Educated: The bottom line
Educated, by Tara Westover, was unquestionably one of my literary shocks this year. This book is not only well written and inspiring, but it is also deep, eye-opening and brutally mind-shaking.
Tara Westover explores various topic in her impressive memoir. Education is obviously at the heart of the book – which explains and illustrates how the lack of it can negatively impact our lives. But what is really striking is the message that we, as individuals, are responsible for empowering ourselves.
While there are tons of excuses out there not to change anything, Educated is a testimony that everyone should read. As long as they’re ready to be shaken, provoked, brutalized and put outside of their comfort zone, that is. Beware, however. You won’t come out unscathed of this book.
Reading suggestion & Book review: Educated, a Memoir by Tara Westover.
My personal story with Educated began in a random bookshop. I was wandering around between two meetings and had some time to kill, so spending a moment in the middle of books sounded just like a good idea to me.
Yet, for some reason, nothing floated my boat that day. Well, that’s until I bumped into Tara Westover’s book, really.
Educated was a large piece (compared to the other books around) and it was so colorful that my eye got caught.
The paper was thick, made to be looked and touched. And the illustration was grand. A large pencil, full of red and orange, which visibly made reference to more than education. Something related to mountains. But also something rough and tough that you can’t really identify at first sight.
Memoirs aren’t the type of book that I read the most, but never mind. Something impactful emanated from it, suggesting that this story could be a game-changer, somehow. So, I took the book and started reading it in the coffee shop next door.
The story began, dark and deep, with a tone that hooks you fast and hard. After an hour an a half, I realized that I was late for my next meeting, but it didn’t really matter. That story was really something. Something about fighting for what you really want. Something about fighting for yourself, also. And something about education being this one thing capable of changing your life forever.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author’s main topics explained in detail.
- The book’s main themes, questions, and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Educated: Brief book review (for starters).
Educated starts with a little anecdote which – far from being innocent – gives the tone of the whole book.
Tara Westover is seven and she is atop of a mountain. She looks at her family as everyone gets ready for work that day, but what she sees mostly is the school bus which passes by and does not stop for her.
Why? Because her family is different: “we don’t go to school”, she says.
For her, living outside of society is the norm. No government influence, no Illuminati spying on the family, no medical records, and no birth certificates either.
Education is mostly about living her daily life in the mountain because, well, there isn’t much beyond them. Until she realizes that there is a life to be lived out there, that is. And when she does, everything changes.
This book is a little gem, I say.
Overall, Educated is a little gem because it covers topics which make you think with a style you can’t ignore. This book gets straight to your guts. Very deep. Very hard. Very raw.
It makes you smile here and then, and it is extremely inspiring. But it also makes you feel pain. A pain that the author felt at the time, in her flesh and bones – and I mean, literally. A pain that you end up feeling too because some of the stories are just as difficult to read as they were for her to live.
A book about some other (crazy) people’s life.
A first, Educated tells you the story of some original, marginal, crazy survivalists who deliberately reject the world around them.
The outside world is a threat to them and they do everything they can to reduce their interactions with it. The government is bad, doctors want to harm you, the Illuminati too, and school is only about getting some propaganda in your mind.
What matters to them, instead, is to build reserves in case something happens, and to live reclusively because you can’t trust anybody but God.
Said differently? Educated starts with the absolute opposite of what we would normally know. The book puts you in an environment most people just can’t understand, and it gives you a chance to think about how others think and behave, whether this relates to education, religion, family behavior, or basic healthcare.
A book about perseverance, self-creation, and fighting for what you want.
Beyond this, Educated is perhaps, more importantly, a book about perseverance, self-creation, and fighting for what you want.
Whilst Tara Westover began her life as an uneducated kid surrounded by a violent family, her experiences turned her into a Cambridge-made Ph.D. characterized by both a talent with words and a mental strength that most of us would dream of mastering.
Her journey is beyond impressive, that is absolutely unquestionable. But what stunned me was how efficient this book is at illustrating the fact that your own actions define who you really are.
For many, education is a basis. We get it, and we do something with it – or not, actually. But Tara Westover didn’t have that first basic basis in life. She had to get it by herself. She had to fight to obtain what others just get without asking. And she turned it into the story of her life. What a lesson.
Educated: The comprehensive book review.
