Tara Westover's Memoir, 'Educated,' Nabs a Goodreads Choice Award

Posted by Cybil on December 4, 2018


It was a closely fought race, but the winner of the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Memoir and Autobiography is Tara Westover's powerful debut, Educated.

The story of Westover’s journey from a childhood in the mountains of Idaho, the daughter of survivalist parents who never sent her to school, to gaining a Ph.D. from Cambridge, beat Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which came in second. Last year’s winner in this category was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened.

At times harrowing and emotional, Educated charts Westover’s girlhood working in her father’s dangerous junkyard and helping her herbalist mother, never seeing a classroom or doctor. Constantly prepping for the End of Days, she was in thrall to an older, violently abusive brother and parents who told her she had been “taken by Lucifer” when she tried to speak out. As a teenager, she began to educate herself, eventually attending Brigham Young University, then Cambridge and Harvard. But finding herself through education would also cost her dearly; after a mental breakdown, Westover was forced to accept that to live the life she wanted she must sever ties with the parents she still loves.

Educated, which has spent 40 weeks on The New York Times' bestseller list, has resonated deeply with readers. On Goodreads, it has an average of 4.47 stars and more than 109,000 ratings. We caught up with a thrilled Westover, 32, at her home in New York just after the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award polls closed. She told Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth what the award means to her, why she thinks Educated's themes of family obligation and self-invention have connected with so many, and what’s next for her.


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Goodreads: Congratulations on your win! What does the award and all the support from Goodreads readers mean to you?

Tara Westover: I’m really, really excited about it. It’s great when the highbrow powers that be, the literary giants, say, "Oh, you wrote a good book," but it does mean something extra when it’s readers, when it’s people interacting with the book in a personal way, not just because they like the language or not because they think it’s doing something bold with the form, but because they had an experience with it. That means something a little bit different and a little bit extra. A readers’ award is a really exciting one.

GR: Did you ever imagine your story would have such an impact?

TW: When you’re trying to do something, you try to inspire yourself to do it and motivate yourself with visions of what wonderful things could happen, the wild runaway success, and how wonderful would that be. But I don’t think I imagined anything even remotely close to it, even in those moments of complete suspension of reality.

GR: Why do you think Educated has resonated with people so deeply?

TW: There are two themes [in the book]. One is of self-invention and self-creation, and the other is of family and obligation and what you owe to family and what you owe to yourself. I think maybe it must have something to do with one of those, or both of them, or the way that they fit together.

A lot of people struggle with difficult family relationships and how to become themselves while still being loyal or at least being respectful or paying some kind of homage to the self that they were given by the people they care about. Part of what it means to grow up is letting go of the part of that self you were given by other people and trying to develop your own self. That can be a really painful process, and for some it involves a lot of loss. But for everybody it involves some difficult choices, and maybe that difficult set of choices is what is resonating with people.

I like to think that the education theme helps bring something hopeful into the equation, which is that, yes, there is loss in self-invention and there can be pain even, but the idea of growth and education, it allows it to be something that is gained as well.

Before I came up with Educated, I was kicking around titles and one of the ones I came up with was Of Things Lost and Things Gained, which I guess is what the book is about. It’s about the things you have to let go of, not because they’re not valuable or because you don’t want them but because you have to let go of them for you, for yourself, for your growth, and so there’s this idea that sometimes really good things come at the price of other good things.

GR: What’s a reaction to your book that has surprised you?

TW: I got a letter from a 65-year-old man living on the Upper East Side who said, "This is my life, and even though it was nothing like your life, this book made me feel seen." That was surprising to me. I guess it’s a principle of storytelling that the universal is best explored through the specific. But I don’t think it feels like that when you’re writing it, at least it didn’t feel like that for me. It felt like no one was going to identify with this book unless they were a little girl raised in Idaho who was never allowed to go to school, working in her father’s junkyard.

