Book review: Tara Westover’s “Educated”

This is me still being good and only reading books available through the library.

Educated has been on my reading list for a while now. I was a little cautious in approaching it; I didn’t know what to expect in content regarding the Church, my church. I by no means consume only air-brushed accounts of church history and culture (gag), but I also don’t appreciate cheap shots. That stuff is out there too.

Educated is a memoir, a memoir of a girl and her family upbringing in rural Idaho. But this was no normal upbringing, and by my calibration growing up Mormon (for what its worth, is there really a “normal”?) this was not a normal Mormon upbringing either (at least I hope). To me, it was horrific. The domestic violence, the utter negligence in child safety, the recklessness and avoidable danger in many of the scenes just keep one-upping each other. The violence is only the beginning. Parents and siblings that are manipulative. You could subtitle the book A case study in gaslighting.

One of the truly degrading threads throughout the book is Tara’s brother Shawn: The first time I wore lip gloss, Shawn said I was a whore. It quickly escalates to Shawn both publicly and privately beating his sister.

Is this real?

In the pages, I tried to find the Mormonism I know. This was not it. There are certainly elements that seemed familiar. It is true that Mormons have very narrow limits on what woman are allowed to wear. We get super judg-ey about outward appearances. We also are probably more likely than others to homeschool our children. You’ll probably unavoidably get a lecture on the evils of socialism, in our outside church. All of these tropes show up in the book, but it felt like a caricature to me. It isn’t that I don’t think Tara is being honest. It frightens me that she is. That there could be Mormons out there like that.

Here’s a line that got me. After Tara first goes to BYU, she makes this observation about her roommate:

I was starved for sleep by the time my first roommate arrived. Her name was Shannon, and she studied at the cosmetology school across the street. She was wearing plush link pajama bottoms and a tight white tank with spaghetti straps. I stared at her bare shoulders. I’d seen women dress this way before– Dad called them gentiles– and I’d always avoided getting too near to them, as if their immorality might be catching. Now there was one in my house…

My mind was spinning as I shut my bedroom. How could she be a Mormon? Dad said there were gentiles everywhere– that most Mormons were gentiles, they just didn’t know it. I thought about Shannon’s tank and pajamas, and suddenly realized that probably everyone at BYU was a gentile.

Judging girls by their outward appearance didn’t shock me that much. Judging girls by showing their shoulders is almost a given. I remember being in a ward in Germany on my mission. There was a new convert who was called into the young women’s presidency. She posted a selfie with some of the young women at an activity wear they were trying on clothes, and they were showing some shoulder. Immediately, all the scandalized mothers were up in arms. I felt so bad for that sister, and I was ashamed that this is such a common occurrence in our church.

No, it wasn’t the judging. It was that she and her father referred to them as gentiles. That in fact most Mormons are gentiles. Do some Mormons think there is a smaller more morally superior breed of Mormons within Mormonism (ok, DezNat exists, what am I saying) and the rest of us are unknowingly living in sin despite being practicing Mormons? It happens multiple times, like in this passage when Tyler decides he wants to go to BYU:

“A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies–“

“The s-s-school’s run by the ch-ch-church,” Tyler interrupted. “How b-b-bad can it b-be?”

Dad’s mouth flew open and a gust of air rushed out. “You don’t think the Illuminati have infiltrated the church?” His voice was booming; every word reverberated with a powerful energy. “You don’t think the first place they’d go is that school, where they can raise up a whole generation of socialist Mormons? I raised you better than that!”

OK, maybe I should stop talking, because each time I think something is unbelievable, I realize there are plenty of Mormons who believe this. Many really do this BYU turns young people socialist, and BYU is undermining the Church. My grandma warned me that if I ever go to BYU, I need to beware because there’s homosexuals who will try to turn me.

Another thread that hit too close to home was the family’s belief that Tara was under the influence of Satan. Her father and mother visited her in graduate school, because they thought she was going apostate. Her father told her, You have been taken by Lucifer. I could feel it the moment I entered the room.

I have also been accused of having “a darkness about my countenance”, or that “I was under the influence of Satan,” in my case when I came out to my parents. It was one of the most alienating experiences in my life, because I felt that I had been cut out of my identity in my faith community.

I have to say, the book does include a disclaimer at the end that This book is not about Mormonism. But it’s hard to tell a personal memoir while excising Mormonism completely from it. There are things she excludes that made it feel less real to me. Where are the pot lucks, where are the sacrament meeting talks, the mutual nights? Where are the bishops and youth leaders? Certainly they went on trek, no? Perhaps she left some of these things out to condense it, or to make it clear it isn’t a critique of Mormonism persay. Or maybe those things just weren’t there? I couldn’t always tell. To me, it made it painted an unfair picture of Mormonism, because it left out the truly good parts that are there too– in my opinion, a book that left the wheat with the tares would have made it more honest– and more believable.

Don’t get me wrong, this was a great book, an important book. I took the whole thing to heart. My heart was thoroughly wrenched. This isn’t what Mormonism has to be. The elements within Mormonism she highlights are alive and well; just read any recent Facebook post by the Church on vaccines or the pandemic, and there will be plenty of anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and decriers of socialism.

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