother became a midwife and trained them all in the use and making of basic essential oils and tinctures. In part one, I was able to keep my skepticism largely at bay and really immerse myself in the story she was telling, however difficult it was to read.
Parts two and three are harder to categorise and discuss with one too many lucky coincidences, incidents that read a little far-fetched (I find it hard to believe that 3rd degree burns, among other very serious injuries, can be completely cured by essential oils and tinctures), and gaping holes and inconsistencies in the information we were given (her father’s accident and aftermath is just one example). There was a sudden shift in narrative tone and the careful detail was replaced with a lot of skimming over and bland, repetitive and also aimless prose. And then there were all the footnotes as disclaimers, clarifying the many instances where a particular memory had different versions. These started in Part 1 and I was initially willing to overlook them, but the many instances of fuzzy recollections for incidents that were crucial to the story started to prick the rational, analytical part of my mind, and I began to question the veracity of everything in the book. (This is maybe a problem of the way the book was marketed, but it’s hardly survivalism when you have a telephone, a TV, later internet, your daughter is allowed to take part in musicals/theatre a few towns over, and later you own a multimillion dollar company; there seems to be more distrust of the government and authority and hence a need for extreme self-sufficiency–especially in her father calling everything beyond their bubble as the Illuminati.)
With its title of Educated, I was hoping for more detail about the education aspect of it, about how her horizons suddenly opened up, how she dealt with these immense changes and shifts (including realising during a college psych course that her father probably had a severe case of undiagnosed bipolar disorder and paranoia), the work she had to put in to cover the ground she had been denied growing up. This is someone who put up her hand in class to ask what the Holocaust was, who didn’t know a bunch about personal hygiene or sharing a living space with roommates, who had never, until her second or third year in college, taken a painkiller for a headache or menstrual cramps. While we do get to read some of her struggles (I particularly appreciated her analysing her world view based on what she learns once out in the world), most of the focus was on her increasingly toxic relationship with her family (who, to her credit, are written as complicated people than outright villains), the abusive relationship with her older brother Shawn, and the seemingly irresistible pull she felt to them and her home no matter how much she was starting to realise they weren’t good for her. This Stockholm syndrome felt realistic, no matter how frustrating, and her learning to let go and forgive herself without guilt is an important part of her emotional journey, but in a narrative that she says is about “taking custody of her own mind”, I was expecting equal focus on the other parts of her growth. In parts two and three, most of the narrative was taken up by her trips home in between semesters, with her time away glossed over, making it appear almost like a cakewalk.
Again, it’s understandable that her family would take up a lion’s share of the story given that their world was all she knew for the first 17 years of her life, formative years whose effect is most long-lasting, however unhealthy and downright abusive. I mean, it’s horrific enough how she was treated by her brother for all those years, without her parents demonising her to everyone after she finally came clean to them about it. It’s bad enough to read about the injuries, many of them serious and some life-threatening, that Tara and her siblings suffered on a daily basis at the junkyard where they helped their father. It is scary to know how easy it is to normalise abuse and inherit disturbing worldviews when it’s all you have ever known from people you love and who are supposed to be “your own”. But this memoir reads more like her therapy in working through her emotional issues than a three-dimensional, introspective narrative that gives the reader a full picture. Maybe, waiting a few years, would have provided better perspective and sharper insights that are a hallmark of any good memoir, than just the rather superficial reflections (and the expected unreliable narration) that are natural when still in the midst of what you’re writing about. Tara is clearly incredibly resilient, but after having gone through all the trauma that she has, after the deep wounds suffered by her self-worth and identity, I think that she’s still finding her way and place in this world and also figuring out exactly who “she” is, which is reflected in the conflicted, confused nature of the final third of the book and its ending.
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