Book Review - Educated

ICSA Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2019, 21-22

Book Review: Educated

By Tara Westover

Reviewed by Gina Catena

Random House, New York. 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0399590504 (hardcover); ASIN: 978-039959051 (ebook); ISBN: 978-0-525-51067-3 (international). $13.99 US hardcover; $20.92 US paperback; $14.99 Kindle; $28.45 audio CD ( 352 pages.

Tara Westover was raised in rural Idaho, by parents who ascribed to a survivalist interpretation of Mormon doctrine. Her memoir, Educated, elucidates concerns common to many who were raised in cultic environments. Even if they are not from such a socially isolated family, many people who were born or raised in cultic environments experience intense overriding family judgments, psychosocial adjustments, awkward anxiety around outsiders, and personal losses. Westover’s vivid writing helps readers understand family dynamics common to many extremist families, and also the degree of inner drive required of any person born or raised in a cultic group who stumbles her way to assimilate into mainstream society.

This saga spans the author’s American childhood in the 1990s through to her graduate studies at Oxford and Harvard. Her erratic authoritarian father dictated familial self-sufficiency, which included the family growing its own food and medicinals, stashing firearms, and storing tanks of fuel in anticipation of her father’s predicted “Days of Abomination” or a government attack. As one of seven siblings, Tara Westover was home birthed, homeschooled, and skilled in tasks ranging from preparation of her mother’s herbal tinctures to scouring her father’s junkyard for sellable parts. Her limited exposure to the outside world came through grandparents and a Mormon church in the nearby town.

Westover knew she was different from other children because she did not attend school. Instead of school, she learned nature’s seasonal cycles, how to train wild horses, and her father’s interpretation of Mormonism.

The Westover family eschewed medical professionals as untrustworthy. They treated illnesses and injuries with homemade tinctures selected by their ability to strengthen or weaken an affected person’s muscular resistance when held in the palm. As a child, Westover stumbled into heavy grinding machinery, barely managing to climb out in time to drop onto the ground, flat on her back. There was never a thought of medical evaluation. Within a few weeks, young Westover’s back stopped hurting, and she could again walk normally. Only when an older brother suffered a serious motorcycle accident did the family seek medical care. Even her father’s extensive third-degree burns were treated at home; his recovery from near death was interpreted as a divine event.

As her older brother became increasingly abusive, Westover routinely barricaded her bedroom door in self-protection because no one would listen to her concerns. Another brother’s collection of CDs and books piqued her curiosity. After that brother moved away to attend university, he encouraged  her to subvert their father’s wishes with visits to the library. At the library, Westover taught herself basic mathematics, history, grammar, and enough geography and government to pass the American College Testing exam, earning admission to Brigham Young University (BYU).

Even though BYU is a Mormon university, Westover had to overcome intense culture shock to assimilate. Roommates taught her basic hygiene, such as hand washing after using the toilet. A professor reprimanded her in class for being disrespectful when she openly asked the meaning of Holocaust, which in turn prompted her to scurry to the library to research the unknown word. Alone in the library, she learned the Nazi history of WWII, marveling simultaneously at man’s capacity for evil and at the severe limitations of her upbringing.

Most people who were raised in cults would identify with Westover’s anxiety-laden attempts to integrate into the outside world, which included clothing faux pas, hygiene disasters, complete ignorance of study skills, and inability to read social cues. Westover skillfully describes her emotional volatility as a young woman trying to breach the growing divide between her expanding inner and outer worlds and her family. She struggled without funds to cope with a painful dental infection, along with her profound fear of mainstream medicine. She tried to follow the university curriculum while compensating for foundational gaps in her education, eventually succumbing to apparent depression and months spent binge-watching television instead of studying.

As she pulled out of her depression, one professor, recognizing Tara’s unusual intelligence, recommended her for a special program at Oxford University. After overcoming challenges to obtain a passport because her parents had not filed for a birth certificate when she was born, at Oxford she realized the enormous expanse of world history. Later, in graduate school at Harvard, she began an academic study of Mormonism in comparison to other contemporary social movements of America’s westward expansion, rather than simply studying Mormon philosophy as the Word of God. Despite her parents’ efforts to lure her back to the fold, Westover was unable to return to their limited worldview. She was heartbroken when her immediate family eventually rejected her. Other distant relatives embraced her, and a few siblings remained in contact.

Despite many obviously traumatic events and losses, Westover writes without angst or reproach. She does not sit in judgment upon her family. From reading psychology texts, she considers that her father may suffer from untreated bipolar disorder. Her commitment to truth includes footnotes, which credit other relatives’ differing recollections of key events. 

Educated illustrates the painful solitude inherent when a person from cult-based origins becomes a critically thinking individual because that critical thinking almost inevitably forces one to reevaluate and reject the beliefs of one’s family and friends. As a reader, I sense Westover’s profound loss of the family that she never intended to lose, a feeling common to many who were raised in cultic groups. This memoir does not analyze religion, abuse, or sexism. It does, however, illustrate how one child believed in her parents’ good intentions; and it depicts the confusion of one who lived beneath a cloud of traumatizing narcissism or mental illness. Tara Westover successfully portrays some of the most difficult-to-express aspects of growing up in a separate world from ordinary people, and then trying to become part of the confusing ordinary world. Her book is both moving and informative, and extremely courageous. I highly recommend this vivid account of the effect an extreme environment has on psychological development; it is an important contribution to the cultic-studies field.