The Brown Baggers gathered virtually on May 21 to discuss Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated. Westover describes her childhood growing up in the Idaho mountains as the youngest of seven in a survivalist family. Her charismatic but mentally unstable father mistrusts the government and Western medicine and Tara’s mother is a midwife with no formal training and healer who uses natural remedies to combat even the most severe injuries. Several of their children, including Tara, don’t have birth certificates, and while some of her older brothers and sisters attended school for brief periods of time, Tara never stepped foot into a classroom. While technically homeschooled, Tara writes that instead of learning mathematics or world history, she spent her days helping her mother prepare herbal remedies or performing dangerous work in her father’s junkyard.
When one of Tara’s older brothers leaves for college, she begins to recognize there is a world beyond the foothills of her mountain and soon longs for her own escape. She teaches herself enough to pass the ACT and secure admission to Brigham Young University with a scholarship. In fact, Tara is so bright she goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually obtaining a PhD in History at Cambridge. However, as Tara’s education expands, she struggles to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the knowledge she has gained. As a result, her family ties begin to fray and ultimately reach a breaking point.
The Brown Baggers found Tara’s story fascinating but also upsetting. Her writing was, as one described it, cinematic and visually gripping. They were amazed that someone who grew up in such a harsh and controlling environment could not only escape, but excel academically, though some questioned her own mental stability as evidenced by her erratic behavior later in her memoir. One member pointed out that Tara’s story highlights the importance of having a mentor. At BYU and Cambridge, Tara’s professors recognized her talents when she didn’t think she was capable and gave her the support she needed when she found herself overwhelmed and alone. While most of Tara’s education, especially in her teenage years, was a solitary endeavor and devoted to learning from books, her mentors taught Tara something about her own self.
The book raised a lot of questions about objectivity and truth, particularly in regards to memory. While some of the stories seemed too outlandish to be true, Westover acknowledges that her family members may remember events differently. Rather than take a dogmatic approach to truth, Westover openly acknowledges in the footnotes where accounts have differed. A lot of us could relate to having different recollections from, say, a sibling about something that happened decades ago and many of the Brown Baggers admired her commitment to objectivity.
The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Liars Club by Mary Karr
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
PBS NewsHour:Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” sings a Mormon hymn