EDUCATED: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Random House, 334 pp., $28.
How many ways can a family be screwed up? Let us, via memoirs, count the ways.
Bohemians surely know how to do it. In Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle,” nomadic hipsters shipwreck the family into poverty. In Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors,” the author’s crazy wannabe writer mother foists him, via legal guardianship, onto her equally wacko shrink.
Religious fundamentalism can also generate its own freaky hazards. In “Stolen Innocence,” a teenage Elissa Wall is forced into polygamy by a breakaway sect of Mormons. Tara Westover, raised by Mormons in rural Idaho, cautions that her memoir, “Educated,” is “not about Mormonism.” But, unquestionably, it is about what happens when religious fanatics split the world into true believers and followers of Satan.
For children daring to think for themselves, the results are devastating. They must choose between family (with mindless conformity) and exile (with individual integrity). Relating her story, based on journals kept since childhood, Westover can find no middle ground.
The youngest of seven children, Westover grows up in a household with no radio, TV or telephone. Born at home, she never attends school. But she isn’t really home-schooled; she mostly educates herself. Her father, terrified by the infamous killing of Mormons by federal officers at nearby Ruby Ridge, loathes everything bearing a government label. He runs a junkyard and builds barns. Her mother sells herbal medicines and practices midwifery without a license. Conventional medicine is dismissed as the work of the devil. They attend a mainline Mormon church, but Dad regards most of its congregants as “Gentiles,” too lax to be true Mormons.
Dad reigns as undisputed boss. Mom complies with his allegedly Bible-based authority, but Tara’s older brothers, especially Shawn, sometimes shove against Dad’s tyranny. If Shawn is the bully taking out his anger and frustrations on Tara, Tyler is the pioneer showing her a way out. His interest in books and classical music leads him to Brigham Young University, and eventually she will follow.
The Westovers regard their numerous highway and junkyard accidents as God’s will — never mind the severed fingers, burned legs and damaged brains. For Tara, Shawn’s taunts and fists present a more pressing danger. Dad ricochets between fury and sullen silence, a condition she later recognizes as bipolar disease. He castigates her as a whore, a captive of Satan. Worst of all, she questions her own motives, her desire for schooling. Is her father correct?
Even after she escapes to BYU, the distance between herself and mainline Mormons seems immense. But ever so slowly, through the help of friends and mentors, Tara begins to find her way. What she has to overcome is monumental: “My life was narrated for me by others . . . It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Still, the impostor syndrome follows her as she graduates with honors, finds herself amid Cambridge University’s spires and Harvard’s ivy walls. Even after she earns a Ph.D., the old shame bubbles up from the past: “I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor.” Her education comes at a personal price. Because Tara refuses to see her father, her mother refuses to see her.
Despite the gaps between them, Westover is able to see the mix of good and evil, of pride and hurt, in all these people, including herself. Rather than demonize, she wishes to understand. A brilliant mind so long constricted proves elastic and inventive.
Whether narrating scenes of fury and violence or evoking rural landscapes or tortured self-analysis, Westover writes with uncommon intelligence and grace. “Educated” recounts one of the most improbable and fascinating journeys I’ve read in recent years.