Educated, by Tara Westover – a review by Reem Seraj
I have a strange relationship with books, my criteria is a little odd. I tend to mostly listen to my books, as it affords the ability to dive into literaturewhile I get on with my housework and cooking after coming home from a demanding job. I love hearing the Authors voice while they read their own memoirs, their creations and their stories. There is a magic in listening to the writers voice tell you their story.
Although Educated wasn’t narrated by the Author, the comparable Julia Whelan took me on Tara’s journey of how she got Educated. I found Tara to be factual, kind and relatable in so many ways. Throughout the book I wanted to understand what she had managed to stir in me that made me apprehensive to continue listening, but yet wanting to know how her story played out.
This book is poetic, Tara Westover writes beautifully. In her debut memoir, she tells us her story of how she grew up in the shadow of an Idaho Mountain, living in a survivalist Mormon family, growing up with no schooling or modern medicine, oppressed by abuse, trauma through to her awakening and becoming educated. For someone who didn’t have the exposure most of us did to education and the literary world, she not only overcame her circumstances and the horrors of her childhood, but managed to gain a PhD. Mastering the written word, and having a NYTs best seller. I have no doubt that reading the book of Mormons and the sermon of the prophets over and over again, singing in Christian choirs and the exposure to that level of literary writing had a huge impact on her own style of writing.
This book spoke to me, and I have no doubt to my entire book club, because we are the generation that lived through the Islamic education of the “awakening” drummed into us, written by fundamentalists. We were the chosen people, we were going to heaven and every other none believer to hell. The closed off environment of the mountains of Idaho is no different to some parts of the deserts of Arabia, we are both land locked, with no rivers or oceans to expose the people to different cultures and beliefs brought by travelers. This created a ripe breeding ground for religious zealots to burn fear, and hatred of anything that was unfamiliar into the masses. When I say this about my country I say it with love. This land, this desert raised me and made me who I am. Have no doubt that I my blood runs green, and I am a proud Saudi female. I am simply pointing out the similarities between the two environments which I accept as part and parcel of my home.
I know girls like Tara, who have been abused at the hands of their bothers, and fathers, purely because they could and because they were girls who needed to be tamed, to be silenced, to learn to be subservient and obedient. With no right to a thought of their own, or a voice to question or speak out. And the painful thing is, they, much like Tara, didn’t even know they were being abused and they rationalized it.
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He defined me to myself and there is no greater power than that” Tara Westover
In this book, a rarely discussed form of abuse is at the heart of Tara’s story. Sibling physical abuse. It’s not the norm, we are used to parental abuse, spousal abuse, but rarely is sibling abuse discussed. It was so hard to read,and even harder to wrap your head around. Tara’s rationalization of the abuse, the fact she always tried to fix it, how she always went back to the scene of the crime and to Shawn was something any abuse victim will relate to. I doubt it was easy for Tara to write these chapters, to recount her own memories. She goes out of her way to be factual, but between the lines her words are laced with pain. I felt there was more to her story that she didn’t share.
Mr Westover is to Mormonism, what the KKK is to Christianity, and what suicide bombers are to Islam.
As you endeavor to follow Tara’s story, you will read of her father’s behavior, his actions, his choices, all far removed from the actual Mormon faith. How he created his own twisted version of a religion that he believes gives him the right to behave the way he does. Tara discovers her father is suffering with a mental illness when she goes to college and is exposed to knowledge and information that was never part of her life in Bucks Peak. We, in the book club, related greatly to his character, we have seen versions of him in our own society, mental illness coupled with a warped interpretation of the word of God, with no one to question, challenge or correct him. He created this black hole of a family life. The sheer litany of traumatic experiences the family went through, from car accidents, burns, falls, gashes, cuts, traumatic brain injury, major explosion and the fathers near death experience are all so hard to read. The fact they survived one of these never mind all is a miracle.
We grow up instinctively knowing, or expecting our parents to love us unconditionally, accept us for who we are, support us and most of all protect us. Tara had none of those things, and never asked for the life she was given. You will read about her mother, how she was complacent in the abuse, and how she didn’t protect her children. How she doubted her own daughter, and sided with her son every time. I had one question in the back of my mind. Why was it easier for Tara’s parents to accept and protect a mentally unstable violent son, one who violently slaughtered an animal just to prove a point – yet equally as easy to throw their daughter under the bus, say she had been touched by Satan and blacken her name in the family purely for finding a voice, questioning her reality and wanting an education?
“Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness” – Tara Westover
One of the hardest questions we discussed, and one that I have no doubt has occurred to everyone who read the book and to future readers; what do you do when your obligations to our family differ from the obligations you have to yourself? When the path of your education and growth requires your beliefs and ideas to challenge, change and take you away from your family who have radical beliefs? You can never separate yourself from your past, but much like fertilizer, you can process and learn from it, use it to grow. Or you can wallow in the past and allow it to define you. Tara loves her family, and throughout the book, she speaks of them with love, respect and kindness. But her past no longer defines her. Being educated allowed her to grow. Tara’s journey is one of awakening, its inspiring and thought provoking. This book, unlike most calls on the reader to self-reflect on who we are, how we got here and the choices we made on our own personaljourneys of growth.
I want everyone to read this book, chapter after chapter she takes us through the day to day perils of mental illness, survivalist Mormonism, abuse, education, emancipation, and ultimately self-love and growth. To creating her true authentic self through exposure, acceptance and tolerance. Tara is and always will be her father’s daughter and her mother’s daughter, and I pray that God in his infinite wisdom heals the wounds and chasm between them. Her journey is life affirming, and can give hope to so many.
In closing, I would like to say Education is not just schooling, education is the hunger and pursuit of knowledge, of understanding, of acceptance and ultimately tolerance. It is letting go of what doesn’t work for you. Education is like the Phoenix growing wings, taking flight and rising up out of the ashes of ignorance gaining a greater perspective from its new vantage point of seeing different perspectives.
The greatest irony of Tara’s wonderful Story; it wasn’t really so farfetched for Tara to escape her life, her past, her abuse or lack of education. Survivalism was this family’s way of life. Tara took the skills she was raised with, and instead of surviving the End of days, she survived her own circumstances and got educated.
In the conclusion of her story, Tara tells us what she calls her journey, her growth, her separation from who she was to who she became. She calls it, an Education.
As heart wrenching as this book is to read, she will make you think and reflect on your own personal journey. She will inspire the masses to hunger for education, for the ability to be freed of your circumstance, and to create your own authentic beautiful version of yourself.
I have no doubt “Educated” will be taught in schools, and translated into multiple language, I hope Arabic will be one of them, to touch people the world over just as it touched me.