Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir about domestic violence (the story about a Mormon girl getting an education is secondary).

I’m unapologetic about that spoiler and feel cranky that publicists and reviewers have failed to mention, or have simply skimmed over, the horrific physical, psychological and financial abuse that dominates Westover’s memoir.

According to the blurb, the book focuses on Westover’s childhood and early adulthood, and her experiences growing up with survivalist Mormon parents in the mountains of Idaho.

I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

Instead of going to school, her days were spent salvaging in her father’s junkyard or helping her mother, a midwife and healer, prepare herbs. In her late teens, Westover began educating herself and was admitted to Brigham Young University – she was 17 and had never set foot in a classroom, did not know what the Holocaust or civil rights movement was, and had never visited a doctor.

Although the strictures of Westover’s Mormon upbringing and the paranoia of her survivalist father provide a riveting backdrop, this memoir is about trauma and its ripple effect. Westover is abused by her brother, Shawn, and her father. The abuse is physical and psychological. The abuse is relentless and taints every single moment of every single day. Shawn, typical of his type, switches between violence and begging for forgiveness. His cruelty and anger spark off the page. Westover’s father favours different weapons – shame, guilt and verbal threats, which ultimately manifest in almost unbelievable workplace and car accidents.

While expectations in Westover’s family may have been different from the norm – for example placing women in a subservient role; denying her an education; believing in herbal healing, not Western medicine – her experience of domestic violence is ‘universal’. The terror, the self-blame, and the constant cycle of abuse and regret/forgiveness.

It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

Regardless of the misleading premise of Educated, the book is compelling and well-written (although I sensed a touch of the James-Freys when I got to the bit about her father and a fire). While there is a conclusion to Westover’s story (she attends prestigious universities), I couldn’t help but feel there is much left unresolved – even up until the end of the book, Westover was making allowances for Shawn, explaining his behaviour. Equally, revelations about her father’s mental health (that he is bipolar) were presented as an explanation.

…vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.

But there are no excuses. None.

3/5 The blurb misrepresents this book – it should come with trigger warnings.

I received my copy of Educated from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

It began near the end of canning season, which other kids probably called ‘summer’. My family always spent the warm months bottling fruit for storage, which Dad said we’d need in the Days of Abomination.

Try these peaches preserved with vanilla syrup.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 28): Belfast 11°-17° and Melbourne 8°-20°.

18 responses

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  2. Huh. You’re right, everything I’ve read about this book focuses only on the elements about her education and not the abuse. I just downloaded the audiobook but haven’t started it yet. Now I’m a little hesitant.

    • More than half of this book is about the abusive relationships and the accidents that happen in her father’s salvage yard. The detail is confronting and it highlights how the abuse extends across time and miles, even though she was no longer seeing her brother.

  3. Yes! I so agree. I put the book down a while back (I will pick it up again at some point though) because the abuse got so insidious. The blurb definitely is deceiving.

  4. I don’t think this is for me, it sounds a bit relentless. I don’t like to run away from the world, but there’s only so much I can take at the moment, after I’ve survived the nightly news bulletin!

  5. Dang! I downloaded the audiobook fro EDUCATED thinking it was about education after not being educated. I had no idea about the abuse. That will be a toughie for me to listen to.

  6. Yikes. Thank you! I clicked on this review as this title was near the top of my to-read list. So glad to have this warning and you’re right, none of the marketing or reviews focus on this portion of the story. So glad to know.

  7. Ahoy there matey. This post be timely as I was about to get the audio book. I was more interested in the education and religious aspects. I do not need to read a memoir with that kind of abuse. And the blurb has no warning. I will not be reading this. Thank ye kindly.
    x The Captain

    • There’s not much detail around the religious part of her life, save for how strict it was. The formal education part of the story focuses on her university experience, although even then she spent a lot of time returning home (for more abuse). If you’re wanting to avoid abuse memoirs, give this one a wide berth!

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