- - Thursday, February 21, 2019


By Tara Westover

Random House, $28, 334 pages

Tara Westover grew up on a remote Idaho mountain, the youngest of seven children in a fundamentalist Mormon family. “Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom.”

Her mother, Faye, was an unlicensed midwife and successful concocter of herbal medicines. Tara’s father, Gene, owned a junkyard and built barns and granaries. He believed the world would come to an end at the turn of the 20th century and that the government was the source of all evil. He “got rid of the telephone and chose not to renew his license to drive. He stopped registering and insuring the family car. Then he began to hoard food.”

“Educated” is Tara’s memoir of her journey from an unschooled girlhood, believing all her father taught her, to a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University. It is a riveting account and reads like a novel.

After Tara’s older brothers moved away, the younger siblings, including 11-year-old Tara, became their father’s junkyard crew. “The earth was ice, even the air felt stiff. We were in the yard which was overrun by hundreds of cars and trucks. Some were old and broken down but most had been wrecked and they looked it — bent, arched, twisted, the impression they gave was of crumpled paper, not steel. In the center of the yard there was a lake of debris, vast and deep: leaking car batteries, tangles of insulated copper wire, abandoned transmissions, rusted sheets of corrugated tin, antique faucets, smashed radiators, serrated lengths of luminous brass pipe. It was endless, a formless mass.”

Accidents kept happening. Gene took no safety precautions, as his faith came before safety, convinced that whatever happened was God’s plan. Faye would take care of the wounds with herbs and salves, be they gashes in legs, concussions or burned bodies.

Home schooling was limited to occasional sessions with Tara’s mother, who “kept a bookshelf in the basement, stocked with books on herbalism, along with a few old paperbacks. There were a few textbooks on math, and an American history book. There was also a science book, which may have been for young children because it was filled with glossy illustrations.”

When Tara discovered she could sing, she auditioned and won main roles in local musical productions. “I thought of the voices, of their strange contradictions — of the way they made sound float on air, of how that sound was soft like a warm wind, but so sharp it pierced. Nothing had ever felt so natural, it was as if I thought the sound, and by thinking it brought it into being.”

At age 17, she decided to go to college, teaching herself subjects required to pass the ACT. She was admitted to Brigham Young University, a freshman ignorant of basic knowledge. “From my father I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself. Books that were not of God were banished. I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration.”

In the summer, she went home, put on her work boots, and returned to the junkyard. “My memories of the university faded quickly, The scratch of pencils on paper, the clack of a projector moving to the next slide, the peal of the bells signaling the end of class — all were drowned out by the clatter of iron and the roar of diesel engines. After a month in the junkyard, BYU seemed like a dream.”

She suffered violent verbal and physical abuse from her brother Shawn, sometimes in view of her parents. Humiliated and in pain, she took the blame for the torment.

Encouraged by her bishop and professors, she returned to BYU, then acquired a master’s degree from Cambridge, a fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge. Throughout, she felt unworthy, torn between her desire to soar into the world of knowledge and her love and submission to her father and his teaching.

When Tara finally found the strength to believe in herself, she confronted her parents for their acceptance of Shawn’s brutality, and the false facts on which her life had been based. Her parents refused to believe her or to have anything further to do with her unless she “repented.” Ostracized by her family, she understood “[h]ow the paranoia and fundamentalism were carving up my life, how they were taking from me the people I cared about and leaving only degrees and certificates in their place.”

“Educated” is a remarkable book, written by a remarkable, talented woman. The reader will cheer for her and eagerly anticipate her next literary endeavor.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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