Educated: A Memoir found its way onto numerous “Best Books of 2018” lists. It is the story of Tara Westover, a young woman who grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Tara’s parents tried to live self-sufficiently because of their fear of governmental interference. Gene and Faye, the pseudonyms used for the Westover parents, even withdrew their children from public school education out of fear that they would be brainwashed by the government. In addition, the Westovers did not believe in consulting doctors; rather, they sought healing and health through herbal remedies or even energy healing.
To be clear, this is a difficult book to read. The physical and emotional violence that Tara experienced at the hands of her parents, and especially her older brother Shawn, is breathtaking.
Educated is a salvation story. There is the physical danger that Tara faces, but there is much more at stake. Westover is looking for a way out of Buck’s Peak, her home in Idaho that represents a prison where she is forced to surrender to the warped reality created by her parents, a reality informed by blind faith that taught her the following: that a woman’s only proper place is in the kitchen, that the physical abuse she encountered at the hands of her brother was due to her own guilt, and that a pursuit of education is nonsensical, wicked even.
Westover is looking for a sort of regeneration, a new self that can break free from the grip of Buck’s Peak. Readers follow this testimony from Idaho to Brigham Young University, where she amazingly gained acceptance by teaching herself the content needed to score high enough on the ACT to receive an academic scholarship. From BYU, Westover is accepted into Cambridge Univerity, and she goes on to eventually pursue a Ph.D. from Harvard.
From a reader’s perspective, Educated is as engaging of a book that I have read in quite a while. In some respect, it’s much like a tragedy that’s happening right before you, but you can’t seem to avert your eyes. While it is clear that Tara’s ambition and her family’s twisted faith cannot coexist, I found myself obsessively pushing through chapters to see what survived once the wreckage was all cleared.
What separates Educated from Christian autobiographies is that salvation, for Westover, comes not at the hands of a priest offering absolution or through some religious experience. Rather, she finds new life at the hands of her professors, she finds it in the ideologies encountered in the classroom, she finds in the rich cultural heritage of Cambridge and Rome, and she finds in the relationships formed with her peers.
As I finished Educated, I found myself conflicted. Of course, it is remarkable that a young woman like Tara Westover fought her way out of a wicked situation. She is a woman made in the image of God, and I couldn’t help but celebrate as she found the dignity and freedom that her family had tried to rip from her. Likewise, it’s clear that spiritual darkness pervades Westover’s family in Idaho, so I rejoiced to see her escape its gravitational pull.
On the other hand, Westover’s tale, even her escape, leads to a depressing ending. In the end, Tara has found hope in the world and in herself by jettisoning traditional religion for the alternate religion of self-discovery. Following the publication of the book, the author has said in interviews that she would identify as an agnostic when it comes to faith. The book is an account of one person’s mind being awakened to the wonders of creation and knowledge, while simultaneously having her soul closed to the reality of God.
While the family dynamics of the Westovers is cult-like, I believe there is an important takeaway for Christian parents. Gene Westover tried to push an anti-intellectualism on his children that almost exclusively focused on the fallen nature of this world. He tried to squelch his children’s pursuit of education, but Tara, along with some of her other siblings, sensed that there was something more out in the world. They could innately feel the God-given desire to learn and explore, to take dominion over creation by examining how it works and how to wield that knowledge.
We can be so afraid of children asking questions about the faith that we don’t give them space to wrestle with how Christianity compares with other worldviews and religions out there. Likewise, we can throw water on the fire of a child’s curiosity about the complex and brilliant world around them. The Westovers spewed hatred towards their children who questioned the parents’ view of the world rather than patiently and gently guiding the kids. When this happens in Christian families, we send a message that Christianity and intellectual pursuit cannot coexist. Christian parenting is not about isolating children from any influence that is opposed to the faith. Rather, it is about instructing our kids in how to examine all things in light of the gospel.
Overall, Educated is a compelling, though heartbreaking, tale about the dangers of an anti-intellectual faith and the holistic effect education can have on a person. It is not an incredibly uplifting read, but it is one that Christians, particularly parents, can use to glean wisdom about their own parenting.