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