Educated: A Book Review

Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir was in my mental folder: “Books that I should read, but really don’t want to” for the past year. I thought it would fit into the poverty porn books that I’ve already read, like Hillbilly Elegy.

Not that I disliked Hillbilly Elegy. I know that that liberals don’t like it’s pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps message, but it was a good read. Anyway, I thought Educated was going to be another Hillbilly Elegy, so I didn’t feel compelled to run out and buy it even though it was on every Best of 2018 book list.

That was an error. Educated was a page turner. I read the whole thing in two marathon reading sessions over one weekend.

Westover’s family struggles with the similar mental illnesses that plagued Vance’s family. Out in the woods in Idaho, the Westover family is led by a bipolar patriarch. He turns religion into a vice, which damages the family. The kids are supposedly home schooled, but really aren’t educated at all. The mom is forced to become a midwife, so they and their neighbors will never have to enter a hospital where the government will take away their rights. The kids don’t have birth certificates, and nobody is really sure what day Tara is born. The family compulsively cans peaches and hoards guns and gasoline waiting for Judgement Day or a massacre by the government, whatever comes first.

Family members keep getting seriously injured, because the father makes really bad decisions and because one of their jobs is salvaging metal from large broken cars. When a person got injured, medical help was some homemade pot of salve, rather than a doctor in a lab coat. Most of Tara’s family was permanently disfigured from untended medical injuries.

Westover’s family is a toxic combination of mental illness, extreme religion, and bunker-style libertarianism. She manages to teach herself math to get through the ACTs and then get scholarships to go to BYU. She meets the right people who take care over her. Boom. She’s got a PhD, travels the world, writes best selling books, and lives in New York City. Which I know, because I googled her and her family for an hour or two after reading the book.

All that salve that the mom cooked up to put on the burns and gashes on her family turned out to be very lucrative. She has a huge business selling that crap on Amazon now. She employs half the county.

Tara’s dad is a really interesting character. I mean he’s clearly off his rocker, but he’s also compelling. In someways, he’s more interesting than Tara herself.

The family’s poverty had nothing to do with his work ethic. In fact, the man works himself and his kids super hard building sheds and cutting sheet metal. The kids, while not formally educated, must have been getting knowledge from somewhere, because three of the six of them got PhDs. And Tara herself doesn’t really complain about the poverty. Her issues were the lack of schooling for the kids, the lack of medical care for the family, and an abusive brother, whose problems stemmed from an untended head injury.

I’ve met people who have escaped from that world — parents with too many kids to properly supervise, a weird fatalism that comes from believing that God takes care of all things, roving bands of angry teens who do bad things. I’ve heard about worse situations that Westover’s.

I couldn’t possible live in a more opposite world than the Westover family’s rural Idado. Hyper-educated, over scheduled kids don’t even the freedom to get a paper cut here. They are escorted fifty feet to the bus stop until they are ten. Thirteen year olds put in longer days than many Wall Street brokers. Six-year old girls are professionally groomed before their first communions.

Sometimes when the high pressure world around here gets on my nerves, I day dream about packing up my family for a farm in Vermont. Something quiet and simple. In my day dream, we’re doing some nice gentlemanly farming, making artisanal goat cheese or something. This book shatters those illusions by showing how rural isolation allows craziness to go unchecked with real damage to the individuals trapped in those situations.

15 thoughts on “Educated: A Book Review

  1. ” The kids, while not formally educated, must have been getting knowledge from somewhere, because three of the six of them got PhDs. ”

    I was also noting that about the Glass Castle kids–except for one very mentally ill sister, they all did rather well. The Glass Castle parents were actually quite gifted–but with serious mental health and substance abuse problems.


  2. The kids from that background also have much more memoir-able childhoods than, “I studied and did extracurriculars all the time and I was really stressed.”


  3. Educated is on my list of books people keep recommending to me that I don’t plan on reading. I’ve also periodically tried to read the Glass Castle and failed. Oddly, I did find the “Glory of it all” interesting. But, potentially that’s for it’s gossip worthiness (since Scott Wilsey’s folks are gossip-column people).

    I do wonder about the dynamics of 3/6 children who were not given access to education ending up with PhDs. There must be a story there (though maybe part of the story is that when one kid gets a PhD, the world changes for the rest of them, too).


    1. bj said,

      “I do wonder about the dynamics of 3/6 children who were not given access to education ending up with PhDs. There must be a story there (though maybe part of the story is that when one kid gets a PhD, the world changes for the rest of them, too).”

      It’s too bad you didn’t finish The Glass Castle.

      In that case, the kids saved up and one by one left for the big city and were able to help each other get on their feet.


