Escaping religion without being judgemental — Educated by Tara Westover (review)
As someone who grew up in a religious family in a secularised country (The Netherlands), I’m always interested in people’s accounts of how they dealt with strict families and what happened when they decided to seek a way out. Fortunately, I wasn’t raised shut off from the entire world, but as someone who questions everything and believes in the scientific method, I have seen what questioning religious doctrine means. That’s why, when someone recommended Tara Westover’s Educated to me, I was instantly drawn to the book and its topic. Educated is Westover’s coming-of-age memoir describing her experiences growing up in a closed-off Mormon family and her subsequent escape.
Westover tells us, using pseudonyms, how she grew up preparing for the end of days. Her father, Gene, detests the government, doctors, and schools because all are filled with socialists propagandising socialist thoughts and ideas, fuelled by the siege at Ruby Ridge and, as we’ll learn later in the book, his bipolar disorder. As a result, she’s home-schooled by her mother, and the family relies on homoeopathic medicine for their health. Tara has the misfortune of being a girl, meaning her life should be built around caring for children and being a midwife, just like her mother, but Tara has an interest in music and learning, and when her brother Tyler decides to leave the family home and go to Brigham Young University (BYU), Tara feels that this could be an option for her too.
Their household and Tara’s upbringing are far from anything ordinary, and the book reveals how she constantly struggles with the incongruences she experiences. The most striking moment is when Tara asks her professor at BYU what the holocaust is, her first encounter with the reality of her ignorance.
Even though she’s constantly reminded about the differences between her upbringing and the ‘normal’ world, sometimes even benefiting from contemporary medicine and taking a government scholarship, Tara persistently returns to her father’s teachings and seems unable to renounce them. This reaches its pinnacle when she confronts her father about Shawn’s abusive behaviour, after which he claims that Tara is possessed by Satan (he even claims he can sense the evil in her room when they visit her in Cambridge).
Westover’s memoir unknowingly warns against the influence of highly religious households and what polarisation might do to a person with bipolar disorder. Her father, fuelled by his rage against the ‘socialist’ government, goes to extreme lengths to protect his family. Their community doesn’t help either, as they are fuelled by fear of the devil and God’s wrath against anyone who does not follow Mormon teachings. Funnily enough, local members of their Mormon congregation laugh at Gene and his end-of-day teachings surrounding the turn of the millennium, and no one took his warning seriously.
It’s both saddening and vexing that Gene imperils his family with his actions, as all the accidents at the scrap yard and the car accidents illustrate. Westover refers to the look in her father’s eyes after the accident several times. He appears hopeless, powerless and genuinely doesn’t know what to do. A sense of Stockholm syndrome arises throughout the story, but these imperilling moments instantly remove that.
The memoir’s strength lies in the fact that there are moments where the reader believes Westover is about to open her eyes to the real world but ends up being dragged into her original beliefs. Westover writes as if she is ready to abandon her upbringing, but in the end, she does not do this until she gets to Cambridge for her PhD and her mental suffering has become unbearable.
Tara Westover’s Educated provides a solid read. Books covering these topics require some knowledge of how highly religious families work because the simple “but she could have left” doesn’t work in such societies (as Westover’s account illustrates). People who have lived in such families or communities might recognise some of the things she describes (I, for example, recognised the ‘music is evil’ doctrine).
The book is well-written, albeit somewhat longwinded at times, and it leaves no open endings. She tries not to sound judgemental, and the story benefits from this as it’s almost as if the reader is experiencing the events from a first-person perspective. She also avoids sounding melodramatic.
All in all, Educated, functioning as a warning, stands steadily. It shows that even though the US portrays itself as ‘land of the free’, those imprisoned by religion are far removed from those freedoms — both literally and metaphorically. There’s room to draw a comparison to Dutch writer Lale Gül’s memoir Ik ga leven (literally: “I’m going to live”), which describes Gül’s efforts to outgrow her highly religious Islamic roots.
Educated is available on Amazon.com (affiliate link): https://amzn.to/3qFTWTB