“Educated: A Memoir” is the first autobiography I have read. I had high hopes for this book because it was my maiden voyage into a new genre, and I was not disappointed. In short, Ms. Westover (now Dr. Westover) was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household, denied a basic K-12 education, subjected to an abusive brother, denied the benefits of modern medicine, and, despite it all, managed to earn her PhD from Cambridge University. The impediments and implications of her parents’ beliefs were far ranging and included an aversion to modern medicine, radically anti-government sentiments, denying their children formal education, and subjecting their children to obvious risks while professing that no harm would come unless it was God’s will. Of course, this is all Tara’s side of the story.
A Quick Summary
Born Into This Life
Tara entered the world already affected by the alternate reality her parents chose to live in. Indeed, her mother delivered in at home with the assistance of a midwife. It wasn’t until she was nine that Tara had a “Delayed Birth Certificate,” and, even then, it took several notarized affidavits to obtain because no one knew, or had proof of, her actual birth date.
Tara was raised in rural Idaho, the small town of Clifton. She grew up roaming her family’s land at the foot of a mountain she calls the “Indian Princess.” Her father and brothers worked hard in the family’s scrap metal business, a business she, too, would join when old enough.
Throughout the book, Tara describes her father as a man given to bouts of paranoia, bipolar tendencies, and even schizophrenia. Early on, these symptoms presented as shifts between an even-keeled man and an end-of-the-world prepper consumed by an uncontrollable drive to ready him and his family for the end of days. Val (given the pseudonym “Gene” in the book) fully lost himself to this compulsion after hearing of the Ruby Ridge, Idaho standoff between the FBI and the Weavers. It was at this point that Val removed all of his children from public school and begin stockpiling food, precious metals (gold and silver), water, fuel, and any other supplies required for a family to survive the apocalypse.
In the Angels’ Hands Now
Other than the abuse she suffered at her brother’s hands (which I’ll delve into later), perhaps the most disturbing parts of this book are those that show just how much abandon Val Westover shows for his family’s safety. In some cases, he could even be described as apathetic toward their well-being and health.
The first incident the novel depicts is a terrible car wreck the family suffered. Val and the family were visiting grandparents in Arizona when, late one evening, he decided it was time to drive back to Idaho. Ignoring protests from his wife Laree and his own mother, Val packed his family up and set off for a non-stop drive to Idaho. Eventually, exhaustion overtook Tyler, one of Tara’s brothers, and the family awoke after their car hit a tractor and clipped a utility pole, eventually careening off the road. Several of the family were bruised and cut, but Laree, Tara’s mother, had suffered the worst, a severe head injury.
Despite massive swelling, incoherent mumbling, sensitivity to noise and light, addressing family members by the wrong names, and an overall change in personality, there was never any talk of taking Laree to the hospital.
Having witnessed his wife’s brush with death and lasting change in personality, Val learned nothing from this incident and proved as much when he decided on another all-nigher several years later. After spending some time in Arizona with his parents again, Val decides late one evening it’s time to head home. This time, it was he who fell asleep at the wheel and Tara suffered the worst with an injury to her neck that left it nearly immobile.
Throughout the bookVal’s disregard for his family’s safety continues to plague his family. Tara describes an incident in the junk yard where her brother Tyler catches on fire and suffers severe burns to his leg. Rather than rushing him to the hospital, Val drops him off at the house and rushes back to the junkyard to put out the fire there. Despite the extent of the burns, Val and Laree refuse to seek medical help and resort to homemade salves, essential oils, and other concoctions. In another scene, Val has rented an antique clutch shear for trimming scrap metal down to size. Val forced his children to help holding angle iron while the machine did its job. Their size and mass being inadequate for the job, the shear would lift the steel sections, and the children holding it, off the ground as it bit into the metal. Against Shawn’s, Tara’s second eldest brother, protests, Val wouldn’t allow Luke, the fourth eldest brother, to quit holding iron. In short order, Luke had suffered a severe gash to his arm.