Educated is built around three main parts which (unsurprisingly for a memoir) follow a chronological logic based on Tara Westover’s life. The book regroups a ton of small chapters which each tell a little bit of the story every time. But overall the memoir follows a very gradual threefold personal progression.
The first part of the book provides a brutal overview of Tara’s life as a kid in a survivalist and religious environment. The second part tells a story of change and explains how, progressively, she realized that something was wrong. The third part is the inspiring part of the book, a testament of personal strength and determination which, again, won’t leave you unscathed. Just saying.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of this book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Tara Westover explores these major themes:
- Education, what it means, what it brings, and how it empowers you.
- Self-development, from a very personal and “doer” perspective, far from the motivational books out there.
She also asks a variety of questions, including:
- What does it mean not to be educated like others?
- How to cope with the lack of education, especially as far as others are concerned?
- How to never give up when it comes to improving your own life?
- Do you have a chance out there when you come from a (very) different background?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
Educated – Theme #1: Where Tara Westover comes from.
The best way to understand what education can bring to your life is to realize what your life would be without it. It sounds difficult to apprehend, I know. But with Educated, Tara Westover gives you a massive glimpse of what living a secluded and uneducated life looks like.
There’s what’s normal, and there’s what’s right.
Tara’s family context is deeply complex but fairly simple to describe. Imagine a house, with kids and parents. The father does not read the newspaper or stories to the kids. He reads the Bible.
His motivation is simple: insisting on what rules they should strictly follow in life. For him – and as I wrote before – society is all about government influence and propaganda. And all that is overall subjected to the grip of the Illuminati, therefore living by the Bible is the only suitable alternative.
Grandma disagrees, however, and rather insists that kids belong in school. Except that in reality, the situation is so extreme that even the kids can’t imagine what school is about. “I shifted on my stool, I tried to imagine school but couldn’t”, Tara writes very early in the book.
Said differently, there’s what’s normal, and what’s right. And both are very subjective and different things.
What’s basic, seen from naive eyes.
For the reader, there is also the shock of realizing that what is basic for us is just not basic for everyone.
Very early in her book, Tara Westover takes the example of the simple birth certificates. We all have one, and to us they mean very little, right? At most, a piece of paper stored at the bottom of a drawer and that we barely ever need, let alone use.
But Tara doesn’t have any birth certificate. Being born at home and outside of the system, why would she have one after all?
So, when someone mentions the idea of such a document, she finds the idea funny and describes it as a surprising “legal proof of (her) personhood” before adding that “until that moment, it had never occurred to (her) that proof was required“.
The example makes you smile? That’s not surprising, I did smile too. At first. But think about it. Who would you be without a formal identity, uh?
Another impacting example is that of health and medical care. When Tara’s mother has a bad accident, God is the solution. Recovery depends on plants and homeopathy so it takes months, years maybe. But God manages, so she’ll be just fine. When Tara has a migraine, plants should suffice, even if they take three days to act. Try and deal with that?
In a nutshell, society seen from her naive child perspective is different. Unusual, from our perspective, not to say irrational and lacking common sense. You might be tempted to smile at first. But then, soon enough, you realize that what you would normally consider as basics are more than basics. They are fundamentals that we simply take for granted.
“There is a world out there, Tara”.
The naive tone used by Tara Westover to describe her childhood is touching.
When one of her brothers breaks the rule and goes to school (despite the Illuminati and all that), she suddenly gets acquainted with books, Mozart and Chopin. Book-learning becomes a possibility, and music turns into a form a non-religious communion with a type of knowledge and education she never thought existed.
“There is a world out there, Tara“, her (nice) big brother says at some point. And this first bit of flirting with knowledge pushes her to fight her own reality. Soon, she starts working on learning how to read, on a DIY basis, because you’ve got to start somewhere.
She buys books, tries to learn algebra, the Pythagorean theorem, and trigonometry, and fights for a chance to enter college after all.
Doing so not only gives her little wings. It also pushes her to realize that, by preventing education outside of Bible precepts, her father has dramatically impacted her life and that only she can do something about it.
Education means opening a new world of possibilities.
Among other things, no school or education means that the children in the family must work in the junkyard behind the house to scrap metals. For Tara, getting access to education is therefore a way out.
Perhaps more fundamentally, however, flirting with the idea of getting educated also brings to her mind the idea that the world out there can be understood. In her words, “perhaps reality was not wholly volatile. Perhaps it could be explained, predicted. Perhaps it could be made to make sense” by creating what she describes as “a world of logic that only existed in black ink and on white paper“.
