In 1907, it was quite a surprise to see a woman at the top of the bestseller list. Now, women routinely write top-selling books, with Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdad Sings and Tara Westover’s Educated currently ruling the fiction and nonfiction lists. Over at the New York Times, Tina Jordan unearths an old article marveling over the new phenomenon of the “lit’ry lady,” which at the time, seemed to be led by the record-breaking sales of Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree. “The really striking thing,” the article goes on to say, “about the encroachments of women on the preserves of man in book writing is not to be found on the purely literary side, but on the business side of the situation. Women are writing more and more best-sellers.”
Tara Westover’s memoir Educated traces her evolution from the youngest child of seven in an Idaho family of Mormon fundamentalists to a cosmopolitan scholar of history in London. Through grit and bootstrapping, she leaves behind her homesteading, unschooled life by teaching herself enough math and grammar to pass the ACT and steps foot into a classroom for the first time as a freshman at the Latter Day Saints’ Brigham Young University. Her story is one of learning to question one’s given reality, and it also gives us the first real insight into an American subculture that is both extreme in its views and growing in popularity as it overlaps other fringe movements.
When she was a child, Westover’s father, Gene, espoused an absolutist libertarianism and paranoid end-of-days version of Mormonism, which entirely shaped her worldview. Her mother, Faye, was her father’s willing helpmeet: a lay midwife, herbalist, and then essential oils bottler who was equally committed to her husband’s ideology against government, education, and modern science. I first came across essential oil promoters in a mama-and-baby’s group at my local yoga studio, and I’ve since seen them pushed as both a money-making endeavor and a general cure-all on “crunchy mama” blogs.
I am generally—at least philosophically, if not in actual practice (hello, C-section, daycare, and supplemental formula)—in line with the all-organic, homemade, breastfeeding ethos of this brand of motherhood, so learning in Westover’s memoir of the close ties between the business of essential oils and extreme right-wing ideology was revelatory. “Herbalism,” according to her father, is “a spiritual doctrine that separated the wheat from the tares, the faithful from the faithless.” That’s not to say that every homeschooling parent who uses folk or non-Western medicine agrees with the misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism that Westover reveals as the cornerstones of her parents’ belief system—but this appeal of essential oils to both fundamentalists and the “new new age” does show that the romantic pursuit of purity and freedom is common to both the fringes of the left and the right. The paths these countercultures take to reach their goals are often similar, even if the rationales differ: Turn to nature, turn to the spiritual, and disdain the obedient sheep who actually trust the systems from which the nonconformists are alienated.
As Jonathan Kauffman discusses in his recent book on the rise of the natural and organic food movement, Hippie Food, many of the radical ideas that the ’60s and ’70s brought us, whether the acceptance of brown rice in the case of Kauffman’s book or out-of-hospital birth and the use of plants instead of painkillers in Westover’s family, have been taken up in conventional consumerism in the last two decades. Westover rejected her parents’ fringe beliefs and embraced liberal culture at college in the early 2000s just as the American mainstream did the opposite. Elderberry syrup is available in my local Walgreens (of course I bought it for my toddler, wanting to give him something to help his frequent coughs that seems, at the very worst, completely harmless). Along with what I consider positive outcomes of the 1960s trend of questioning our authorities and institutions—such as an end to involuntary sterilizations and an increased scrutiny of our government’s violation of citizens’ civil rights—the damage done to faith in American institutions has opened the door to the mainstreaming of paranoia and conspiracy theories. In the Westover family’s case, that meant the marriage of rabid libertarianism to authoritarian tendencies—exactly the spirit of the political wave that washed Donald Trump up in Washington, D.C.