Not everybody has that same upbringing, but everybody has an upbringing where, as an adult, they’re looking back and trying to make sense of it. It’s a fact of being a child that it doesn’t matter how extreme your life is, it feels normal to you. I didn’t experience my upbringing as extreme or radical in any way; it was just my upbringing. People ask me a lot if I think my family is a cult, and I always say I think every family is a cult, and it’s true. My family was extreme, but in a way everybody goes through that same experience where the world you enter as a kid and grow up in feels completely normal to you, but then you spend the rest of your life figuring out what to make of it, what was normal, what was OK, what do I value, what am I going to let go of?

GR: Can you pinpoint the moment when you decided you wanted to write a memoir?

TW: Not a moment, necessarily. I had some professors even during my undergraduate degree tell me that I should write a memoir, and I had no interest in doing that, I had no interest in the exposure of it. I suppose it was sometime after I became estranged from my parents and I didn’t feel like there were stories about family and estrangement and loyalty and obligation, all these things that I was feeling, that really reflected the way I was feeling. They often had a reconciliation narrative where the message was that reconciliation was the ultimate goal. Or you had what you might call the misery memoir genre, and that’s not to say they’re not valuable, but people who had much less ambivalent feelings about their family than I have. Those stories are valuable and represent things people probably feel, but I didn’t feel that way.

So I made my book a story about all the ways that difficult, even abusive, relationships can be really appealing and powerful and how even people who are bad for you can have really first-rate qualities and can love you in a genuine way and you can miss them in a genuine way and that doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong choice but all of that complication, it’s part of what made the relationships so compelling.

I felt like I needed a story that was both of those things, that allowed me the choice to walk away but also acknowledged how much value there was there and how great the loss was, and maybe I didn’t read enough books, but I didn’t find them.

GR: In the book you talk about your “fever of self-doubt” breaking and the point at which you began to trust your memory of events.

TW: The defining feature of it was that I stopped thinking about it all the time. There were a couple of years where I was just re-litigating the whole thing in my head all the time, every aspect of my childhood.

What I had to learn is that there was no part of me that wanted to become estranged from my parents. Every instinct in your body just screams "don’t do that!" I love my mother very much, and the fact that I was even considering it, I had to learn to trust that.

But I had to stop making it all about what they had done and what they deserved and start making it about what I needed and what I deserved. I wasn’t not seeing my mother because I hated her; it was because I loved myself. I wanted to take care of myself, and it became obvious that one thing that had to happen for me to take care of myself was that I needed to stop seeing her.

For so long it was impossible for me to imagine a happy future and a happy life that didn’t have my parents in it. I wanted to tell a story that started with the premise, “I know this is something you are going to judge me for, but we have to talk about this very difficult thing, which is that sometimes you do have to make a choice between other people and yourself, and there has to be a point where it’s OK to choose yourself.”

GR: Have you heard from any of the family members who aren’t identified by their real names in the book since it was published?

TW: I’m actually estranged from about half my family, but what little contact with them I have I really avoid talking about the book.

GR: Your parents spoke only through a lawyer when your book came out, saying it portrayed the family falsely and maligned them. Do you think they still see things the way they always have?

TW: I know that they do.

GR: At one point in the book you talk about believing yourself to be invincible because you’ve withstood so much. Do you still feel that way?

TW: No, I think that was unhealthy. I wouldn’t expect another person to be invincible and I wouldn’t require that of them, so I don’t think it was really fair of me to require it of myself. I also think sometimes numbness and being cut off from your feelings feels like a strength, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a defense mechanism that alienates you from yourself.

GR: In the book you suggest your father may have been suffering from bipolar disorder. Do you think that mental illness was a factor in how your father behaved and maybe your brother, too?

TW: It was probably the deciding factor, but I’m not a mental health professional. I tend to think it was probably mental illness more than religion; the mental illness caused the religious extremism, not the other way around.

GR: Do you ever go back to Buck’s Peak, the mountain in Idaho where your family lives, and what emotions do you feel when you go back there?

