In August 1992, a brutal 11-day FBI siege on a private family home near Naples, Idaho, leaving 3 dead and two wounded, shocked the country. This incident, now known as Ruby Ridge, resulted from a failed ambush that was intended to facilitate the arrest of Randy Weaver for a variety of offenses including illegal arms sales, but also for his threats against the government and ties to violent white supremacist groups. This event was also a pivotal moment in the Westover family’s life as narrated by Tara in her critically acclaimed memoir Educated. Educated is Tara’s account of her upbringing in an extremist Mormon family without a formal education and her journey to receive her PhD from Cambridge University in England. Tara’s story is incredibly intriguing; I read the book so quickly it felt as if I had watched a movie in my head.
Upon hearing about the Ruby Ridge incident, “Gene” (real name ‘Val’) Westover pulled his eldest three children out of the public-school system and started making plans to live off-the-grid without any government interference. Gene works with his hands and operates a scrap yard and farm. His wife “Faye” (real name ‘LaRee’) is an herbal healer, who illegally practices as a midwife. With Gene’s technical skills and Faye’s medical skills, the family lives almost 100% independently from the government. This is further emphasized when we learn that Tara, the narrator, did not even receive a birth certificate until she was nine years old.
With a family of seven children, Faye did her best to teach each of her children how to read, however, once this skill was accomplished, education, outside of Sunday school, was not a priority for the family. Instead, the children would help father in the scrap yard or mother in the kitchen mixing herbs. Without a formal education, Tara grows up to truly believe in her father’s conspiracy theories about the government and sees most outsiders as the not-to-be-trusted ‘other.’ Without the socialization of schools, Tara is also ignorant of very basic rituals like washing one’s hands with soap after using the restroom and believes it is wrong to wear a seatbelt rather than leave one’s life ‘in God’s hands.’
Gene’s conviction to his religion and beliefs is evidenced at many points in Tara’s narrative. For example, once when the family was driving back home to Idaho from Arizona late in the evening, Tara’s brother fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed the car. Faye was badly injured, but Gene refused to let a Western doctor see her. Instead, the family went home, and Faye rested in the basement with her injuries. She suffered severe migraines and the children called her “raccoon eyes” for the dark circles that stained her lids in the weeks after the accident. Unbeknownst to Tara at the time, this “raccoon eye” symptom is actually a tell-tale sign of brain damage. The migraines persisted and Faye’s memory has never been the same. There are a few other gruesome accidents and injuries described in the book. The accounts of such wounds made me want to look away. However, no matter how serious the accident, Gene kept his faith in the Lord and allowed his wife to treat the family’s injuries with herbal medicine rather than rely on a hospital.
Despite the odds, Tara does end up leaving her extremist cloister for college. At Brigham Young University, Tara experiences grade-A culture shock, when she sees her roommates wearing tank tops and Juicy bottoms and learns that they have no qualms about running errands or working on the Sabbath. The true extent of Tara’s ignorance, however, is revealed to her in the classroom when she learns about some of the most important events of the 20th century for the first time. On an even more basic level, Tara reveals that it is in college when she learns that Europe is not a country but a continent and that there were such things as ‘written exams.’
To watch snippets of Tara’s life from a 10-year old in rural Idaho to a woman with a doctorate from abroad is an astounding transformation. Along the way, the reader also learns about Tara’s controlling family, mental illness, and the fates of a few of her siblings, who had an equally inconceivable upbringing.
I would rate this book a 5/5. The story itself and the storytelling are absolutely mesmerizing. I would not be surprised if this memoir makes it to film (in fact, I really hope it does!). If you enjoy memoirs, dramas, or are just looking for something deeply emotional and different – do not hesitate when deciding whether to read Educated.