Early in Tara Westover’s fascinating memoir, we read about a significant moment in her life: when her mother finally decides to file the required paperwork for her children’s birth certificates. At the time, Westover is nine years old (her other siblings are much older), and it takes some effort to establish her exact date of birth. Much later in life, when Westover applies for a passport, the office clerk laughs at her “Delayed Certificate of Birth” and finds it inadequate for the purpose. Eventually an aunt has to intervene legally to establish her niece’s identity.
These incidents encapsulate the larger narrative of Westover’s life. Like many coming-of-age stories, hers is one in which the main character has to struggle to establish and develop her identity and selfhood. In her case, the odds against her are tremendous, many of them rooted in family indoctrination. Born into a strict Mormon family living in rural Idaho, Westover has few educational opportunities beyond the confines of home and church. Her survivalist father detests all government agencies, including public schools, which, he proclaims, are ploys “by the Government to lead children away from God.” He rages against “socialists,” the “Illuminati,” and the medical establishment—all on the “devil’s payroll.” Even when family members suffer life-threatening injuries, he allows them to be treated only with home remedies. Ironically, Westover is the chief “survivor” in this saga of domestic assaults and deprivations. Her ingenuity, resilience and fierce determination help her negotiate an uneasy departure from home to achieve brilliant success in her deferred quest for education. The price she has to pay for obtaining it, however, is tremendous. Coming to terms with that loss is part of her compelling narrative.
Like all talented storytellers, Westover manages to craft a potent, suspenseful narrative by recounting small yet significant turns of events that yield unexpected results. Inspiring and riveting, her story avoids sentimentality and sanctimoniousness. In matters of credibility, she succeeds where many writers of memoirs fall short. Unlike them, she writes with an acute awareness of the selective nature of memory, acknowledging that in the process of recollecting traumatic incidents, we may unconsciously fabricate untruths. Whenever she is unsure of her particular rendition of a family crisis—and there are many of them—she checks with other witnesses and records, in footnotes, their conflicting versions of the story.
Besides being a fast-moving, captivating book, Westover’s memoir inspires the reader to ask further questions about two main topics. The first, of course, is education. Westover’s life story dramatizes one of the controversies in educational theory. As Maurice Craig wrote many years ago in his book on diversity and education, the two different Latin roots of the word point to opposing philosophies of education. Educare implies training or molding while educere means to “lead out.” The first advocates teaching youth in the manner of their elders; the second encourages learners to strike out on their own in their crafting of new knowledge. Despite her parents’ insistence on training her to follow in their footsteps, Westover managed to break away from their doctrinal influence. Were her remarkable achievements and transformation primarily due to her innate brilliance that only needed to be directed and “led out”? Exactly how is a person educated? Using “educated” as a past participle in her title, Westover emphasizes the ambiguity of agency. Does her choice of title acknowledge the significance of a learner’s debt to her mentors or her autonomous self-discovery? At what point can a person claim ownership of her education—not only intellectually but also emotionally?
The second topic concerns the puzzling interconnections between religious fervor and mental illness. At one point in her narrative, Westover, having been exposed to theories of human psychology, wonders if her father suffers from bipolar disorder. Yet her suspicions, for the most part, are left unexamined. As her reader, I was eager to follow up on her inquiry. How can we best unravel the mysterious ties between dogma and delusion? Perhaps in her future writings, Westover, with her brilliance and experience, can further educate us on the questions her thought-provoking memoir elicits.