TW: I always drive by once a year when I’m visiting my aunts and uncles and my brothers, but I don’t physically go to the mountain. Sometimes I feel lost and I feel sad about it, but I try to redirect that and just feel happy and grateful that I did have that in my life, and I am grateful I grew up on Buck’s Peak. It’s a beautiful place to be, and I probably won’t ever get to go back, not until I’m pretty old anyway, maybe never, but I’m grateful I had it in my life when I did.

GR: You live in New York now? That must be very different from Idaho. Do you like big cities?

TW: I live in a really peaceful, quiet part of New York, and outside my window all I can see are trees, so most of the time I don’t really know I’m in New York, which is good. I don’t think I’m anywhere near cool enough to live downtown—and with the chaos, I wouldn’t make it very long. I just wouldn’t make it. There’s nothing wrong with downtown, and the people who live there seem to love it; I just wouldn’t survive.

GR: What are you working on at the moment?

TW: I’m working on a documentary about rural education. So far it’s me and a producer, but hopefully one day it will be for someone else. It’s about rural kids and the way rural kids struggle to get through university and especially with all the economic changes taking place in rural America right now. I’m trying to put my finger on why it is that rural kids do so well in school and in national exams, but they don’t necessarily transition well into the economy.

GR: Do you think you’ll write another book?

TW: I hope so, one day.

GR: Would it be fiction? Or nonfiction? Or do you not know at this point?

TW: No idea.

GR: Has anyone approached you to buy the film rights to Educated?

TW: I’ve had a lot of people approach me to buy the film rights, but so far I have stubbornly not sold them.

GR: You don’t want to see the book dramatized?

TW: I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to sell them. I just know I don’t want to sell them right now.



Check out all of the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award winners! And be sure to add them to your Want to Read shelf!



Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Judy (new)

Judy What strikes me the most in this interview is when you say all families are cults. I never thought of it that way but looking back on my youth and the large Lithuanian family I grew up in I totally agree. It brings back many good memories for me though.


message 2: by Lorie (new)

Lorie I’m interested in your documentary, please give more details, is it almost finished, or newly in the works etc. ?


message 3: by Nikki (new)

Nikki Tara Westover
Thanks for this great interview ..
I’m with you on “every family is a cult” what is normal for a family is not necessarily right for you as an individual... and as you say it can go from extremes to just things that you as a person have come to not believe...
I think that readers are in awe of your struggles and your victories in that journey.
Thank you again


message 4: by Lindsay (new)

Lindsay Incredible. If I could read this for the first time again, I would do so over and over. Great interview, maybe the book is better off without a film adaptation. No way a film would ever be good enough.


message 5: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I found this interview and the book very honest. The ideas of a family being a cult is very interesting. Perhaps by trying to inculcate our values and beliefs in our children we are like leaders of a cult. I believe, in most cases, families are a kinder, more benign cult.


message 6: by Andrea (new)

Andrea I just finished this book and was incredibly moved by it. Not only is it a brilliant piece of writing, but it resonated with me (and apparently thousands of others) so deeply. And leave it to Dr. Westover, in her interview, to sum up why -- so perfectly -- this book left such a deep impression on me.

"Part of what it means to grow up is letting go of the part of that self you were given by other people and trying to develop your own self. That can be a really painful process, and for some it involves a lot of loss."

Thank you for writing this book and giving it to the world.


message 7: by Tish (new)

Tish Barbara wrote: "I found this interview and the book very honest. The ideas of a family being a cult is very interesting. Perhaps by trying to inculcate our values and beliefs in our children we are like leaders of..."
I totally agree, Barbara. That is what impressed me about the book.
Her total honesty was amazing, especially in a memoir.


message 8: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne This book was hard to read because of the sad experiences the author went through but I think it will help a lot of people see that they too can overcome their trials and become their best selves. Thank you.


message 9: by Katie (new)

Katie Fantastic interview, and fantastic book. It’s one that will stay with me for a long, long time.


message 10: by Abbie (new)

Abbie Tara thank you for being so raw and vulnerable with your life and story. You are truly courageous.


message 11: by C. (new)

C. Gordon Nikki wrote: "Tara Westover
Thanks for this great interview ..
I’m with you on “every family is a cult” what is normal for a family is not necessarily right for you as an individual... and as you say it can go ..."


