While her memoir is likely to leave the reader incredulous, frustrated or angry, and amazed, Tara Westover’s “Educated” is a powerful read anchored by broader and applicable themes: The experience of (religious) homeschooling, the religious or ideological scepticism of anything connected to the federal government, the trauma of growing up in a violent and abusive household, as well as the lack of access to (higher) education and the struggles of students who may not have the same initial resources or skills as their college counterparts. Incredulous, because it is hard to believe that Westover’s dysfunctional family members exist; frustrated or angry, because her persistent confusion and helplessness – perhaps to the extent of being gaslighted – renders her more vulnerable to the whims and fancies of her family, with no resource; and amazed, that in spite of these odds she has excelled academically, working her way to earn a PhD.
The intense first-person narrative has its pros and cons. Intimate knowledge of her family, school, and personal life – by relying on contemporaneous diary entries since adolescence and conversations or correspondences she has had with other individuals, and also by checking with others who may have witnessed the sane events – makes it possible to process the challenges from Westover’s perspective and to empathise with her altercations, her awkwardness and her insecurities, and her tensions between staying loyal to her parents and family and trying to fit into mainstream society. On the other hand, however, and as acknowledged in parts of the book, reliance on a single point of view increases the likelihood that the reader takes on prejudices or biases without points for comparison.
In other words, by only taking her side, “Educated” potentially misrepresents the actions or motivations of the family – even if there is little doubt that she had a tough upbringing, with the focus on the extent to which what was recounted actually transpired – and even if the narrative provides a sense of security that everything will turn out right for her. Indeed, as she advances from Brigham Young University to the University of Cambridge, and back to the University of Cambridge after a one-year visiting fellowship in Harvard University, Westover deals with her problems (or least presents her approach) in a matter-of-fact manner without making a big fuss. In this vein, trapped within a rigid family structure while learning everything from scratch in college, her perseverance shines through. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you”, she muses towards the end, reflecting on all that has transpired.