This year, 2018, has seen the publication of Educated by Dr. Tara Westover, a graduate in history of the University of Cambridge. It is the latest successful confessional memoir to strike a chord with the North American reading public. The Ottawa public library, despite having 72 copies to lend, has a waiting list of 860 anxious to read this account of her unusual childhood and adolescence. These were spent in isolation from society in rural Idaho as one of the seven children of an irascible ‘bipolar’ survivalist Mormon father and a self-deceiving and curiously complicit mother with a touching faith in homeopathy. Tara Westover’s fascinating story provides insight into the human condition in all of its infinite inscrutable variety for the benefit of the psychologist in each of us.
Tara Westover grew up uneducated. Her father, likewise uneducated, was the owner of an auto junkyard from which he could barely make ends meet. The product of a fundamentalist cult consisting only of his immediate family, and Mormon in name only, he distrusted lawfully-constituted society so much that he did not buy auto insurance or register any of his children’s births. He avoided hospitals and doctors in spite of numerous serious injuries to family members, demanded his daughter help him in the dangerous task of disassembling auto wrecks, stockpiled food for the apocalypse he believed was imminent, and failed to send any of his children to school, claiming that he believed in “home schooling,” precious little evidence of which is provided. Despite this, Tara learned to read, but read only from the Bible and from the writings of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Finally disenchanted by her parents’ failure to check her brother Shawn’s increasingly erratic and violent behaviour, and despite parental discouragement, she begins systematic disciplined study on her own, and finds herself in books. She leaves home to obtain the education denied her after passing state academic equivalency tests and gaining admission, first to Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, and then, quite unexpectedly, and with the help of people who saw her potential, by winning a scholarship, to Cambridge.
At one point in her narrative, she says, perhaps disingenuously, “ I do not want to be Horatio Alger in someone’s tear-filled homage to the American dream.” Yet this is exactly how the story comes across: as a triumph of the human spirit’s will to resist subjugation born of adversity, deception born of ignorance, and poverty of imagination engendered by the restrictions of her disabling home environment and her father’s absolutist creed. She seeks salvation in formal education by plunging, woefully unprepared, into an alien society outside the confines of her earlier isolated existence. Like the eponymous central character of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, she believes “there is a world elsewhere,” rejects the only life she has ever known, and by honestly and bravely admitting the inadequacy of her upbringing, subjects herself to the rigorous critical examination of history, political science and economics, about which she had known nothing before. Sadly, her education comes at great personal cost. She acknowledges in the book’s closing pages that her family is deeply divided, and that she is estranged from her parents. Yet it is an inattentive reader who will argue that the separation was not worth the cost, painful as it was, and is, and permanent as it may yet prove to be.