Tara, you clarified what I've done in regards to my dysfunctional family when you said:

"But I had to stop making it all about what they had done and what they deserved and start making it about what I needed and what I deserved. I wasn’t not seeing my mother because I hated her; it was because I loved myself. I wanted to take care of myself, and it became obvious that one thing that had to happen for me to take care of myself was that I needed to stop seeing her." It is odd that when you truly love yourself FIRST that you can begin to have some compassion for the people who've hurt you. Until then, it is all about me trying to force my will to do what I think is right and expected by others and God. God tells us to love others as we love ourselves, which puts love of yourself first and He knows best. Thank you for writing this book as it must have been gut-wrenching.


message 12: by Amy (new)

Amy I so enjoyed this book! I don't usually sit and read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting, but that's exactly what I did with "Educated." I related to the story in every way, and felt in many ways that I was peeking into my own family history. Thank you so much for your honesty and for sharing this story with the world.


message 13: by Bill (new)

Bill Brewer They say that immigrants to the United States both adults and their children see opportunities none of us who have grown up here see. I am wondering if the author, having been deprived of all the educational opportunities, was spurred on by a voracious appetite to learn at a time in her life that she could clearly see the value. The book talks a lot about her interactions with here college professors in some cases weekly. Her naivety must have been have created a fascination to practice their craft on such a willing student and as such she received some excellent encouragement and guidance.


message 14: by Ezme (new)

Ezme Edwards After my adult daughter recommended I read this book, I could not put it down. Having lived and relived a childhood that was cult like in its own way — backwoods BC in the 1960s — I related to way too much of the religious fundamentalism/ extremism mentioned in the story, never mind the violence. The courage it takes to see this when you grow up thinking it is true and normal and when you have grown up loving and being loyal to the caretakers who have their own twisted since of reality, is also relatable. I went to university for the first time at 35. A B.A. opened my eyes, a B.Ed., gave me a career path, and an M.Ed., proved to myself I wasn’t as stupid as some would have had me believe. Now that I’ve retired, new directions beckon. Your book revalidates my choices and though I have often felt like a motherless child who had to grieve my losses alone, healing happens. I want to revalidate that for you, Tara. We choose our path, we create our happy-ever-after, and as long as we breathe, we tell our stories so that others may find their way forward. Thank you for telling yours.


message 15: by Ronda (new)

Ronda Morelock Thank you Tara, for your honest and gut-wrenching story. It took alot of bravery to finally speak up and do what was best for you. I believe your courage and boldness will help many with similar issues. Congratulations on your award, truly deserving! The book idea about rural education is a good one. There is a lot to write about. I live, and also grew up in Upper East TN. Was a poor farming area, now known for an explosion of illegal drugs..opiods, and meth. Very sad, and directly related to poor education, and lack of intervention of homes dealing with this abuse.


message 16: by Carla (new)

Carla Congrats to Dr Westover! Great interview for a great book!


message 17: by Babafemi (new)

Babafemi Oyewole Great interview. I agree with the comments above. But we know that families often have peculiar cultural values and beliefs that they want to inculcate into their children so as to preserve them. When children fail to imbibe them, parents can become extremists in their approach to inculcate such values. This I think made the parents of Dr. Westover feel that she misrepresented their intentions and she is portraying them in bad light. Parents need wisdom and understanding to carry their children along by letting them know the basis of their actions. This will help to lessen the risk of losing the children and the values they want to preserve.


message 18: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Cunningham Lindsay wrote: "Incredible. If I could read this for the first time again, I would do so over and over. Great interview, maybe the book is better off without a film adaptation. No way a film would ever be good eno..."

