Tara Westover’s “Educated” – a review of reviews

In short, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

I finally got around to reading this beautiful memoir this autumn (and felt the need to write about it! Hello to anyone who has missed me on here).

My reluctance to read it when I first came across it came from the fear that it would be an opinionated political piece masquerading as a memoir, but my fears were unwarranted.

In the absence of a bookclub, I read other people’s reviews. I was surprised to find a lot of negativity. The criticisms can be summarised as follows:

  1. the story is fishy because a person wouldn’t keep going back to their abusive family again and again
  2. the story is fishy because people struggle to get into Cambridge and Harvard after many years of stellar education and this girl basically had none
  3. the story is repetitive describing similar abuse incidents again and again
  4. the story doesn’t have a resolution
  5. it’s a poor-me story
  6. it’s not a well written book
  7. the medical aspects are hard to believe
  8. this isn’t negative, but it featured as an introductory comment in a lot of reviews: the author suffered because she came from a conservative, Mormon, survivalist family
  1. the story is fishy because a person wouldn’t keep going back to their abusive family again and again

She goes back because they are family. Many people, especially religious people, put family on a pedestal that family may or may not deserve, believing that family is sacred and nothing could possibly break these bonds.

A victim of parental neglect, child labour and domestic violence, Tara kept going back and felt a duty to fix the situation. Abuse victims have been known to behave this way. Entirely believable.

2. the story is fishy because people struggle to get into Cambridge and Harvard after many years of stellar education and this girl basically had none

Surprisingly many people see a connection between one’s worth and one’s education, dismissing the uneducated outright, I feel – and this goes hand in hand with some of the ongoing political turmoil in the US. Someone who “hacked” the system from her father’s junkyard would appear as a fraud to them.

The beautiful narrative, the balanced dynamic of the arguments and reflections and the genuine insights that permeate this book serve as a testament to this woman’s talent. I believe her.

3. the story is repetitive describing similar abuse incidents again and again

The Iliad is also repetitive, describing many, many men bleeding from their spear wounds until darkness veils their eyes. I don’t think repetition is the marker of a failed narrative…

It’s a memoir, so a certain amount of the narrative has to be driven by fact rather than plot dynamics. Moreover, the repetition underlines the family relationships, the commitments and beliefs held by the characters.

4. the story doesn’t have a resolution

Tara no longer speaks to most of her family and delivered such an insightful book for anyone who struggles with gaslighting and abuse. I feel that’s quite the resolution.

5. it’s a poor-me story

What if a person deserves our sympathy? Some reviewers resented having spent their 9.99, some of which will, God forbid, enrich this junkyard upstart.

6. it’s not a well written book

A matter of opinion, I guess. For me, it’s one of the best written I’ve read in some time.

7. the medical aspects are hard to believe

The description of the medical aspects did shock me: the father’s heart stopping multiple times and restarting seemingly all by itself after an overwhelming inhalation injury, large areas of burns soaking in a garbage can, brains pulsing through skull fractures – all surviving and making a spectacular recovery with none or very little modern medical intervention.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps, it’s an impressionable young person’s memory and the real injuries weren’t quite as dramatic. Perhaps, it is just a spectacular set of recoveries – they do happen, it’s just unusual that there is a whole string of them.

8. the author suffered because she came from a conservative, Mormon, survivalist family

It would be discriminatory to say that her suffering arose from any of those things.

I don’t know any American conservatives, Mormons or survivalists personally, however I believe that people are entitled to their political and religious views and even some eccentricity. We don’t jail people for running ultramarathons, breeding falabellas or hoarding hundreds of pairs of shoes, so why not let a man stockpile fuel and canned peaches?

It’s easy to conflate abuse that’s congruent with a set of beliefs and those beliefs. For example, when Tara insisted that her version of reality is legitimate and didn’t want to accept her parents’ lies, they deemed her “possessed”. This is abusive regardless of the mythology behind it. “A hormonal teenager” is as good as “possessed” – dismissive and devaluing – but congruent with mainstream culture, hence it doesn’t stand out as much. There are many examples where her family invoke God for their self-serving manipulation. Similarly, canned peaches are harmless, but depriving the family of basic comforts to buy more SKSs is abuse.

All in all, I wish I had read this book the day it was out!

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