On Memoirs: A Book Review of Tara Westover’s Educated

What is a memoir? Memoirs tell the true stories of real people, real lives that have experienced pain and sorrow, true instances of vulnerability that authors have had the courage to share with the world. These writers spend years and years reliving their traumas, typing away at their manuscript in order to share their story and possibly share a lesson they learned with readers.

Keep this in mind when reading Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, a shockingly honest and harrowing story about one girl’s peculiar journey towards adulthood and education. 

With an unusual childhood, Tara’s situation is difficult to explain. Her father, a government conspiracy theorist and devout Mormon, pulled his children from the public school system and moved his family to the mountains in Idaho, believing that this was God’s will. Within nature, collecting scrap metal, Tara grows up with certain happy memories from her childhood, but her environment becomes increasingly abusive and unstable.

They reject medicine, even through brutal car crashes, severe burns, and scrap metal injuries, and the family endures a lot of avoidable pain, both physical and emotional. Unlike reading a work of fiction, you can’t really analyze the character’s emotions in a memoir the same way. With fiction, I read as if I could invent a backstory for them and create a framework for the book that makes sense to me. But that would be doing a true story injustice. 

What’s worse is that the answers to my questions are out there in the world, they just aren’t accessible to the readers, which leaves us curious for more. For example, I wonder what traumas, what experiences, shaped the brother, Shawn Westover, into the damaged, abusive sibling he was. I wonder if mental illness was the major factor to the family’s unraveling and division, and I wonder at what point the mother was not herself anymore.

I keep saying this, but what struck me the most was that these are not fictitious characters. The realness of it all forced me to experience all the character’s gruesome pain with them as I read along. When a sheet of metal slashed Tara’s leg, I found myself gripping my leg in horror. When a car crash rendered her mother with brain damage, I felt her terror. On the flip side, though, I also felt all her victories with the same intensity. It is really satisfying when the protagonist of any novel, fiction or biographical, achieves what they sought out to do, but in Tara’s case, achievement wasn’t the great resolution she ultimately sought. Perhaps, since this story is still being lived out today, the resolution is yet to be written. 

I recommend Educated by Tara Westover if you need a break from fiction or even if you are in a reading rut. Tara really immerses you into a life so different from our own that it is hard for us to imagine. Fair warning, though, if you are easily triggered by violence, you might want to skip the gruesome parts. 

Elyza Tuan ‘23, Clubs and Classes Editor