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EDUCATED: A memoir that sears the soul

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Random House, Feb 2018

A review by Kamalini Natesan

How does one review a book of this nature- a memoir? Memoirs have the undue advantage of a certain point of view, and rely on memory and narration of facts from the perspective of the writer, who has chosen to write of one’s life, the stream of events that happened to her, in her voice. Who’s to say whether they occurred the way they did, because to the memoirist, they absolutely did!

Tara’s life has been unusual, and remote for the first sixteen years of her life. It is only at age seventeen that she steps into a classroom for the very first time. She draws you into the physical arena of her upbringing at Buck’s Peak, a mountain she reveres, with her solid writing. This is Idaho, in America. Her parents are deemed ‘survivalists’. There are fairly severe accidents that take place, and the father forbids any medical intervention. The kids never visit doctors or hospitals, and it is the mother, with her home remedies, and healing powers that cares for them. You read in wonderment at first, but beyond a point, you want to shout, and are deeply aggrieved.

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Westover’s writing is devoid of embellishments, yet in her simplicity lies great depth of emotion, and that is what hooked me from the first page to the last. I read on, unable to cast away Buck’s Peak, or Tara’s life from me, till I finished the memoir. Whether the kids were homeschooled is questionable- it was all very informal and haphazard. I read on hoping that things would transform and become civil; I wanted to shake her mother and make her see what Tara was making me see and feel and live.

She has, with her large family, been disallowed a formal education because her father doesn’t believe in any formal ties with the government of his land and the children, the Westover children, are neither vaccinated, nor do they have birth certificates. What a life they lead, on the junkyard, and as Mormons! Even those who could sense and feel, look the other way, and life continues- unjust often, under the tyranny of a father whose mind is not in his control- and whatever he displays is manic and obsessive and with complete faith in the rightness of it all. How do you dispute this- how do you confront someone whose strength lies in his Faith- that the world may say what it does, but his world- this is how he would lead his life with his family, and there’s no two ways about that!

As one reads on, one wonders whether this madness, of one man, whose wife cannot but do his bidding, as do his children; it is not even a struggle, it is what it is.

While this is not a thriller, the narrative takes on the form of one, because there is so much going on in this family. I held my breath at many a juncture in the read, wondering what the outcome would be, when Shawn, her older brother, assaults Tara physically, and repeatedly, one senses that it is not the kind of assault one imagines- a straight-on beating, it is an assault on Tara’s soul, her body a tool in his hands. Yet, she is unable to free herself from the ghost of neither the brother, nor her father.

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Even when the author takes off, to the state college, to undergo a formal education, she carries within her the framework of her Mormon upbringing. She is in shackles even when free to choose. Clearly gifted and exceedingly diligent and persevering, she is able to get into Cambridge, at first, and later is awarded a Gates scholarship and ends up in Harvard. Yet, at all times, the family haunts her. I quote: “What they do to us, how they form our impressions of ourselves, of our view of us against the world, our entire world.”

She yearns for acceptance of those that would reject her. When her sister Audrey speaks of Shawn’s ill temperament and his violent ways, she is relieved -at last she has an ally. But it is not to last, as Audrey is also brainwashed, and rejects her eventually. Her parents visit her in college, if only to tell her how evil her ways her and that she must accept their ways, otherwise she will be abandoned. They visit her in Harvard in the hope of reconverting her – but, and thank God for that, on the day of their departure, she rejects their proposal and is then formally, an outcast. But to live with this rejection is another story which has her in its grips night and day.

It is a long story, which doesn’t quite end. She pays the price for her education, yet for me, I ask myself- what is education after all? If it awakens the hunger in you to learn, to keep learning- if it isn’t that which hearkens, and leads you down a road that keeps the fire burning!

Tara is a gifted writer, who had me chewing my nails. Every chapter ends with a worthy quotable quote, and one among others that made me ponder is, “….the choices people make, together and on their own, that combine to produce any single event. Grains of sand, incalculable, pressing into sediment, then rock.” The book is like a creative writing course all in itself.

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She stews peaches with her mother, helps deliver babies, and works hard in the junkyard with her brothers and father. Somehow she educates herself, and also learns how to write a book. With this memoir she demonstrates a mastery of writing which is surprising in someone who hasn’t even had a school education. She repeatedly returns home to find something that would signify a saner life, a change, or more acceptance of her need for formal education, but it is Buck’s Peak, the mountain she calls the Princess- that is her true mother, who awaits her return. The tale touches many a chord, and stirred me. It also hurt. I could identify with so many of the emotions – and I quote : ‘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 to me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” These lines are the pivot upon which this entire memoir rests- she finds her voice, but not before she has lived many lives and undergone years of torture in her mind. I know how it feels, and many around, who read her, will resonate with this sentiment. We all need to find our unique voice, and be educated.

About Kamalini Natesan

Kamalini Natesan has been involved with the Himalayan Writing Retreat both as a faculty member and as a participant.  

Kamalini (Kay) Natesan

Travelogues, book reviews and poetry are her favorite genres. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines such as Parenting and New Woman. Recently, an essay about her son, entitled ‘Probing the Dermis,’ was published in a book – Twilight’s Children, Chronicles of Uncommon Lives (Readomania).

A book review and an essay on Odisha, one of India’s rich eastern states (https://cafedissensusblog.com/2018/12/14/odisha-a-pictorial-dedication-to-one-of-indias-most-beautiful-regions/), was published in online magazines-

Café Dissensus, and a short story, The Sister, (https://coldnoon.com/magazine/dialogues/fiction/the-sister/) in COLDNOON

More recently, another short story- A Debt, Unpaid, was published in The Curious Reader, another online literary magazine.


Some of her poems have also been published. She enjoys travelling a lot, and cooking for friends and family.

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