The last, and perhaps most disturbing, error in Val’s judgment was suffered upon himself. Working in the junkyard alone, he lit a torch to cut away a car’s fuel tank before crushing the body. Sadly, Val never checked the fuel tank to ensure it was empty. He suffered severe and disfiguring burns to much of his upper body.
The Demons in the Ones We Love
As if her father’s madness and propensity for life-threatening decisions weren’t enough, Tara bore emotional and physical trauma at the hands of Shawn over, and over, and over again. From gas-lighting her to strangling her, from restraining her to throwing her to the ground, he tortured his sister again and again. I can only assume that Shawn didn’t manage to escape the curse of his father’s emotional imbalance and mental illness.
Tara describes watching Shawn unleash his temper, lust for control, and emotional games on Emily, his new bride. After Emily and Tara had a quick talk about Shawn’s issues, Tara realized Emily was going to submit to the punishment believing Shawn was favored by God and was fighting the devil because Satan viewed him as a threat.
“The devil tempts him more than other men,” Emily said. “Because of his gifts, because he’s a threat to Satan. That’s why he has problems. Because of his righteousness.” (pg. 281)
Later in the story, Tara would approach her sister “Audrey” about their brother Shawn. Tara had begun questioning her own narrative about the punishment she suffered at Shawn’s hands, trying to rationalize it away or even assume blame for the events, as if she had somehow been the cause. This visit to Audrey was an attempt to validate her version of events. Although she got little in the way of confirmation, Audrey did recognize a phrase Tara used, one that they had both learned from Shawn: “If you act like a child, I’ll treat you like one.” It was only in his fits of rage and abuse that he had spoken these words to the two women and this seemed to confirm, for Tara, that she wasn’t crazy and that her memory of events wasn’t misconstrued or flawed in some way.
Soon after, Audrey decided to confront their mother with her and Tara’s accounts of Shawn’s behavior. Laree admitted that she was ashamed she had seen this going on and refused to face the reality of it. Later, when Tara visited home for Christmas she went for a drive with her brother Shawn; they had a conversation about Audrey:
“You talk much to Audrey?” he said.
“Not really,” I said.
He seemed to relax, then he said, “Audrey is a lying piece of shit.”
I looked away, fixing my eyes on the church spire, visible against the light from the stars.
“I’d put a bullet in her head,” Shawn said, and I felt his body shift toward me. “But I don’t want to waste a good bullet on a worthless bitch.” (pgs. 348 – 349)
Worried that Shawn might actually harm Audrey, Tara approached her father and reported the conversation she and Shawn had. Val called Shawn over to the house to get his side of the story. When he arrived, Shawn sat down directly next to Tara on a couch, took her hand, opened her fingers, and gently laid a bloody knife in her palm. He then commented:
“If you’re smart, Siddle Lister,” Shawn said, “you’ll use this on yourself. Because it will be better than what I’ll do to you if you don’t.” (pg. 353)
Tara weakly retorted, “That’s uncalled for” (pg. 412).
It’s clear that the family is either too embarrassed or too scared to admit the truth about Shawn, but it’s also clear that, for some reason, Tara refuses to stay away. Fortunately for her, her family makes the decision for her when they ostracized her claiming. It seems her father had gone from one member to the next, starting with he claimed that anyone vouching for Tara’s version of events had been taken by Lucifer, that Satan himself was behind these baseless accusations about Shawn. As her family caved to Val’s pressure, Tara found herself alone.
Some time later, Tyler confronted the family about Shawn’s actions and received the same treatment. Val’s lecture was followed up by a threat of excommunication from Shawn. Ultimately, Tyler sent a letter to his family standing by Tara. Though he was not kicked out of the family, he was never as close to them after that.
A Sad Vicory
Despite Tara’s triumph over her self-doubt about the truth of her sufferings at Shawn’s hands, she finally managed to find emotional and mental stability and complete her PhD. The book ends by describing her closeness to her brothers Tyler, Richard, and Tony, but it also describes an estrangement with the rest of her family.
There are so many inconsistencies, remaining questions, and gaps in Ms. Westover’s stories it’s hard to decide where to start.
A Father Disfigured by Fire…or Not?
