Tim O'Hearn's Reviews > Educated

Educated by Tara Westover
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really liked it

Purchased this book before boarding a flight to Utah. Over the last few months, I'd heard it deemed many different things ranging from this year's Hillbilly Elegy to uh, eh, you know, one of those (my mother said this). I hoped to find meaning beyond these two poles (the former not necessarily being a superlative), but, ultimately, Educated was an engrossing book without being a breakout masterpiece. As usual, my mom was spot on.

Educated is a memoir by Tara Westover, who was raised by Mormon zealots in rural Idaho. Her father was a survivalist who probably had Schizophrenia, while her mother was a midwife who ended up founding a business called Butterfly Express that brews essential oils and other herbal remedies in cauldrons. I imagined her mother being witchlike, a characterization implied but never fully substantiated.

The premise of the book is simple. Tara had no formal schooling as her father thought the government and, by extension, the school system were evil. Tara's entire family works long hours in their dangerous scrapyard, eschewing most modern safety precautions. In a story punctuated by tragedies (many encountered at the intersection of Mormon extremist beliefs and the dangerous scrapyard), Tara teaches herself some things, scores a 28 on the ACT on her second time taking it, kicks ass at BYU, makes an impression on a influential scholar who asks her "how would you like to go to Cambridge?", and eventually goes on to earn a Ph.D in history.

Now, this isn't a Slumdog Millionaire type of success story. The storyline is, in fact, very similar to Hillbilly Elegy. So, how is it that the Goodreads rating of this book (4.49) could be an entire half-star higher [than J.D. Vance's 3.94]? Well, Hillbilly Elegy dealt with rednecks. Bluntly speaking. People in rural areas who identified as "them" got mad. People who were still fuming over Donald Trump getting elected and blaming "those dang hillbillies" docked one and two stars from their reviews just to feel a little better about themselves.

What I am saying is that, on the topic of literary merit, this book is indistinguishable from Hillbilly Elegy.

This book arrived on the heels of the #MeToo movement. Inside, Tara recounts bouts of physical and emotional abuse suffered at the hands of her older brother. In fact, the infliction of emotional abuse (and physical abuse, if you consider the shunning of modern medicine to be physical abuse) can be attributed to her parents as well. Though Tara meticulously kept a journal through her formative years, she occasionally notes that her memories differ from the recollections of others. Coupled with the fact that her parents hired a lawyer to come out and say she's exaggerating, the seeds of doubt have been sown.

Thrust into the modern political climate, this story becomes inexorably intertwined with the angst of every woman who has been abused and wasn't believed or was punished for speaking up. This is not a subject I take lightly or one I would dare poke fun at, but many will reflectively click a five-star masterpiece because it's cathartic. I am happy that people were able to find solace in this book--but someone has to try to explain the abundance of perfect reviews even at the expense of seeming dickish.

In retrospectives, you will find that this theme often overwhelms the others, though they are far from subtle. We're talking about Mormonism here. Most people see Mormons as kind of weird but good people and are happy to leave their ponderings at the curtain call of The Book of Mormon. The book reinforces that extremists are extreme and that the insular nature of the church can make it harder to get out of harmful situations, but, really, most of the other Mormons in the book seemed perfectly normal to me.

The Westovers shunned hospitals except in life-threatening situations. I won't disclose any of the situations where the family did visit hospitals because that would spoil some of the more interesting plot points. Unintentionally, Tara's writing spurred another collision with a hot topic of our times--the refusal to vaccinate children. I cringe at the thought that someone could read this book and exclaim "look how many babies that unqualified woman delivered" or "none of them died because it was God's will" and feel moved to perpetuate any modern medical hoax. But, man, does it provide for some entertaining reading.

Finally, we have the theme of education. Three of the Westover children went on to get the terminal degree in their fields--the Ph.D. So, does that mean that homeschooling works? Is the brain much more malleable than the establishment wants us to believe? The title, Educated, really means "here are the experiences that made me who I am today." Taken literally, once we control for the fact that the schools in her region of Idaho were probably terrible, we can optimistically conclude that maybe there really is something we're missing when it comes to education.

My first opinion, the one that will be derided most widely, is that getting a terminal degree in something like History isn't particularly hard. It just requires grit and financial support. Tara Westover had each of these things in abundance. The next thing is that it does indeed take a village to raise a child or however that saying goes. If Tara went to BYU and it turned out that everyone else had been as isolated and as poorly prepared for college as her, guess what? BYU would be the punchline of jokes. Instead, it's a school deserving of high praise.

When you bring someone who is so much of an outsider that they aren't even on a "spectrum" at all into a rigorous institution of higher learning, they either fail out and go work in the junkyard or they assimilate and go on to be successful. This is why schools do so much "diversity" recruiting now. Once you take away the financial aspect (and you never really can), if a student is so motivated, they can catch up quickly to the people who went to prep schools and dominate college curriculum. This is what Tara did. I'm still a bit fuzzy on how exactly she got that ACT score or how exactly she finagled financial support throughout her formal schooling, but I blame this more on selective editing than the premise of the book itself being a hoax.

Important, gripping, and great to read on airplanes. Especially ones bound for Utah. Left me with mixed feelings, kind of like this oil diffuser from Butterfly Express that I have been inhaling the fumes of while writing this review.
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Reading Progress

January 11, 2019 – Shelved
January 11, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
February 12, 2019 – Started Reading
February 16, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by M (new)

M I’m really looking forward to your review! Do you think the author exaggerated / embellished her story at all?


message 2: by Louisa (new)

Louisa smart mom


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