Educated, by Tara Westover
I have to admit that when I started reading this book that I was a bit concerned about the tack that it was going to take. I figured that it was a given that the book was going to trash the upbringing that the author had and that the author was going to show herself to have completely rejected the insights of her upbringing in exchange for the blandishments of the world that she had been denied because of her childhood experience. That is not exactly what this book ended up to be. To be sure, there is plenty of rejection here, and plenty of abuse that the author recounts, especially at the hands of one of her brothers. But the author looks at her family, most of her family at least, with a great deal more graciousness and humor than one would expect. The author also notes, and this is important, the way that she has been shaped by her own family and recognizes herself in the experiences of the other women she is related to, and even if she no longer lives in remote Idaho, she knows that she carries the past with her and that she has been shaped by it.
This book is divided into three parts and 40 chapters over the course of more than 300 pages. The first sixteen chapters of this book focus on the author’s childhood as she struggles to develop her gifts in the total absence of formal education growing up in Idaho as the daughter of a large family that struggled with mental illness with a paranoid anti-government patriarch who (like some of my own relatives) deeply feared the coercive power of authorities and whose efforts at self-expression were complicated by her isolation. The second part of the book explores the author’s experiences in college as she attempts to overcome the problems that resulted from being uneducated in a formal sense and having some major gaps in her understanding. By the end of the second part the author has a bachelor’s degree and has managed to gain some allies in BYU and gain at least some understanding of life in the wider world, at least to the extent that Utah can be considered the wider world. In the last part of the book the author explores her graduate school experience and how she used her Mormon background as a way of paving new ground in tying her own religious history to the larger intellectual history of the 19th century, which is something that this reader at least could not fail but to be impressed about.
If the Mormon experience is one I do not particularly have, the author resonated with me because of the fact that I view my own sectarian history similar to the author as a means of demonstrating how it is that even marginalized religious groups are part of a larger historical conversation and engaged in the greater efforts of cultural communication, even if they are likely ignored by either those who focus narrowly on internal politics within religious groups or those whose lack of religious beliefs and a lack of interest in religious matters leads them to marginalize such matters altogether. Those who have come from difficult family backgrounds and struggled to keep their spirits up in the face of life’s challenges and also seen in education a way out of cycles of generational failure will find much to appreciate here. Instead of finding a book that I could hate read with a relish (something I have been known to do from time to time), I found a much more ambivalent book that mirrored my own ambivalence concerning the legacy of my background and upbringing on the man that I have become, and that echoed my own refusal to either straightforwardly reject the past altogether or to seek to copy after it in my own life.