Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
Reading Time: 6 minutes
This is the story of Tara Westover, a woman born in Idaho to survivalist parents who viewed hospitals, schools, and the government as evil. She did not enter a classroom until the age of 17 and went on to study at Cambridge and Harvard. Education liberated her mind, but she lost her family in the process.
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“It would be past dusk by then—that moment just before night sets in, when the landscape is visible only as darkness and lighter darkness, and you feel the world around you more than you see it.”
A beautiful way of describing that brief moment after dusk and before total darkness.
“Mother didn’t want to be a midwife. Midwifery had been Dad’s idea, one of his schemes for self-reliance. There was nothing he more than our being dependent on the Government.”
Tara’s father controlled the actions and narrative of the family, centered around an idea that they should never rely on the government. Her mother becoming a midwife was just one of many byproducts of the endless pursuit of self-reliance and deep skepticism of the government.
Unknown origins of conviction
“It would be many years before I would understand what leaving that day had cost him, and how little he had understood about where he was going…Tyler stepped into a void. I don’t know why he did it and neither does he. He can’t explain where the conviction came from, or how it burned brightly enough to shine through the black uncertainty.”
Tara’s brother Tyler was a bookish kid who didn’t fit in well with the family. He studied in his spare time and decided to go to college. I like how she describes that his conviction for education came from an unknown place. That seems to be where many callings come from.
The call to education
“The seed of curiosity had been planted; it needed nothing more than time and boredom to grow. Sometimes, when I was stripping copper from a radiator or throwing the five hundredth chunk of steel into the bin, I’d find myself imagining the classrooms where Tyler was spending his days. My interest grew more acute with every deadening hour in the junkyard, until one day I had a bizarre thought: that I should enroll in the public school.”
After her brother Tyler went to school, the seed of an educated future was planted in Tara’s head. She started dreaming about a future outside of her immediate circumstances. That dream grew stronger despite her family’s deep resistance to the public education system.
Time passes when you’re dreading something
“The days slipped away quickly, as days do when you’re dreading something.”
“Mother said I should come to the hospital. I imagined Shawn on a white gurney, the life leaking out of him. I felt such a wave of loss that my knees nearly buckled, but in the next moment I felt something else. Relief.”
Tara’s abusive brother Shawn almost died from a bad work accident. While she felt the pangs of loss when she got the call, she also felt relief. I think this passage highlights the candor you find throughout the book, even when it comes to speaking about difficult experiences and relationships with family.
A wolf among sheep
“The truth is this: that I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again. But wolf that I am, I am still above lying, and anyway he would sniff the lie. We both know that if I ever again find Shawn on the highway, soaked in crimson, I will do exactly what I have just done. I am not sorry, merely ashamed.”
Tara grapples with the differences between her and her family. She can’t cave to their ways anymore, and she feels ashamed about it.
Friends from another world
“Charles was my first friend from that other world, the one my father had tried to protect me from.”
In her teenage years, Tara made friends with and dated a guy named Charles. He was educated in public school and did not share the skepticism of the government that Tara’s family had. He was an entry point into a different way of living, one that Tara would adopt on her journey to be educated.
Not knowing what you don’t know
“It had never occurred to me to talk to a professor—I didn’t realize we were allowed to talk to them—so I decided to try, if only to prove to Charles I could do it.”
When Tara went to college, she struggled to adapt to the formal schooling system in which she had not previously operated. She didn’t even know that she could ask for help from professors. Those were the types of things she needed to learn on her path to rise above the circumstances of her youth.
Challenging the certain
“Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
It took a while before Tara realized that the domineering and absolute perspectives of her family were not the only ones. They weren’t the truth. In fact, she could create her own truth, and it could be powerful.
Luxury of curiosity
“I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance in my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars. I submitted my homework and studied for my exams, but I did so out of terror—of losing my scholarship should my GPA fall a single decimal—not from real interest in my classes.”
I felt similar to Tara as I went through college. I was far more concerned about my bank account and financial future than being curious about the many different courses in front of me. Curiosity is indeed a luxury for the financially secure. It wasn’t until I had financial security that I could think beyond the number of my bank account.
“I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.”
When you have a baseline of financial slack, you could finally transcend the focus on money that consumes your mind if you don’t have money. It’s an incredible thing, and I still remember the moment that I began to feel this new freedom in thinking in the year after graduating from college.
“Dad was talking loudly, at a volume that would have suited a mountainside but was thunderous in the small restaurant. People at nearby tables had halted their own conversations and were sitting in silence, listening to ours. I regretted having chosen a restaurant so near my apartment.”
Tara was embarrassed by her family when they visited her at college. They were so different than her new world, and the two worlds clashed. It’s a difficult thing to deal with. I had very similar experiences during college.
Expanding your family
“But although I wished it were otherwise, I did not want to go home. I preferred the family I had chosen to the one I had been given, so the happier I became in Cambridge, the more my happiness was made fetid by my feeling that I had betrayed Buck’s Peak.”
You can choose your family, and it doesn’t have to be the one that you’re born to.
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many idea, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”
Education helped Tara take control of her own mind and thoughts. But she paid the price of losing her family.
“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”
Interesting commentary on the nature of mental breakdowns and our self-awareness about them.
Not belonging anywhere
“The distance—physical and mental—that had been traversed in the last decade nearly stopped my breath, and I wondered if perhaps I had changed too much. All my studying, reading, thinking, traveling, had it transformed me into someone who no longer belonged anywhere?”
Going too far from where you come from can lead you to feel like you don’t belong anywhere. A decade after leaving home, I feel very similarly.
“Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”
A fascinating definition of guilt.
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