Tara Westover's memoir is a compelling testament to the power of education

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Tara Westover thought the civil rights movement began in 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation; the 1963 on the classroom screen had to be a typo. When she learned about Rosa Parks "taking a seat," she thought Parks had stolen a bus seat. When she heard the name Martin Luther King Jr., she confused him with Martin Luther.

Westover was a 17-year-old university student when she attended this class.

Educated details Tara Westover’s attempts to make sense of her childhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho, in a family of survivalists who stockpiled food, fuel, and guns. The Westovers lived "off the grid" -- in this case, a euphemism for an isolated and paranoid existence under the rule of an all-powerful patriarch. Westover’s father Gene was a fundamentalist Mormon who believed in the Illuminati and in Jewish conspiracy theories, who prepared for the end of the world at Y2K, who called women who wore above-knee skirts whores, and who believed public schools were government propaganda programs while church schools would produce "socialist Mormons."

The youngest of seven siblings, Tara Westover never attended school, and was not even homeschooled. By the time she was 10, the only subject she’d learned comprehensively was Morse Code; she learned to read and write by reading the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Mormon leaders. The Westover children were deliberately isolated from any contact with mainstream society, even doctors; Tara’s mother treated illnesses with essential oils, as Gene Westover believed doctors were "Sons of Perdition." As far as the Westover siblings knew, the world was the way their father described it.

Instead of attending school, the Westover siblings worked in their father’s junkyard, hauling metal. It was difficult and dangerous work, utterly unsuited for children or teens, and near-fatal injuries abounded -- all treated with essential oils and otherwise left "in God’s hands." Tara was also physically abused by one of her siblings. Her brother Shawn choked her, dragged her around by her hair, cracked her wrist bone and broke her toe. He called 15-year-old Tara a whore for applying lip gloss. She accepted the situation, even asking Shawn to keep her from becoming a "worldly woman." The Westover parents stayed willfully blind to the abuse. This reviewer desperately wishes that the law would hold them accountable, now that Tara has publicly chronicled her history.  

At 17, Tara taught herself enough grammar, math, and science to pass the American college admissions standardized test, and proceeded to Brigham Young University (a Mormon institution in Utah). She failed her first exam in art history, as she didn’t know that her textbook was for reading as well as for looking at pictures. She learned about civil rights, the Holocaust, and that Europe was a continent, not a country. Her academic learning was but the beginning of her education. She learned to wash her hands after using the bathroom, to use soap regularly, to take ibuprofen for earaches and other pain.

As Westover learned about the world, she was finally able to situate her identity in the light of her upbringing and her father’s mental condition. In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Westover finally understands that civil rights weren't granted simply because it was the right thing to do. "Someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested," she writes.

The latter epiphany is mirrored in Westover’s own journey, when she realized that her freedom would not arrive automatically with adulthood, but would have to be wrested painfully from her family. On one side lay loyalty, love, and the obligations of daughterhood; out beyond was the lure of knowledge and critical thinking, and that other duty -- the one that demands we shape our personalities and intellects into the best possible version of ourselves.

Westover made her choice. She went on from BYU to an MPhil at Cambridge, was a visiting fellow at Harvard, and then completed her PhD in history at Cambridge in 2014. She’s currently estranged from her parents and three of her siblings, who work for their father. Meanwhile, if you really need further proof that life is unfair: the Westover parents have made millions from their essential oils business, which they marketed as a "spiritual alternative to Obamacare."

Ultimately, Educated stands as a compelling testament to the transformative power of education, which provides not just the ability to make informed ethical and intellectual choices, but also enables the financial freedom that lets us shape a life consistent with those choices. In Westover's case, however, education did even more than change her life. It remade the very essence of her being, thus leading to the schism with her family.

"I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her," she writes. It’s a fitting epitaph for the end of her daughterhood.   

Niranjana Iyer is a writer and editor. Her website is www.thecompellingstory.com and she tweets at @ninaiyer.

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