Sunday, 13 January 2019

Out of the Wilderness

One of the books that was highly recommended by many 'best of' lists last year was Tara Westover's memoir Educated (2018). It is the tale of a girl from Idaho who never attended school but went on to earn a doctorate from Cambridge. Her journey is made all the more remarkable by needing to break free from her family in order to do so.

Westover's father was a Mormon survivalist who was obsessed with living off the grid, preparing for the end of days. He didn't believe in modern medicine - forbidding doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals. He thought government schools would brainwash his seven children, so insisted they be homeschooled without any concern whether they learned or not. His denunciation of the government went so far as not even registering his four youngest children, who didn't have birth certificates until someone wanted to get a driver's licence and had to prove their date of birth.

Her dad ran a junkyard. All of the Westover children were raised to scrap metal, jar peaches, and mix herbal remedies. Westover's mum was a reluctant midwife with a knack for inventing concoctions that would cure all ailments. Her services were regularly used, especially by her own children who were routinely broken and burned assisting dad in his scrapping. Further, Tara was injured, physically and psychologically, by an older brother.

While the kids were supposed to be homeschooled, any learning was done by sheer will and determination. Some of the siblings were keen to get an education and would acquire old text books with which to learn. Tara eventually studied for her college entrance exam and was accepted into Brigham Young University. She struggled when she arrived on campus, realising the gaps in her knowledge and the untruths she had been taught through her father's conspiracy theories. She was also confronted by a more modern Mormonism than she had been exposed to and began to question her upbringing. But she was also given opportunities, which lead her to her postgraduate studies in the UK, and widened the gulf between Tara and her family.

Tara attempts to reinvent herself and find a place in the world, but she is routinely lured back home by the family even though she knows it is not healthy for her. It was difficult to read these 'coming home' episodes because as much as she loves her parents and siblings, she is in danger there and could easily become stuck and forced to give up on her dreams.

I enjoyed this memoir and found it a fascinating read. I liked that Westover never sought to denigrate her family or faith, I appreciated how she questioned her memory of events, and I was moved by small acts of familial love like her brother Tyler leaving her some music once he left home. But I was frustrated and angered by her parents and the recklessness with which they repeatedly put their children in grave danger.

Educated reminded me in many ways of JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016) which is a similar tale of someone escaping their inevitable future and charting their own course. Of the two, I preferred Vance's account but Westover's book was well worth reading.