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addabook - Educated
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A Memoir
Tara Westover
read on December 20, 2018

Educated might be the best book I've read - it's at least up there. It is a memoir, but many times while reading it I surprised myself by remembering that fact, after thinking to myself how rich the 'characters' in the book are, and how improbable the events seem to be. Very broadly, it is an autobiography about growing up in an extremely radical-religious / conspiratorial / abusive family, and the personal journey of escaping that orbit, getting educated, and integrating into society (and in fact, quickly excelling). Westover is clearly gifted. With no formal education whatsover (no home school, even), she manages to get into BYU, and then quickly after a Cambridge doctoral program. Her success is such a compelling story, and her imposter syndrome as she succeeds is, at some level, relatable to all.

My key thoughts/themes while reading were:

  • Morality. This seems foolish to write about a memoir (vs. a fictional story), but it was interesting to examine and re-examine her family throughout the book, making judgements on them as parents, and as people. Very often, they are awful. They're negligent, ignorant, and horribly abusive. They are a slam-dunk case of "should not be allowed to raise children" people. But, are they evil? By the end, it's clear that they're trying their best to raise kids, given their circumstances and beliefs. And it's plainly obvious that they love them. And most oddly, they are by many measures highly successful parents. They basically had nothing, and ended up with 3/6 kids getting PhDs. Show me a family that can do more with so little. 
  • Related to the above... how do I know that Tara is "right" in all this? Why is the way that she chooses to live her life better than her parents? Epistemologically - how do I know this is true? Her parents both led lives rationally consistent with their beliefs, and were very highly rewarded by it. An objective observer would say that they were highly successful. Why are they wrong to do what they've done? I don't mean only from my perspective - obviously I think they're wrong because their lifestyle is highly inconsistent with mine - but from a more objectively rigorous point of view... if an alien who didn't know what life or culture was like on Earth saw this story play out, would they take Tara's side or her parents? Part of what made the book so compelling was Tara's own struggle with this question. She's never sure that she's doing the right thing when breaking from her families norms, she just feels compelled to do it. Even by the end of the book it's not clear to me if she ever felt certain that she did the right thing. After finishing the book, one question that stuck with me was wondering why she wrote it. It's a magnificent story, but it wasn't clear at all to me what she had to gain from making such a private experience so public. The more I've thought about it, I think that this question is exactly what she's trying to answer for herself.
  • Fate. I'm not exactly sure this is the right word, but it's at least adjacent. What I'm trying to capture is, what exactly is it that ultimately motivated Tara to leave? What inconsequential event snowballed inside her until she was driven to leave the family? Why didn't she become her parent's daughter? What thin veil of circumstance separates her life from her brother Sean's? The impression I'm given is one of chaos theory - at some point in Tara's childhood something tiny happened, as small as hearing a song on the radio, that somehow led her down a road of escape. What tiny thing was it? What part does it play in our own lives?

Tara Westover has earned a permanent place on my "5 people, living or dead, that you'd have to a dinner party" list. This was really an incredible book. My single complaint about it is that I need to struggle now between this and My Absolute Darling as book of the year....

Author Bio:

Tara Westover is an American author. Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father's junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. After that first encounter with education, she pursued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and subsequently winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014. Educated is her first book.