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Memoir Review: Educated by Tara Westover


 Memoirs on a shelf including Educated by Tara Westover

What drew me to reading the memoir?

The memoir ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover was recommended to me by a friend who knows that I am a keen reader of memoirs. “Here’s a great read for you,” she said. “It’s about a girl who never went to school, but she was able to teach herself enough so that she could go to college. And now has her PhD.”

What hooked me in the first chapter?

Sadly, I hate to say, nothing.

My initial experience of the book was established in the opening paragraph where Tara Westover describes a tense scene. Her family are huddled in the kitchen because the house is surrounded by ‘the Feds’. A shot rings out in the dark and a woman, who had reached for a glass of water, falls with a baby in her arms.

But then we are told none of this really happened.

I felt confused from the start. If this isn’t true, what is? Is any of this for real? From then on, I mistrusted every story I was being told. I felt that the stories kept shifting. Or was that just my impression?

I also found myself struggling through the descriptions.

I felt confused with what was happening in the story and in me. I had heard only high praise for the book. It was a bestseller. The writer was educated, this was quite evident in her writing, so why was I struggling to get into the story? I forced myself to pick up the book and read it. I just didn’t feel drawn to it.

However, in amongst that bumpy start, there were some real pearls: vivid sentences and phrases that lifted off the page. For example, here’s a classic, a real beauty: “he screamed – a back-arching, eye-popping scream that made my brain claw at my skull”. What imagery!

I struggled with her writing style.

Even though the stories were intriguing, gossip-worthy, and sometimes scandalous, I found myself simply an observer of them. As a reader, I didn’t feel that I was in the thick of things. I watched the action, the angst and the drama from a safe distance. There were times I felt that I was just hearing about it as I would from a third party.

As I processed my resistance to the book, I balanced it against those moments where I saw Tara Westover’s brilliance shine through. I concluded that it was her writing style with which I was struggling. Tara Westover is a descriptive writer, more so than I.

No, that isn’t quite right. Many who have read my memoir When God Says No comment on how descriptive it is. They can picture the story as it moves along.

I think it comes down to Tara Westover uses more words than I do. I like speech and writing that is to the point. As someone once said of my speech, “Why use five words when two will do?” And my writing style is the same. I like to move the story along at a good clip. Let’s keep to the action and forward momentum. Let’s not get bogged down in wordiness.

Tara Westover has a different philosophy. She gives a good amount of detail.

For example, when writing about the physical abuse she endured at the hands of her brother, she described how her brother would twist her arm, haul her up the passage, and force her head into the toilet as though she was a javelin he was staking into the ground. What I have said in a sentence, Tara Westover describes in a lengthy paragraph. I got bogged down in the detail and, at times, felt a trifle lost wondering what was going on – and wishing she would just get to the point, more succinctly.

If not the first chapter, when did the book hook me?

I wouldn’t say there was a specific moment. It was more like a slow burn romance. I kept going until I started to find my stride. I became familiar with Tara Westover’s writing style and found myself becoming part of her stories.

My first experience of that was when I felt the tension lying on the mattress in the back of the van with Tara and her mother, as her father drove through a winter storm while in a manic state. With her simple statement, “It is a relief when the van finally leaves the road.” I too felt the car sail through the air.

The book has much drama – multiple accidents, serious brain injuries, explosions, systemic violence – but what really drew me into the story wasn’t the drama, it was identifying with Tara Westover in Part 2 when she goes to college. That is when my life started to overlap with hers and I started to cringe with her at her mishaps, feel for her when she didn’t fit in, and cheer her on with her successes, one small success at a time.

The slow burn romance had heated up and now I was rooting for her, not just feeling sorry for her. Up until then I had been having a foreign experience in a foreign land, but now I had a framework I could relate to.

And when she made her sojourns back to Idaho to visit her family, it didn’t seem so foreign and unfamiliar to me anymore. I had more of a handle on their mental illnesses and the family dynamics. I also felt more at home at the junkyard and in their house.

I was sitting in the living room with them when “something struck the back door. The door burst open, and Emily flew into the room.” I identified with the dysfunctional family dynamics and with Tara Westover’s part in it. And with how it was, many years later, that she came to see it for what it was. It’s an experience we can all have when we start to observe our family’s dysfunctionality, and our own contribution to those dynamics.

I applauded her when she summed up the events of that night by writing, “What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed – what Emily needed – was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.”

The conclusion of her observation was both intriguing and thought-provoking.

What surprised me about the book?