Right? The movie is almost never as good as the book. The author Sue Grafton stipulated that none of her mysteries become movies. I can't say I blame her because the plot can get mangled in process.


message 19: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca McCaslin Why do rural students do so well in education? As a one room schoolhouse child in PA during the 60's, I still connect w/ my fellow classmates, who are all well adjusted, living well and one of the overwhelming connections is that we were part of a community, we relied on each other, we trusted each other and we loved one another unconditionally. We were together in a learning environment for 8 hours everyday for 12 of our formative years and had that class forever and ever.


message 20: by Pamela (new)

Pamela A really good interview. I hope this author continues to write - she is so good. This book is one I will read again - and lend my copy to others as I have already. I have always felt that all families are dysfunctional - in varying degrees. Ms. Westover was so fortunate to have teachers who saw what she did not know she had within her, and a brother who helped her get started on her education.


message 21: by Jay "Jakie" (new)

Jay "Jakie" I found "Educated" to be an extremely disturbing read. The type of fundamentalism that Tara Westover reveals has had nothing, but negative regressive repercussions, here in the US and all over the world.

I am so glad Ms. Westover escaped the bondage of her family along with several of her siblings. This, indeed, was their only option and they should never have looked back or have regrets. I have often wondered about the attraction of blood and why people find the familial network so compelling and important. Many will stay in dangerous, threatening and even deadly situations because "it's my family." I am of the mind that often we would not associate with many of our family members, if we met them in social or work environs. So why place such a premium on them as family members.

I am glad Dr. Westover has survived to write this important memoir. It reveals the danger inherent in fundamentalist religiosity and should give people in horrendous family situations the courage and impetus to escape.


message 22: by Susan (new)

Susan Mabry Dear Tara,
THANK YOU for opening up your life to others in this wonderful memoir. It had a HUGE impact on me. You are so brave, focused and strong. EDUCATED resonated with me on so many different levels. You have a pure and honest voice of your childhood and accomplishments which inspired me to pick up a pen to write and expand my reading on many genres. We are never to old to continue our "Education"....Many blessings! :)
P.S. I love both your book and the audio version too!


message 23: by James (new)

James I couldn't put the book down. A similar, and very compelling, book is Hillbilly Elegy.


message 24: by Sharolyn (new)

Sharolyn Stauffer I live a couple of hours from where you grew up (I'm in Wyoming) and know this culture. I am a liberal Mormon, and I struggle with much of the culture, especially the more radical it gets. I admire what you have done in sharing your story, and you write exquisitely and visually. Many thanks for writing it. I would be wary of selling the rights to a movie as well. I would be concerned about how things are portrayed compared to the very personal experiences and perspective.


message 25: by Susan (new)

Susan Mabry This book impacted me so much! Please allow it to be a MOVIE so more people can know it's possible to survive and thrive through chaos. You are truly an inspiration! :)


message 26: by Susan (new)

Susan Mabry Susan wrote: "This book impacted me so much! Please allow it to be a MOVIE so more people can know it's possible to survive and thrive through chaos. You are truly an inspiration! :)"

I found you're book to be empowering to all women or people who live in extreme circumstances! :)


message 27: by Mo (new)

Mo The week before Christmas my life coach and I had a 3 hour discussion about this memoir and my proximity to several familial themes in the book. I am starting a new year finally able to move forward, choosing myself and not feeling selfish about it. Thank you for everything you have endured in the process of writing and getting this book published. I hope to read the follow up in a decade or so. I wish Dr. T. Westover success, happiness and continued self-love in her personal and professional lives.


message 28: by Nikki (last edited Mar 14, 2019 05:46PM) (new)

Nikki James wrote: "I couldn't put the book down. A similar, and very compelling, book is Hillbilly Elegy."

James ... currently reading Hillbilly Elegy and though JD Vance may have had a difficult childhood... i find his book more of an explanation as to why the family and culture is in crisis as opposed to a straightforward memory ... i’m finding it difficult to follow... i will persevere hopefully it will come together for me...
I found Educated far more riveting.. Nikki


message 29: by Illpisevi (new)

Illpisevi I also just recently read the book and was delighted. It is amazing how many social issues were raised in one book. At the same time, I discovered this book only thanks to https://eduzaurus.com/free-essay-samp... when I was very interested in this example. That free essay sample was one of the best.


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