March 2023 Open Book Group – Educated by Tara Westover

Thank you to Pat for moderating Educated by Tara Westover.

Educated is a memoir. Westwood recalls her upbringing in a survivalist, community in North Idaho. Her father, Gene, thought the public education and medical system were the work of socialist forces and could not be trusted. When her family suffered major medical crises including severe concussions and third-degree burns, they were treated by her mother with herbs and tinctures. Tara was supposedly home-schooled but, in reality, spent her childhood working in the dangerous family scrapyard.

Gene spent all the family money on stocking up the house and barns with supplies and weapons. He believed the Illuminati were trying to subvert his version of life as a fundamental Mormon. When the end of the world did not happen, as he predicted in 2000, he went into depression for months.

The family was so isolated that no authorities intervened to ensure the children had an education. Nor did they prevent the extreme violence that Shawn, Tara’s older brother, perpetrated on the family. He entered her room while she was sleeping and tried to strangle her. He persistently called her a whore for a friendship with a local boy. There are veiled references to sexual assaults perpetrated by Shawn.

At the age of 16, she saw two futures. Stay and become trapped with children in an abusive marriage, like her similarly, uneducated sister, Audrey. Or escape through education as her eldest brother, Tyler, had done. Against all the odds he had achieved an engineering degree. He encouraged her to study for the ACT. She taught herself algebra and trigonometry gaining entry to Brigham Young University. Her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. With the support of her professors, she eventually gained a PhD from Cambridge University and studied at Harvard.

She tried to reconcile with her family, many times but her education had created a chasm between them, which could not be bridged. Today, they speak through solicitors.

And yet again, torrential rain did not deter 16 OBGers from gathering at the library. Her flowing writing style made Educated an easy read. Her content made it a harrowing one. We noted that in memoirs the author shares their memories from a specific period. In comparison, an autobiography is a factual account of the author’s life from beginning to end. We observed how different people can remember the same event differently. In the acknowledgment, Westover writes that she consulted her elder brother Tyler to clarify some of her recollections. Clive James pointedly titled his memoir Unreliable Memoirs.

So how much of Westover’s book can be relied upon as a correct representation of a horrific upbringing? The family has taken her to court over her portrayal of Shawn. We did find it hard to believe a 10-year-old could do the work she did in the scrapyard. She would not have been physically strong enough. One member noted that the language Westover uses did sometimes board on sensationalism, for example, the hole in Shawn’s head when she pushed his brain back in after yet another accident. Her father’s condition after the fire, ‘‘the face liquefied: the fire consume the plastic (of his helmet), then skin, then muscle… The tongues of flame licked across his shoulder and chest… Below his nose, there was nothing where it should be “. Yet we read her father recovers without formal medical assistance. Despite, according to Westover, he has no mouth, he can speak at his mother’s funeral. The member argued her florid language made us question the voracity of Westover’s account.

Some members, also, found it hard to believe that Westover could leap from no education to studying at Cambridge. Was this an unreliable memory, had she had more education earlier on? However, one member commented that because she was a social outcast, even among the Mormons attending BYU, she spent all her time studying. She was very bright and her thirst for knowledge allowed her to succeed. Further, the Cambridge supervisor was looking for potential not deep factual knowledge.

Overall, we agreed her account of coercive control, perpetrated in closed communities, was accurate and believable. Her choice to escape its boundaries via education was a very brave one.

One member questioned why many books of this ilk are on the market. We referenced Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman about a woman escaping the ultra-orthodox, Jewish Hasidic, Community, and The Messiah’s Bride by Megan Norris. She, as a 14-year-old, married a cult leader in a closed community in Nowra. Why do we want to read these books when their content is so distressing? Is there something voyeuristic in our curiosity that we should challenge? The group felt that is far better that domestic abuse was written and talked about than kept behind closed doors. Books, such as Educated were important in educating their readers.

We ruminated on how we had felt the power of education. One member referenced Sons and Lovers, a book she had read and enjoyed as a teenager. When she reread it with the advantage of a University course, she was stunned to discover a different book.

We noted that with the rise of Trumpism, and QAnon paranoia about the control that the establishment has over citizens’ daily lives has increased rather than decreased. Combined with America’s gun culture and its racial divides the concept of a United States of America is increasingly challenged.

Overall, an important book to show the power of education to lift women are out of the overwhelming coercive control of closed communities. And the cost of subsequent alienation from the family that they must pay. Without the bravery of such women our education is poorer.



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