Learning to See Beyond the Mountain

Let me start off by telling you that Educated by Tara Westover is the best memoir I’ve ever read! This captivating and inspirational story about a girl breaking free from her family’s ideals to pursue an education will stay with you for a long time—perfect for fans of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors.

Tara Westover tells the true story of growing up on a mountain in Buck Peak, Idaho with her eccentric family. But eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover this cast of characters. Tara’s father, a zealous Mormon and self-proclaimed prophet, is convinced of the Illuminati and Y2K. Tara and her 6 older siblings spend time canning food and burying guns in preparation for the “end times.” Their mother, who turned her back on her strict and proper upbringing to marry Tara’s father, is a midwife and herbalist.

Bipolar and paranoid about the government’s control, Tara’s father forbids doctors, public education, and a manner of other “worldly” things, leaving the family practically isolated from normal society. Tara doesn’t receive a birth certificate until she is 9 years old, and even then there is debate about the day she was born. She and the rest of her siblings grow up working in their father’s scrapyard and helping their mother make healing tinctures in the kitchen.

From a young age, Tara struggles to accept her father’s bizarre rules. Dance classes are filled with “harlots,” and antibiotics can cause infertility. Tara says her father convinced them that their family were the only “true Mormons.” Any opinions that contradicted these rulings were met with religious lectures or silent disappointment.

But Tara can sense that there is a whole world beyond the mountain, waiting to be known. Her brother Tyler is the first to leave the family in pursuit of an education, which sparks Tara’s own desire to learn. Without any formal education, she teaches herself enough algebra and grammar to pass the ACT and get accepted to Brigham Young University.

At first, Tara struggles to immerse herself in the foreign world of the classroom. She’s never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement, has never studied for a test, and has trouble connecting with other students who appear as “gentiles” to her. But after receiving a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Tara discovers the power of education to “free the mind” and realizes she can thrive as a student, despite her upbringing and “otherness.” She goes on to earn an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge, and a visiting fellowship at Harvard, before being awarded a PhD in history from Cambridge.

But the more she learns, the more Tara is distanced from her family. She becomes even more of a stranger when she tries to call out the abuse of her older brother “Shawn” (a pseudonym), leaving Tara torn between her family and her own beliefs.

This story reads like a novel. Westover beautifully captures the complexity of family. Her parents and the world they created for their children seem almost too bizarre to be real, which keeps you turning the page. That question of how to love family when you no longer see the world the same as they do is a struggle that I found fascinating and relatable. Tara’s journey to get an education made me appreciate my own education even more. It’s not so much about the classes or the actual degree that define Tara’s education—It’s the freedom that comes with knowledge.

“You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

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A freelance writer from the Deep South with a love of reading, writing, dramatic storytelling, indie music, and her corgi pup.

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