The premise is simple—a girl from a survivalist Mormon family breaks free from her violent past, secretly educates herself sufficiently to gain entrance to Brigham Young University, and doesn’t stop until she earns a PhD in History. But the story is anything but simple. Educated is more than mere memoir; it is a crystalized, distilled, realized validation of the power of knowledge and education. Westover’s life story is riddled with moments where it would be understandable for a child to just give over, to accept the norm, and to succumb to the pressures of faith and family designed to keep her ignorant and disempowered. However, the author chooses again and again to find strength in her learning.
Tara Westover experienced a childhood full of the beauty of a rural, mountain-side life. Her parents believed in the land they lived on and took much from it—her mother became a local midwife and now owns a highly successful natural medicines business in Idaho. Her father believes in conspiracies, the Illuminati, and the evils of government. Their less-than-mainstream approach to life included not registering Tara’s birth and refusing Tara and her siblings access to public school. Homeschooling was non-existent for most of the Westover children, but Tara (and one of her older brothers) sought knowledge beyond the teaching of the church. This drive for more may have come from the siblings’ need to always be alert; their time on the farm was punctuated with dangerous chores, multiple near-critical injuries, and a stream of violence that became a state of norm for the children.
Throughout the book, there are moments of unbelievable pain, danger, and frustration. Looking in on Westover’s incredible story, it’s easy to question her memory and to even think the tales are just too big to be true. The author deals with the issue of authenticity of memory by punctuating her memories with parallel or contradictory memories from other members of her family. She’s worked to create a wide picture of her incredible experiences.
Rather than write from a place of anger and hate, Westover turns the memoir into a depiction of her own struggles with identity and self-worth. Thanks to ongoing support from the educators in her life, the author is able to take tentative steps toward understanding the world beyond her farm. She writes of her own plunge into depression and parallels her struggles with those of her bi-polar father. It becomes a picture of the transformative power of education, of how it can give us strength to find ourselves, of how it can help us escape even the most difficult situations. The memoir ends with a declaration of her ongoing love for her family, despite their treatment of her, but it further exalts her love of education.