First, let’s examine her father’s brush with fire. Thanks to Tara’s mother’s public Facebook profile, it’s quite easy to find photographs of the entire family. As evidenced by the one below, of Val (Tara’s father), the explosion and grotesque disfigurement of his face are grossly exaggerated, if not fabricated:
This photograph (according to the post date on Facebook) was taken around December 20, 2009. Judging by the number of children and Tara’s apparent age in photographs her, this seems very likely. After doing the math, I determined that Tara entered college sometime around 2003-2004. According to her book, her father’s accident occurred fall of 2005. Hence, this photograph is about 4 years post-accident and I can see none of the destruction the book describes to his lips, lower face, etc.
The next incongruity is Tara’s purported lack of formal education as a child. Despite her assertion that she received little to no home schooling, her brother, “Tyler,” clearly contradicts this version of reality.
Below is an excerpt taken from a review Tyler posted to Amazon after the book was first released:
Regarding higher education, many readers of the book have concluded that Tara attended formal higher education against apparently insurmountable odds. Perhaps it is not that surprising after all. Of the seven children in our family, six of them attended formal higher education classes (Luke is the only one who has not, and as described in Tara’s book, classroom education is not really his thing). In addition, both our mother “Faye” and our father “Gene” attended at least one year of university classes each. Our mother frequently encouraged me from a young age to prepare to attend university classes by the time I was sixteen. On the other hand, our father has expressed great dissatisfaction with the hubris associated with university education as well as its bias toward liberal thinking.
Tyler goes on to report that not only did Val not discourage higher education, he encouraged it on several occasions:
Our father was actually the person who first gave me a specific purpose to get a university degree. He told me that if I got an engineering degree, then I could provide engineering stamps for building and bridge designs for the family construction business.
Even more shocking is the fact that Val and Laree both attended post-secondary education, along with six of their seven children:
Of the seven children in our family, six of them attended formal higher education classes (Luke is the only one who has not, and as described in Tara’s book, classroom education is not really his thing). In addition, both our mother “Faye” and our father “Gene” attended at least one year of university classes each.
Third, I find it very difficult to believe that she could master the ACT exam, excel in her undergraduate studies, earn a full-ride scholarship to BYU, earn a full-ride scholarship to Cambridge, and, ultimately, earn a PhD from one of the most prestigious universities in the world with next to no fundamental schooling.
By Her Own Admission
Last, between Tara’s own admissions that “reality became fluid” and her repeated admissions that she might have events and orders of events wrong (or that other witnesses disagreed) and Tyler’s rebuttals (see below), I believe Tara took great liberties with her storytelling.
Tyler asks readers to reserve judgment and, instead, ask follow-up questions following their read of Educated:
After reading a memoir, I would hope that readers have new questions about their understanding of the events and people being scrutinized rather than feeling confident that their understanding is now sufficient to render accurate judgment.
Later, he clearly states that her interpretations of his experiences are often grossly inaccurate:
In her book, in numerous places, Tara interprets for me and other members of my family things that we did, said, thought, and even felt. I cannot speak for the other members of my family, but in my case I think in many instances she greatly incorrectly conveyed my experiences.
To Read or Not to Read?
Ultimately, I believe Tara Westover had very unconventional childhood and experienced many stressful and unfortunate events that left her with a lot of emotional baggage. However, I do not believe that Tara was nearly as intellectually malnourished, neglected, or emotionally tortured as she purports in her book.
Should you read the book given its possible inaccuracies and fallacies? Absolutely! It’s most assuredly a page-turner and I cannot wait for my next memoir or autobiography. Ms. Westover is a phenomenal writer, in her own right, and weaves an interesting and compelling account of her life.
Clinton is a full-time Software Developer currently working for CGI Federal, Inc. He spends most his days building Java web applications using tools like Spring MVC, Java Server Faces, and VueJS. In his free time, he likes to dabble in Golang, Hadoop, and other cool technologies. Clinton has been married to his wonderful wife Ashley for 8 years. Together, they have a super-handsome, unbelievably cute (no bias here folks) 6 year old son, Andrew.