  4. But since you are not a bipolar autocrat, I don’t see why the rural fantasy couldn’t work out for you.

    I’m don’t really buy into the idea that rural isolation is a mental health hazzard (any more so than the anxiety produced by, say, bangalore or rome’s traffic). True that isolation limits detection (and is the flip side of the (potentially fantasy) world in which a autistic or ADD man is able to putter around in the fields of a farm and live a happy productive life).


  5. There are lots of people flourishing outside the cities. Isolation doesn’t drive you ’round the bend. However, if you have trouble fitting in to the demands of modern society, you might decide to flee.

    I found the book fascinating, especially its depiction of an American culture so distinctly different from the norm. The Westover family wasn’t isolated. The mother’s midwifery and salves were purchased by people who also did not want or trust modern medical treatments.

    I often see both sides of any issue. At the end of the book, I wondered if the family “left behind” weren’t ahead on points, i.e. children. Education, traveling the world, not getting married right after high school–it all tends to limit the number of children in a family. I would also have expected the death rate to have been much higher, given the enthusiastic disregard of common sense when using heavy equipment.

    Weirdness and isolation here in the affluent suburbs, though. It’s just concealed. Mental illness doesn’t spare the cities. And the cosseted, high pressure childhood isn’t ideal either.


  6. I am grumpy today about things I can’t change about the world, and “the cosseted, high pressure childhood” and the anxious parents it produces is one of them.


    1. I guess selling loose cigarettes and wine coolers outside of a high school at dismissal doesn’t count.


  7. There’s a Dear Prudence letter from a person with what sounds like similar background:

    ” I don’t speak to my parents. My father took out credit cards in my name when I was a child. My mother tried to convince me to give up my scholarship money to her in college. I have a limited relationship with my siblings and never give them cash or easy-to-pawn gifts after my sister once took the money I gave her to pay for rent and blew it at a casino instead. My boyfriend doesn’t understand why I don’t give my nephews the expensive sneakers or video games they want. He teases me for being a “miserly old aunt” and says I’m being petty and trying to punish my siblings with my success.”

    “I don’t have a safety net outside of what I’ve made for myself. My boyfriend can always fall back on his parents and grandparents. I have tried to relate my personal experience to him, and he just tells me the American dream is a mirage. How do I get through to him? Ninety percent of our relationship is perfect, except for his opinions on my family. It’s exhausting to argue about this.”

    RUN, RUN, RUN!


    1. AmyP, that isn’t the family background in the book. The family background is more akin to being raised in the 19th century, on a mountainside, in a religious community.

      And then trying to function in modern-day New York.


      1. Cranberry said,

        “AmyP, that isn’t the family background in the book.”

        Sorry, I was talking more generally about the subject of people with poor/colorful backgrounds who wind up being successful nonetheless, and with complicated relationships with their families/communities. I wasn’t talking about “Educated” specifically.


  8. I grew up where the extended family had some characteristics that were similar. One thing that growing up with adults around who are so counter-cultural or kind of oppositional is that you do absorb that opposition and non-conformity is okay. So then when it comes time to, say, go to a university with no real idea of what that will be like, or even leave your family’s belief system and handle the consequences of that, you kind of have that muscle built in your DNA.

    I found the book really great not just because of the sort of grit elements (which could be problematic applied to a group) but because she was so able to express the ambiguity of her experience with her family. That part where she talks about them coming and offering her a religious out where she just has to get blessed/exorcised and be welcomed back, and how appealing that was and yet there was an essential part of her that couldn’t pay that price…that really spoke to me.

    As an infrequent commenter just wanted to say I am loving the new post frequency.


    1. Jenn said,

      ” So then when it comes time to, say, go to a university with no real idea of what that will be like, or even leave your family’s belief system and handle the consequences of that, you kind of have that muscle built in your DNA.”

      Which could be good and bad. Good, in that you have perseverance and faith in your own abilities and values, bad in that you run into unnecessary conflicts/don’t have middle class know-how. The built-in strengths are probably why we have all these memoirs.


  9. This is pretty horrid, but not unexpected:

    “What they found was that conservatives who had learned about white privilege were no more sympathetic to the poor black man than conservatives who had not learned about white privilege. For liberals, the results were alarming: Liberals who read the educational materials about white privilege were similarly unsympathetic to the poor black man as the liberals in the second experiment, but they were even more unsympathetic to the poor white man.”

    “”What we found startling was that white privilege lessons didn’t increase liberals’ sympathy for poor Black people,” writes Erin Cooley, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University, in an explanatory post for Vice. “Instead, these lessons decreased liberals’ sympathy for poor white people, which led them to blame white people more for their own poverty. They seemed to think that if a person is poor despite all the privileges of being white, there must really be something wrong with them.”

    “In other words, learning about white privilege did not make conservatives more empathetic, and it made some liberals less empathetic, overall.”


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