Select Page

Tara Westover’s Educated

Tara Westover’s Educated

by William H. Benson

March 8, 2018

I just finished listening to Tara Westover’s riveting memoir, Educated, an account of her years growing up as the youngest of seven children, in a fundamentalist Mormon family in southeastern Idaho, at the base of a mountain, Buck Peak. 

Tara’s dad, Gene, (a pseudonym) ran a junkyard, and her mother earned money as a midwife, but she also concocted a variety of herbs, oils, and tinctures, potions that she believed healed all ailments.

Dad feared the federal government. He buried gasoline tanks, guns, and ammunition in holes that he dug around his house. He told Tara, “When the feds come to Buck Peak, we’ll be ready.” 

Dad feared hospitals and doctors. “You’re worse off going to the hospital,” he would say. As a result, Tara did not receive a birth certificate until years later, but no one remembered her birth date.

In the home, there was no television, no telephone, no pain relievers, and no vaccinations. 

Dad feared the school system. He pulled Tara’s older brothers out of the public school when they were in grade school. He said, “school was a ploy to lead children away from God.” Mom home-schooled the boys for a time, but Dad needed their help in the junkyard. 

By the time Tara came along, mom had dropped all pretense at home-schooling, and as a result, Tara never received any education. No lessons, no math, no essays, no homework, and no tests. There were books: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and sermons by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Tara wrote, “I understand that it was this fact, more than any other, that made my family different. We didn’t go to school.” 

Instead, she worked in the junkyard. For the children, it was dangerous work: amputated fingers, gashes in arms, and horrific burns. There was a car-crusher, and a set of shears that cut angle iron but sent it flying at heads and arms. Then, Dad would throw things. He threw a steel cylinder once that caught Tara in the stomach. Another time, he almost ran her through the car-crusher.

Later, Dad started to build milk-barns and haying sheds for neighbors, and Tara’s job was to crawl around on the roof thirty feet high, and drill screws into corrugated metal sheeting, in the wind.

The worst though was the abuse she endured from her older brother Shawn (another pseudonym). When riled, Shawn would twist Tara’s wrist back, or he would grab her by the hair and slam her face first into the toilet. This happened again and again, and her parents chose not to see their son’s abusive acts directed at their youngest daughter, despite a broken toe, and a snapped wrist.

Tara wrote, “My family had violence in it, especially violence against women. We did not confront the patriarch, the father. It would have been inappropriate for me to challenge his authority.” She also said, “In families like mine, there is no crime worse than telling the truth.”

When seventeen, Tara was adamant; she would attend college at Brigham Young University, even though her dad warned her, “You are whoring after men’s knowledge and not God’s.”

At BYU, her ignorance was profound. She knew so little of anything. During a lecture she raised her hand and said, “What is the Holocaust?” She knew nothing of slavery, the Civil War, of Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement. Yet, she was bright, intelligent, and she knew how to work. 

Her roommates had to help her find clothes other than the men’s jeans and work shirts she always wore, and they had to give her lessons on washing her hands after using the bathroom, and on washing dishes, rather than letting them stack up in the sink for later. 

Tara did well at BYU, and earned a semester at Cambridge, in England, but her dad threatened not to attend her college graduation, unless she admit that her success was due to her home-schooling.

Tara won a Gates Scholarship to study at Cambridge, and also a fellowship at Harvard. She has since completed a Ph.D. in intellectual history at Cambridge University, where now at the age of 31, she lives and works. Hers is a Horatio Alger story, a remarkable story, most astonishing. 

Of all the memoirs I have read, including Angela’s AshesGlass Castles, and Hillbilly Elegy, I think this memoir exceeds them all, in terms of the terror and powerlessness that she must have felt when a young girl. I wonder if any producer would dare to make this book into a movie. It was so painful to listen to the book, that I dare not imagine what it would feel like to watch it on the screen also.

Tara recently said that she identifies with the lyrics to a Bob Marley song, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. No one but ourselves can free our minds.”