By the Way of Nostalgia

Review: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

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• April 14, 2018 5:00 am


I alone have escaped to tell you. I alone. I alone. There's a kind of memoir you know—an account of how the author broke away from an eccentric family to join the conventional world.

Books in the genre almost always include a few gestures of nostalgia, a little hand-waving about how the author still misses something of the old ways, the old days. Usually that's phrased in terms of certainty: There was something comforting in the solidity of the family's odd faith, and much now seems more vague and dubious than it did when the author was young. But the mildly rueful backward glance is quickly followed by the obligatory note about how the gains of mainstream thought outweigh the loss of backwater beliefs. After all, the best lack all conviction, don't they? And, ah yes, the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And so these books return to their central theme: how courageous the author is, to have broken free from the stultifying isolation of the parents to become just like the rest of us. Or, at least, just like the rest of us but with a set of spine-tingling stories of life among the savages with which to titillate readers. I alone have escaped to tell you. I alone.

The latest entry in the genre is Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover's account of her escape from a Mormon upbringing in the mountains of Idaho. The book debuted this winter as the New York Times number-one nonfiction bestseller and has received almost nothing but glowing praise for the 32-year-old. To some degree, the book deserves the praise. It's well written, with a fairly lean and fast-moving prose, and well organized, explaining both Westover's childhood off in the fringes of Mormonism and her journey to a doctorate in history from Cambridge.

The book is even strong enough to stand up to a little countercurrent, for somebody needs to say what no reviewer has bothered to mention thus far: Educated: A Memoir is self-congratulatory tripe about how brave—so brave!—the author is, and it's utterly conventional in its pandering to its audience. A sour taste will form in the mouths of readers who've suffered through the innumerable grim memoirs of childhood published in the past 25 years. We've seen this just-barely-escaped book before, again and again and again. Back in the early 1990s, Educated: A Memoir might have seemed unusual and fresh, but now it's something like week-old Wonder Bread: flavorless, prepackaged, and stale.

Tara Westover's father was, as she describes him, a "gale of a man"—smart, charismatic, and nutty as the day is long. A Mormon to whom the regular Morman Church seemed dangerously modernist, Gene Westover believed the Illuminati were secretly running the world, and the United States government was their puppet. Not that he blamed them, exactly. Corruption ran deep, the rot of the world pervasive, and the Feds were all unconsciously playing their parts in the grand drama of the apocalypse.

Gene was the kind of man who could read Isaiah 7:15 with intelligence and imagination ("Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good"), and then decide not to eat milk products, since the Bible itself suggested they came from the devil. When his college-aged daughter ran off to England, his greatest sorrow came from knowing that she wouldn't be able to get back home for him to protect her when the end of the world came. The Ruby Ridge shootout in 1992 had convinced him certain that the Feds would attack him—"he was at war, even if the war was only in his head," Tara Westover suggests—and each of the family members kept by their beds a head-for-the-hills bugout bag with survival gear. The children, including Tara, learned weapons from him, including how to aim and fire his .50 caliber rifle.

It was one of the few things he did to educate them. Like many intelligent crazies, Gene Westover was utterly self-absorbed. He and his wife had planned courses of homeschooling for the many children they planned to have, but as the children began to arrive, their plans were discarded—swept away in the press of earning a living while staying off the grid and preparing for the end of days. (None of the children had birth certificates, for example, which would later make driver's licenses and passports a struggle to obtain. The house had no television, radio, computers, or phones.)

The children learned to read from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, for the most part, and picked up what other learning as they could, there on the family farm near Buck's Peak, a "jagged little patch of Idaho," as Educated describes it. From their earliest days, the children worked on the farm. Tara was only 10 when her father began bringing her to his junkyard to help use power tools to carve up and sort scrap metal.

Her older brother Tyler had gone off to college, and as she grew, Tara began to imagine doing the same. Sneaking away on an 80-mile drive, she bought an ACT test-prep book, and on her second try she obtained a high-enough score to get into Brigham Young University, the flagship Mormon College in Provo, Utah. It was around this time, she writes, that her brother Shawn began to manifest signs of insanity, she claims—in one moment pushing her face into the toilet while accusing her of whoring herself, and in another moment, being loving and generous.

Her father didn't much take to her flight to Utah, even to attend a Mormon school, and she was, she admits, ill-prepared for college—shocked to see students drinking caffeinated beverages (a violation of traditional Mormon practice) and as unfamiliar with the Holocaust as she was with Shakespeare. Tara would spend summers working back in the family junkyard, but a history professor recommended BYU's study-abroad program in Great Britain—at King's College in Cambridge. A history tutor there recommended she apply for a Gates Scholarship, which brought her back to England, where she stayed at Cambridge to finish her doctorate in political history.

A fellowship to Harvard brought her back in touch with her family, who came to Massachusetts to see if they could rescue her from ungodliness. They failed, but their weeklong intervention, she writes, caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and she continues to see a therapist.

The physical abuse she claims from her increasingly insane brother seems accurately reported. (The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the family denies it and, through their lawyer, points out that two of her siblings also obtained doctorates, which suggests that her Educated journey might not be as improbable as she paints it.) But, true as it probably is, it nonetheless has the shape of a therapy event: a narrative formed with the aid of her psychologist to find a conventional moral.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir. The particulars of her autobiography are unique and reveal a world rarely seen by the kind of people who are buying the book. But the shape of her narrative is something we've seen too many times to be much moved by. The writing of memoirs proves a suspect activity under any circumstances. Self-consciousness rarely escapes self-defense, and the word I usually signals a sentence with some untruth in it. But we ought to suspect memoir even more when we find a story like Tara Westover's, shaped to a conventional narrative for a conventional audience. She didn't escape alone to tell us. She's one of dozens and dozens who've escaped some bitter past over the past 25 years, and they all insist on telling us, over and over.

Published under: Book reviews