Westover’s account of her unconventional upbringing is both riveting and heartbreaking.
Shunning traditional education, medicine, and to an extent, socialisation, Gene* Westover and his wife raised their children in preparation for the end of the world. Their children, knowing no better, accepted this narrative. Their childhood and much of their teenage years were dominated by obsessive stockpiling of supplies, suspicion of ‘outsiders’ or official authority, and the threat of brainwashing by the Illuminati.
As puberty hits and Tara begins to interact more with people outside of her immediate family, she begins to realise just how unorthodox her parents’ belief system is – and starts to questions her own. This combined with her older brother’s Tyler’s brave departure for college, sow the seeds of a new life. The absence of healthy love and the casual comfort provided by a stable home – and its impact on innocent Tara – makes for an upsetting read.
Tara spends her days working with her brothers at their father’s scrap metal yard. Her tales of near misses and injuries sustained will have Health and Safety Officers wincing as they read. Her father’s increasingly erratic behaviour and callous disregard for her safety, along with physical and emotional abuse by Shawn eventually become too much for Tara to take.
Following in her brother Tyler’s footsteps, formal education proves a glimmer of hope, a route out. While Tara and her siblings were loosely homeschooled to an extent by their mother, a herbalist, and self-taught midwife, she had no formal qualification, she studies on her own, with guidance from her brother and passes the test necessary to apply and secure a place at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Here Tara’s education really begins, both in and out of the classroom. For a long time, she is her own worst enemy. stubbornly holding onto the remnants of her family’s way of life. In some ways, reading about her behaviour in that first year at college was almost as painful as reading about the hardships she endured as a young girl. If I could have reached into the book and shook her shoulders I would have. Alas, Tara must grow at Tara’s own pace.
Understandably, leaving her family home brought on a huge culture shock. To give you an idea of the scale of that shook, the Holocaust, the history of slavery, and the American Civil Rights movement are all new concepts to her. It’s difficult to fathom how she not only adjusted but thrived, securing a scholarship and later graduating with a PhD from Cambridge University.
The final part of the book revolves around Tara’s attempts to mend bridges with her family. It is car-crash fascinating and made all the more interesting by the fall-out on its publication. Apparently one of her brothers posts a lengthly review of Educated on Amazon, and her mother is said to have penned her own book in response, Educating.
*Tara chose to use monikers for some family members.