I’m definitely late to the party, but I’ve finally read Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.” I’d been avoiding it for a few reasons. One, the tiresome narrative of extreme-homeschooling-experience-with-autocratic-father seems to dominate most popular mainstream books and movies about homeschooling. Two, friends who know me well warned me that the story contained a sadistic, abusive older brother. Three, I generally prefer fiction to memoir.
But, the popularity of the book made it hard to ignore. The fact that people on all sides of the homeschooling spectrum hold it up as testimony for their own position was also intriguing. Figures like Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet put Westover’s story forth as an example of why homeschooling needs to be more stringently regulated, while many in the unschooling movement say Westover’s academic and literary success show that kids and young people, even those facing adversity, do indeed learn spectacularly well without structured schooling. I thought the fact that such disparate communities could find fodder for their own points of view boded well for Westover’s story being told with complexity and heart rather than moralizing and commentary.
Westover’s considerable gifts as a writer are breathtakingly apparent from the very beginning as she delivers the first of many vivid, gorgeous descriptions of her beloved Buck’s Peak, the mountain in rural Idaho where she grew up. Juxtaposed with that beauty is Westover’s father, paranoid survivalist, religious zealot, and gaslighter extraordinaire. Much like the natural world that Westover’s childhood is steeped in and that helps sustain her, he is sometimes serene, sometimes tumultuous, and always awesomely powerful.
I absolutely understand why people love this book. What I don’t yet fully understand is why I don’t. I certainly didn’t dislike it, but I did find myself bothered by it, not terribly, but enough. A couple of things about me might have something to do with it. While I had a birth certificate, went to school, and didn’t grow up anywhere near a mountain, I did have an often scary, mentally ill father and a sadistic older brother. I’m also a woman who homeschooled my four children. These factors make me either a decidedly biased reader, an unusually perceptive one, or perhaps a little of both.
Reading about the cruelty and violence of Westover’s brother Shawn was difficult and stirred up things I hadn’t thought about in decades, but it wasn’t emotionally unmanageable and didn’t rile me up too much until I got to the part, more than halfway through, where Westover’s older sister, Audrey, becomes a significant part of the story. Audrey, who we’re told gets married at age 19, hadn’t been mentioned much until then. I assumed she just hadn’t loomed large in Westover’s life the way her parents, Shawn, and her nicest brother, Tyler, had.
Then, when Westover is studying abroad in England, Audrey shakes up her life by contacting her with a revelation – Shawn abused her, too. Audrey suggests that she and Westover confront their parents in hopes of stopping Shawn from hurting anyone else. The outcome of this quest is ridiculously absurd, maddeningly unjust, and unbearably frustrating for anyone who’s tried to face down a family riddled with abuse and denial. I felt all that, but I also felt agitated by Westover’s attitude toward her sister. First of all, I found the focus on Audrey so late in the book jarring. I wanted to know what Westover’s relationship with Audrey was like as a child. Even if it hadn’t been close or significant, I expected Westover to think back and introspect about why and how that was.
In letters Audrey reveals that she’s suffered nightmares and flashbacks typical of PTSD, and also feels some guilt for not speaking out to protect her younger sister. There is one scene where Audrey asks her sister to stay at Buck’s Peak because she doesn’t feel strong enough to face Shawn and their parents alone. Westover tells her that she should trust their parents, then boards a plane for England. True to her fears, Audrey is sucked back into the family, effectively betraying her younger sister, who in some ways, had already betrayed her by leaving. While Westover acknowledges that the break between her and her sister effectively severs her from her family, the dynamic between them, with its layers of terror, guilt, pain, love, and anger, is not really explored, which frustrated me. The experiences of both sisters at the hands of Shawn are horrific, and while Westover managed to break away from the family culture and Audrey didn’t, to my mind they both deserve infinite credit for surviving.
I heard Westover say in an interview that her motivation for writing the book came from a professor who suggested she write about her unconventional education. She initially thought she could do that without including the unpleasant details of her family life, but it just wasn’t possible. Perhaps this is why the book seems, at times, unsure of itself. In the end, it’s not a book about homeschooling, or even education as the term is generally used in our culture. It does successfully frame larger questions about what constitutes an education. Even though she had some unusual experiences transitioning to college life, I think Westover understands that not going to school didn’t much hamper her ability to succeed in academia, and in fact may have aided it by helping her evolve into a competent autodidact with a unique perspective on the world.