Educated – Theme #2: There is another life to be lived.
Said differently, a survivalist-by-default kid who is given access to education sees a new world of possibilities. From then, Tara Westover starts exploring the idea that, perhaps, things could be different.
The next step in her life is to get into school, and here again, the differences are both striking and brutal. Think about it. How would you handle school today if you’d never stepped foot in there before?
Being a freak at school.
The answer to that question is simple: you would handle that very poorly. Campus, city-life, noise, living with bare-shoulder girls (she comes from a very religious family, remember?), adapting to school and life out there is a struggle of every moment.
Then, imagine that you are in class and that you lack the basic fundamentals that everyone else masters without even thinking about it. How do you follow a history class when you don’t know (and can’t ask) what the word ‘holocaust’ actually means?
How to write an essay or read a history book when you don’t have the methodology or the basics to do it?
Oh, and of course, how do you share a flat with people who are diametrically different? “Of course I was a freak, and I knew it, but I didn’t understand how they didn’t know it“, she writes. But, honestly, how would you deal with that?
Adapting to life, really.
Now, what if there was much more to handle?
I wrote that Tara struggled with ‘bare-shoulder’ girls above. But her educational difference made things much more difficult for her.
How do you manage physical change when you grow up? How do you dare wearing girly clothing – like others do – when your own education forbids it because normal is not right? For her, clothing was about feeling like a girl. For one of her brothers, feeling like a girl was about being a whore, and it got her to get sank into the toilets as a retaliation. Literally.
How do you deal with other people? Can you bring a friend home without looking crazy – or without fearing your family’s reactions? How do you handle people’s reactions in such different contexts? Oh, and how do you ask for help when you need some? Can you even ask for help at all?
I’ve mentioned before that Educated has very brutal aspects, and the toilet example I just gave is only one tiny example of how the book – I mean, Tara Westover’s story – is.
Throughout the book, many pages describe the violence of her life. How her brother Shawn beats her up because he doesn’t like her tone. How he says she is a pregnant whore (the words are not mine) because she wears mascara. In fact, the psychological violence is as harsh as the physical one, and for some time she doesn’t really know whether she is, indeed, a pregnant whore because, well, how do you get pregnant anyway?
On countless occasions, the girl gets beaten, in private and in public. Her bones crack, because she won’t obey and because she won’t submit to family madness. And you, as a reader, feel the pain as you read her words.
Some bits are crude, realistically brutal, often painful to read. You feel your hair rise on your arms, you feel the pain in your guts. You want it to stop. You can’t possibly understand why she has to go through that when you never had to. Someone help her, please, make it stop…
For the reader, the reading is a real, intense, and challenging experience. For her, the story is all about doubt and self-confidence.
Tara Westover doesn’t complain. Not a single time. In fact, she doesn’t even seem resentful. She lives with it and keeps going. She surrenders to save the appearance but she never gives up fighting. Losing the battle isn’t losing the war, as they say. Or maybe she is too busy struggling with what is normal and what is not to just realize how wrong this is.
And, then, change.
But then, beyond all this mess, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In class, Tara Westover learns about psychology and mental disorders. She hears about paranoia, bipolarism and schizophrenia. And she progressively realizes that something at home is wrong from a mental perspective too.
Eventually, Tara Westover decides to “experiment with normality”. After years of using herbs as treatment, she tries painkillers and sees her life change.
On a different scale, she learns about parliamentary politics, Jewish history, and world affairs, miles away from her home reality. This gets her to think about applying for a study program at Cambridge, where she ends up going. And staying.
There, she decides that “the difference you make is in your head”, and she finds herself a mentor who makes her accept the idea that “a poorly written sentence (is) a poorly written idea”, and that more education will make that difference she needs so much.
Hours of reading, thinking and writing give her an opportunity to question her models and her own misconceptions.
Fetting educated makes her reconsider her self-confidence issues and pushes her to trust her own thinking and ideas.
She realizes that this path is the way to becoming herself, and she gives her life a U-turn. Her father can’t hear any of it, of course, so she goes past him and takes the deliberate decision to start living for herself. Even if that means not being part of the family anymore.
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Educated – Theme #3: Being herself.
Tara Westover really becomes herself when she decides to move away from her reality. In fact, reading the book suggests that somehow the young lady only started living her life in Cambridge, surrounded by knowledge, books, history, and culture.