I shook my head each time Tara Westover reached out to her brother Shawn or accompanied him somewhere alone. This is the brother who physically abused her.

“Why do you keep trusting him?” I would ask the page.

"Don’t go with him. Yes, he’s charming now but he can change faster than the speed of light. Don’t trust him." I tried to warn her and counsel her from my chair.

 “What are you doing?” I asked the page time and again.

But I was reading as the mature woman with life experience on my side. I needed to remind myself that I too have been that young woman desperate for love and acceptance, and willing to put up with unacceptable behavior in the hope of finding it.

Tara’s repeated trust of her brother, which would often be violated, highlights how we maintain patterns of hurt, and uphold dysfunctional behavior in relationships, hoping that this time it will be different, that it won’t go south or turn violent, and we won’t be disappointed. Maybe this time we’ll be a normal happy family and we will have found a safe place to belong. 

Belonging is a strong theme in the book.

If not ‘Educated’, Tara Westover could’ve titled her memoir ‘Belonging’.

Belonging is a basic human need and Tara Westover belonged in her family so long as she played by the family rules, obeyed her father, supported her mother, and kept the ordinances of her family’s Mormon faith. However, given her family’s survivalist and odd-ball tendencies, her family did not belong to their wider extended families.

As she grows and develops her critical thinking, Tara Westover starts to search for an identity of her own, one that includes being educated. This puts her on a direct path of confrontation with her father, and with her place in the family.

When she gets accepted and leaves to attend college, Tara Westover is faced with another sense of belonging, or of not-belonging. She is a misfit in her community. She has large gaps in her education. Facts that are common knowledge to her peers are completely unknown to her. She dresses differently. She acts differently. She lives differently.

When she earns a scholarship to Cambridge, Tara Westover finds it even harder to believe that she belongs. And it has nothing to do with being American in a British culture. It has to do with the essence of who she is.

Tara Westover receives wise counsel from her professor Dr. Kerry when he says, “The most powerful determinant of who you are is inside you. Think of the story (Pygmalion). She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn’t matter what dress she wore.”

Educated is an inspiring story of an uneducated girl, who becomes a barely educated teen, and her determination to be educated. It’s the story of a young woman who longed for more than the trajectory her life was on, a trajectory where she would marry young to a Mormon, become a herbalist and self-trained midwife, like her mother, and raise a slew of children. She hungered for education, she craved knowledge, and she longed for discourse long before she even knew that she did.

I’m in awe of a woman who not only went from barely educated to achieving a PhD in ten years, but also grappled with a mental breakdown, suffered a broken heart, and deliberately chose non-belonging over belonging, so as to live and no longer merely survive.

Key ingredient of memoir writing:

In her writing Tara Westover does not hold any grudges, and she certainly didn’t write her memoir with the intent to shame or defame anyone.

In memoir writing we often write about some difficult things and, many times, about those whom we love, our families. It shouldn’t ever be done from a place of vindictiveness or retaliation. Rather, until we can write about our family and their shortcomings with compassion, we shouldn’t write a memoir. Instead we should stick to venting our feelings in our journals. And, as Tara Westover displayed, the same can be said for religious faiths and institutions. We can speak to our own experiences, but we shouldn’t use our memoir to go on a smear campaign.

Tara Westover addresses both these issues in her author’s note. When I read her author’s note, I knew that I already trusted her. I knew that I was going to get a portrayal of her life as honest and fair as she could possibly render.

That is all we can ask as a reader and all that we can offer as a writer.

Click here to watch my video on this topic on my YouTube channel, Brenda Smit-James Write Your Story.

Have you read some of my other memoir reviews:

The Measure of My Powers by Jackie Kai Ellis

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

You can find my three most recent blog posts right here.

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2 comments

  • Brenda Smit-James

    Thank you, Sara Davison. As I gave it more thought I reached the same conclusion you did that my challenges with the story were ‘mirroring’ Tara Westover’s own personal experience. Indeed, it is powerful writing.

  • Sara Davison

    Excellent analysis. I find it interesting that the challenges you faced in getting into the story are so reflective of Tara’s own perspective and experiences. For example, when you (and I and I’m sure most readers) struggled to comprehend, after the first chapter, what was real and what wasn’t, that is reflected in Tara’s life – the struggle that plays out over and over in her mind. And feeling as though you are a bystander is likely compatible with her own defense mechanism of stepping outside of what was happening to her and watching it like an observer. Such a fascinating, heart-rending, maddening, beautiful story. Not easy to read, but worth the effort in order to celebrate the strength of the human spirit and the strength of powerful writing.

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