Educated by Tara Westover

Feb 8, 2019

I don't know how I feel about this book. Maybe I'm writing about it too soon after finishing it. Maybe I should wait until both of my book clubs have discussed it and I've had time to shape my thoughts and let my opinions settle.

But part of me also just wants to get this review over with so I can be free of this book that made me feel so many things, most of them not at all pleasant.

It is the memoir of Tara Westover, the youngest of seven children, who was raised in the shadow of Buck Peak in rural Idaho. She didn't have a birth certificate until she was nine years old. Her mother and father treated all illnesses and injuries (some of them quite significant) at home. Her education was neglected in the name of home schooling.

Her father plays a key role in the way Tara identifies herself. He rules the family with almost prophetic authority, laying down the will of the Lord and admonishing them all to become self-sufficient and prepare for the end of the world. (Ironically, they are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is also my religion, but it was almost unrecognizable to me.) (Also ironically, Tara's father is uncannily similar to the father in The Great Alone, and both books happened to be narrated by the same person, which made the resemblance even more striking.)

I spent most of the book cringing. If anyone had looked over at me while I was listening, they most likely would have seen a grimace. The amount of physical injuries that happened in this story was astounding: legs ripped open, faces burned off, wrists cracked. If it had been fiction, I might have said that the author had carried it too far.

But my grimace was for more than the physical pain. First it was for all the things Tara endured as a child (physical abuse by her older brother being the most egregious), but later it was because she just kept going back for more. Even after she received a bachelor's degree and began work on a PhD, she continued to return home where she fell right back into her role as obedient and submissive daughter, always doubting her own memory if it conflicted with that of her parents.

Throughout the book, as Tara explains certain events, she says things like, "My brother, Tyler, remembers this event differently" or "I recorded this experience in my journal, but I have no actual memory of it." Sometimes her journal even revealed two very different versions of the same event. Tara has this habit of pausing the experience and zooming out on the picture and examining it from afar: "I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son's face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction."

This distrust of her own memory is understandable when, as an intelligent, successful adult, Tara finally confronts her parents about her older brother's abuse and is met with adamant accusations that such allegations are misconstrued and false. She receives no support from them (even as her brother is sitting beside her, whispering threatening things in her ear), and this leads to a complete mental breakdown where she can't cope with real life because she doesn't even know if she's actually living or just imagining it.

It just made me sick. And angry too. I am not saying that this is a completely accurate, unbiased account of Tara's life. It's a memoir, for crying out loud. Of course it's going to be biased. A memoir is not a factual statement. It is a unique individual's perceptions of her own experiences. But when a story is corroborated by multiple people (as Tara's was) and the people who supposedly love her most blatantly disregard it, it is sickening. There is no other word for it.

I did find it curious, however, that anytime she quotes an email or message exchange, she specifically states that it is not a direct quote, but a general recounting of the basic premise. I didn't understand why she wouldn't just quote the actual words rather than reinterpreting them each time. It didn't make me question her accusations, but it made me approach the story a little more cautiously than I might have otherwise.

In tone and content, it reminded me a great deal of both The Glass Castle and Hillbilly Elegy (and also, as mentioned above, but for completely different reasons, The Great Alone). If possible, I think Tara's story is even more horrific than Jeannette Walls' and personally, it gripped me quite a bit more than J.D. Vance's.

I think part of my discomfort with the book was that certain details matched my own upbringing, but everything about it was grotesquely warped. Tara was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I am a member of the same church. Tara was home schooled; I was home schooled. Tara's mother used herbal remedies; my mom preferred echinacea to Tylenol when we were sick. So maybe it wasn't just that I was distressed by Tara's story. Maybe I was a little defensive too. It was an example to me that even good things can turn bad when taken to an extreme.

Content note: minimal swearing, but a fair amount of descriptive injuries and abuse


  1. A lot of people put this on their best reads of the year list, and it makes me wonder if it's easier to be fascinated by this book and appreciative of how Tara "got out" as an outsider, meaning someone unfamiliar with the Church. Since I understand how more traditional members of the Church apply its teachings, I was so confused as to how this family was viewed by their local church community, how her mother's business was legitimized into a success company, etc.; the book brought up so many questions.

    Also, I felt like Tara was still working through her upbringing....which is totally understandable. I just wonder what the story would have been like had she waited another 20 or so years to tell it.

  2. I also cringed a lot and all we had in common was the name of the church. I'm curious if I passed her on campus. I wish I could have helped her navigate all the new stuff at school. But it's so hard to ask for help. I'm curious if you liked being home schooled (And was going to college a hard adjustment?) & if it was a hard decision to put your kids in public schools (I think you've touched on this a bit before, at least choosing schools.)


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