To her father’s backyard junk, she prefers class discussions on positive liberty and second-wave feminism. To her ‘abnormal parents’, she prefers a new frame of reference and begins a Ph.D. program with Professor David Runciman.
She progressively realizes that she belongs to this new life. And as she does that, she empowers herself to become herself even more.
Of course, the struggle with her family is not over. Far from it. But her life is now what it should be. All the pain felt whilst reading her lines eventually turns into some shivers and goosebumps on your arms. To the reader, her life becomes sensible. Now we can understand. What we had so far was empathy, but now we can relate.
Educated: The main conclusions
Tara Westover comes to the following conclusions.
- Education is not just the basics, it has the power to change your life in ways you can’t imagine.
- There is no secret, however, self-creation and self-empowerment are the best ways to get wherever you want.
- Don’t just wait. Act.
Educated: Food for thought.
As usual, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
The book finishes with a feeling which is difficult to explain because it is deep and very personal. Not just to her, but also to you.
In fact, the best way to explain this feeling is to quote the book. Talking about her ultimate decisions, Tara Westover writes that “they were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood, many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
After pages of pain, frustration, and inspiration, this bit made me close Educated with a smile, a shiver and a massive Wow. That night, it took me twenty minutes of looking at Hong Kong through my window to process the experience and switch the lights off.
Tara Westover’s story isn’t just a memoir, it is a punch in the guts which will make you see your own life differently, and a must-read book which you should only read if you are willing and ready to be shaken, deep inside.
The message: Education matters more than we realize.
All this is transmitted as a personal story, of course, which means that the big picture comes up both slowly, naively, and sometimes very brutally. Yet, ultimately, what really transpires is the absolute difficulty of living a life without education.
Education goes well beyond learning how to read and write here. Education is a matter of getting the basic commonalities which enable us to communicate and interact with each other.
At different levels, the need for a birth certificate and ignorance as to what the Holocaust is are brutal examples of that.
In all cases, the point is to realize that, while education is usually seen as a non-question able basic, it actually impacts your life in ways you would never imagine. Really.
The other message: fight for yourself, because no-one else will.
The book also brings the question of how one can learn in a hostile environment. From that perspective, in fact, Tara Westover and her book Educated send a powerful message: you should fight for yourself and for what matters to you, because if you don’t, no-one else will.
I wrote earlier in this article that Educated was a book about some (crazy) people that you wouldn’t normally meet and that you would never understand even if you tried hard. I wrote, also, that this book is all about perseverance, self-creation and fighting for what you want.
In retrospect, what I didn’t write is that Educated is not just about Tara Westover and her surprising family. It is also a book about you, and me.
In my case, the relationship with Tara’s story ended up being very personal. I was once told by someone close (very, close) that I was too dumb to succeed at school and this could have killed my ambitions. So I got myself an education anyway and went abroad to study in a language which wasn’t mine. I got a Ph.D. there, eventually. But I got it for myself.
I’m not trying to compare my story to Tara here. My point is that my education was a personal history and a very personal victory which has given me opportunities to travel, to live around the world, and to meet people that I wouldn’t have met if I had just stayed in my own reality. All it took me, in the end, was to make a life-changing decision.
Educated is precisely about that decision.
Education is empowerment.
I’ve often heard people say that where you come from defines who you are, and I think that Educated is the perfect example of that.
Education is knowledge, and if you think about it, knowledge is often a very political issue. After all, there is a reason why authoritarian regimes first start with oppressing the most educated part of the population.
In Tara’s story, the political issue is not that knowledge is punished. It is that knowledge isn’t available in the first place because education leads you away from religious precepts.
Hence, again, the real challenge of education is not political. It is about personal empowerment, and Tara Westover makes it perfectly clear.
Impact Thinking, to finish.
I focus a lot on Impact Thinking as part of my work, so I will finish this reading suggestion with some food for thought on how Impactful this book is.
I’ve written elsewhere that Impact is not just something you have. Impact is a bang and a Wow that you need to work on to make it happen, eventually. As it turns out, this book is an absolute lesson on what being Impactful means. This book is a punch in the guts and it will make you re-think things very deeply. It has impacted me very personally, and I have no doubt that it will shake you up too.
Tara, if you read these lines… well, you get my point! Congratulations on your masterpiece!
Your turn now, get the book!
That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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