She doesn’t seem to know or care much about homeschooling outside her own experience and still retains some narrow, cliched views of education. For example, when she talks about the message Audrey wrote her about Shawn she makes a point of mentioning the spelling errors and lack of correct grammar. Why include that detail if not to pass judgment, or at least elicit it from readers? About Audrey’s daughter, who Audrey is homeschooling, Westover says, “I…stared at her…wondering what education she could hope to receive from a mother who had none herself.” She has already impugned her sister’s intelligence by telling the story of their cousin, who after working with Audrey for an entire summer on GED prep declares that Audrey taking the GED is out of the question because her education is only at a fourth or fifth grade level. Rather than wonder whether her cousin was right, Westover seems to accept at face value this analysis of her sister’s abilities, a sister who’d been lorded over by the same insane father and horribly abused by the same sadistic brother, and who, I cannot help but wonder, might have also been harmed by her cousin’s pronouncements.
When Westover’s brother Tyler decides to homeschool his own children, she says vague things like, “from what I’d seen, the kids were being educated to a very high standard.” We don’t really know what that means, but it does stand in stark contrast to her judgment about Audrey’s child, and while it conveys the message that homeschooling can, at least in some cases, “work,” the evaluative comments about her siblings’ children reinforces people’s tendency to assess and quiz homeschooled kids and come to what tend to be uninformed conclusions about whether they’re being properly educated, while the vast majority of children who go to school, even those who are languishing and suffering, are exempt from this kind of public scrutiny.
At one point, Westover realizes that her siblings are split down the middle: “the three who had left the mountain, and the four who had stayed. The three with doctorates, and the four without high school diplomas.” The ones with doctorates, she points out, are the only ones not economically dependent on her parents, which seems unfair. The degrees of dysfunction in Westover’s family notwithstanding, working for and helping sustain the family business can be a fulfilling, honorable life path. Not choosing to work in the family business is fine, too, of course. In Westover’s family, despite the insanity and the lack of traditional schooling, three out of seven kids wound up with doctorate degrees, an extraordinary statistic for any family.
I wish Westover hadn’t succumbed to peppering her narrative with these bits of bias, because her larger message about education is much more profound and important. Education is both an inner and outer process. It involves simultaneously diving deep within, seeking self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-awareness, while expanding and opening outward to welcome the knowledge, perspective, and sheer joy that comes from paying attention to and soaking up the world around you – in other words, learning, a process that, while embedded deep within all of our natures, can certainly be suppressed by a range of environmental factors, including abuse and neglect, family culture, and yes, school. Westover faced unfathomable abuse and neglect but was also fortunate and strong. She had enough exposure to kindness, sometimes from her parents, and often from her brother Tyler who exposed her to music, which would become an important part of her development. She found solace and depth of experience in her awesome natural surroundings. She had an inherent talent that her father chose to support rather than suppress – an extraordinary ability to sing, which she did publicly, at church and as the lead in productions of mainstream shows like “Annie,” experiences which guided her out of her family bubble and offered what must have been lifesaving messages about her worth that countered the sick narrative her brother Shawn tried to instill in her.
In an interview I heard Westover say that she feels the most important aspect of education is access to other points of view. I agree this is vital, but I also can’t help but notice the irony that in many ways, at Brigham Young University, Cambridge, and even Harvard, Westover was the one providing that sort of education for her peers. They might have been drilled on the knowledge conveyed in the Western school curriculum (which, of course, leaves out countless points of view), and they might have been exposed on a daily basis to more people, but had they ever met anyone who came from a world like Westover’s?
It’s little things like this that lead me to think that, for all its mellifluous prose and riveting storytelling, “Educated” could have gone deeper. Maybe Westover’s relative youth has something to do with it. At nearly 60, I find myself wanting a broader perspective. I certainly don’t underestimate the difficulty of pouring out a story like hers with such honesty, and despite my reservations I’m very glad she did it. In the end, maybe “Educated” isn’t the kind of book a person has to love in order for it to be meaningful. Despite the emotional buttons it pushed for me, “Educated” was well worth reading. In fact, I’m guessing I’ll read it again down the line.