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April 2019: History > Educated by Tara Westover - 5 stars!

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message 1: by Theresa (last edited Apr 12, 2019 05:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Theresa | 6054 comments This was simply remarkable. The publisher's descriptive blurb does not begin to do justice to what this book delivers, and in fact, is downright misleading. I was frankly not inspired to read it after reading the various short summaries of it, but I heard from person after person about just how good and even unexpected it is, that I put in my name on the library hold list, figuring at the very least it would fill some reading challenge slot when my name came to the top to read it. I am so very glad I did!

You know the basics of the story. Tara is raised by a survivalist fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho, one that does not believe in public schooling or health care from the medical establishment, believes in self-sufficiency. At 17, she leaves to attend Brigham Young University, never once having been in a classroom or received any formal education at all. She goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually in 2014 obtaining a PhD in intellectual history. Two of her six older siblings also left home and eventually obtained PhDs. This is a memoir that serves for Tara the means by which she reconciles into selfhood her two selves: the one with her family, and the one out in the world (although in truth her world has been the world of academia, which itself is a bit of an isolating ivory tower experience). At the same time Tara is presenting us with the conclusions she has reached as an intellectual historian, defining just what is a 'history' - whether one's personal or family history, or a broader social, cultural history. "...what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others." On this journey, Tara ended up rejected by a large part of her family - her parents and siblings who still live on the mountain and all work together, needing each other to survive and thrive (and thrive they did -- given her mother's gifts as an herbalist and the essential oil business she started).

There is absolutely no doubt that the entire family were highly intelligent, even gifted. At the same time, Tara and her siblings were raised by parents, most especially by a dominant father, who was anti-government (but seemingly paid their taxes), believed in self-sufficiency, preparedness, modesty, blind obedience and faith, self-healing, deep faith, and that whatever happened, it was a gift from God or a test from God, both to be honored, even treasured. There was violence and abuse from an older sibling, life-threatening accidents, all seen as God's will and God's tests and if you failed to accept and forgive, you were not faithful, you were disrespecting God. There was mental illness, probably bi-polar disorder, run wild in her father. I found some of those sections describing the father's behavior particularly difficult reading as it brought back memories of a close family member coping with a bi-polar partner having manic episodes and initially refusing treatment. There was a sense of a fixed path laid down before her, perpetuating the life she had known on the mountain, and no other option open to her.

"My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."

I truly did not find the book a criticism of fundamentalism, survivalism, home schooling, or the Mormon religion. I did not even find it particularly supportive of the educational or medical establishments. Here for me is one of the most critical passages in the book: "I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God’s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known." There is belief, and there is practice, and there is belief and practice combined. I kept thinking about the measles epidemic currently raging in various parts of the country, including NYC, and the anti-vaxers who are not just fundamentalists living in rural areas, but also are suburban parents with ivy league degrees. And no, I am not of the opinion that such extreme beliefs and practices are right or to be encouraged, at all. But perhaps this does provide a way in which to understand and begin to communicate.

The writing was beautifully clear, even lyrical and warm. There was also something very a matter-of-fact to Tara's voice, especially in the first third of the book, that just said 'young girl' to me. It rang true, in much the same manner as Frank McCourt's voice sounded in Angela's Ashes. There was a slight change to Tara's voice once she leaves home and struggles to get an education in a world as foreign has it could be to her. Her voice becomes more strained, unforgiving of herself, reflecting the journey she is making. By the end, it's the voice of the historian as storyteller, telling the history of her family and her self. Ever hopeful that some day she will be welcomed by her family on the mountain again. I never doubted for a second as I read this book that there is a deep mutual love under it all especially Tara for her parents, and her parents for Tara.

I really do believe this fits the 'history' theme this month, and not just because 40 or so people tagged it as such according to GR, because it really truly is both telling the history of a family and also is a treatise on what exactly is 'history'. Besides, it's probably as close as I'm going to get to a history book for this months theme!


message 2: by Joanne (new)

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7097 comments Wonderful review Theresa-at some point in time I may pick this up, now is just not the time for me. With each new review of this book, it seems that someone voices their own experiences with a family member or loved with bi-polar disease. I have my own experiences, and so I know how heartbreaking and disruptive it can be. However, it is so wonderful for me to see people tell even a piece of their history that entails dealing with this. 20 years ago, this would not have happened. Thank you for sharing.


Booknblues | 5295 comments Thank you for your insightful review, Theresa.


NancyJ (nancyjjj) | 4883 comments This is a beautiful review. Your comment about the isolation of the ivory tower is true. I worry that Tara might have a very lonely existence. Her education and fame may intimidate many people, and writing is generally a solitary career. Academic life is sometimes lonely too, particularly if your interests are fairly narrow. Tara's education is very deep but quite narrow in scope.


message 5: by Holly R W (new)

Holly R W | 1106 comments I enjoyed your review very much, Theresa. Even though I have not read the book, I can see how heart wrenching it is to have to leave your family in order to have a healthy and safer life. Personally, I am always delighted to find a 5 star book that is so remarkable. It's great that you found this one!


message 6: by Theresa (last edited Apr 13, 2019 12:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Theresa | 6054 comments NancyJ wrote: "This is a beautiful review. Your comment about the isolation of the ivory tower is true. I worry that Tara might have a very lonely existence. Her education and fame may intimidate many people, and..."

Tara's extreme discomfort about being different and even stronger discomfort when trying to dress, talk, act like everyone else (finding it 'immodest' for example and thus wrong, even sinful - (view spoiler)), coupled with never being socialized in her youth, make academia a safe environment for her. It gives her a safety net while still being more in the world. Tara clearly wants a reconciled life, one where her 'history' is actively with her in the present and future. Would that be possible for Tara if she were a lawyer or an executive? For others, yes, but for Tara, I think the answer is no.

I believe the greatest handicap imposed on Tara was not the lack of learning in a classroom being 'home schooled' caused, but the lack of socialization and exposure to the diversity of the wider world. In her fundamentalist family culture the boys were far more exposed to the larger world, making it easier for Tyler and Richard to integrate, than for Tara as the girls were raised to care for tne home, marry young, have babies, and care for their families. It is far easier to acquire skills and book learning. It is far harder to absorb all the subtleties and develop the instincts required to interact with people.


Theresa | 6054 comments Holly R W wrote: "I enjoyed your review very much, Theresa. Even though I have not read the book, I can see how heart wrenching it is to have to leave your family in order to have a healthy and safer life. Personall..."

Thank you!


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