I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her "head-for-the-hills bag". In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father's junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara's older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she'd traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one's life through new eyes and the will to change it.
I started reading this memoir in a kind of rubber-necking-at-an-accident way--wanting to know about living in an extreme religious environment, doomsday prepping, forgoing modern medicine, and never setting foot in a school. But I hadn’t read far when I realized how wonderfully this woman was writing about these distressing subjects. How even-handed she was being, in the face of ignorance, mental illness, abuse, and extremely toxic patriarchy.
Despite all of these factors, the author’s intelligence shines through it all. She’d never been in a classroom until she was 17 and had only the vaguest idea of what modern society was all about. She’d never heard of the Holocaust. She was accustomed to viewing the delusions of her parents as gospel. Her father ranted regularly about the Illuminati, something that the vast majority of us consider to be a cheesy plot point in cheap thrillers. And yet, she persevered and she learned and she educated herself. She has well-deserved advanced degrees and her photo shows an attractive woman with no signs of her upbringing. And then I wonder, what was I expecting? What do I think those signs might be?
In many ways, Ms. Westover copes with extreme versions of things that we all have to deal with. I think almost everyone goes through a stage of feeling like they don’t fit in. Wondering if we can ever be ‘normal.’ Many of us have mentally ill family members or struggle with mental illness ourselves. Some have to deal with abuse. Everyone, but especially women, have to deal with patriarchal notions of what we ‘should’ be doing with our lives. She gives hope to all of us--if she could struggle out from under this load of trouble, surely the rest of us can too.
As she learns about the outside world, studying history, philosophy, and psychology, we get to travel along with her as she acquires the vocabulary to describe and evaluate her situation. She peels back the many shellacked layers of brainwashing that have held her back. She recognizes the many ways that the men of her family have bullied her into submission and she learns to accept her own intellect and power to decide for herself, yet still feeling that pull to “belong” to her own family.
I think that was the most riveting choice: to belong to family or to have an existence out in the ‘real world.’ The pain of having to make a choice--most of us get both and there’s very little choosing. I come away from the book, not a casual tourist of oddity, but a deep admirer of the strength and intelligence of the author. Ms. Westover, I wish you continued strength and peace.
If you appreciated this book, you would probably also enjoy The Glass Castle.