In their household, according to Tara’s diaries, this manifested in Gene using her and her brothers as child labor in his completely unsafe junkyard and Faye having them manufacture her oils and salves; it meant no access to texts beyond the Bible, the Constitution, and the Book of Mormon; and it created a patriarchal family structure so focused on female sin that it could excuse one brother, Shawn, behaving violently to Tara and her sister as proper efforts to curb their potentially immodest behavior. Westover’s retelling of her coming-of-age experience is a riveting tale that keeps dangling the question of whether or not she’ll escape from her oppressive surroundings, and how she’ll do it. Her story is close kin to memoirs of parental lunacy and misdeeds like Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Joshua Safran’s Free Spirit, and other “misery lit” about growing up with parents whose personal rebellions against society created unstable, damaging situations for their children. But Westover has written a memoir that says much more than “Thank goodness I survived that.”
Westover escapes the trap of storytelling for self-justification that drives so many autobiographies by exploring both the reality constructed by her family’s beliefs and her process of rebuilding that reality through her education. The memoir’s structure is a series of re-evaluations of her reality, with the reader walking alongside her as she travels through alternate universes, leaving and trying to return to Buck’s Peak. She also allows the reader to see, in her own doubts about her path away from her family’s beliefs, the version of the story her parents are telling: that she has been lost to them because she is “whoring after man’s knowledge instead of God’s,” as her father declares when she asserts a desire to attend college.
Tara first has the opportunity to experience the world without her parents’ heavy-handed views of it when she attends BYU. Her subsequent experience of displacement and alienation from both her university peers and her family is a familiar phenomenon for first-generation college students from a variety of backgrounds.
Through her father, Tara Westover writes, “I had learned that books were either to be adored or banned.” As Tara moves deeper into college and then graduate school in history at Cambridge University and Harvard, she is asked to work her mind not in service of confirming previous beliefs, but instead to analyze and synthesize, those key goals for college students every composition teacher is familiar with. She moves from reading books “to learn what to think” to realizing that “books were not tricks, and that I was not feeble.” To successfully learn to write as a professional historian, she must adopt a worldview that allows for multiple versions of events to exist simultaneously. In becoming a historian, Tara realizes she can apply those same skills to rewrite her own world and her place within it: “To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.” The self-determination that her parents sought, that they could not offer their daughter out of fear of losing her, she finds in the very intellectual tools they shun.
This self-construction takes years, because for even the most rebellious scions, our parents’ values shape our understanding of the world at every level of experience and perception. Tara struggles in her years at BYU to conform to the family’s isolationist righteousness, resisting other paths offered by people who see her suffering through pain without analgesics and in danger of failing school because she is also trying to work multiple jobs. But despite her attempts to stay true to her parents’ teachings, with new knowledge comes new understanding. Learning about the Holocaust in her first weeks of college places her father’s rants against “globalism,” the U.N., and banks in their anti-Semitic context. Tara realizes that her father’s story about fellow Idaho “freedom fighters” who “wouldn’t let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them” was actually an FBI raid on a homesteader who sold guns to a neo-Nazi group. She recognizes that “white supremacy was at the heart of this story” and then makes the leap to realize it is also at the heart of her own family’s story—yet another brick knocked out of the foundation of trust and belief they instilled.
Relearning “feminist” as not an insult but a description of a woman who does not want to be subservient takes the longest for Westover, since it requires questioning not only the extremism of her parents but the dominant culture at BYU and her church writ large. Tara finally refuses to forgive the misogynistic abuse dished out by her brother Shawn, and her insistence that there be a reckoning ends up pushing her out of the family. In the world she has revised for herself, there is no space for a man to punish women in his family for disobeying him. In her parents’ world, that is his role and right. The introspection it would take to value their wayward daughter over the faithful son whose labor helps their businesses run would destabilize the core of their identities.
Her parents interpret all acts and events as justifications for their ideology, an extreme version of confirmation bias. Their worldview can hold no other possibility. To even fear a bad outcome, in her parents’ eyes, is to doubt God. “I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly,” her father quips as he speeds with his seven children in the van, from which he has removed all seat belts. Tara reflects later on all the injuries they’ve suffered that a few precautions could have prevented: “Dad always put faith before safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right…” Gene genuinely believes Ronald Reagan’s quip—“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’”—so he only trusts himself, his immediate family, and God. If you believe God is personally intervening for you, it gives your life significance, even as the American economy devalues the physical labor upon which you’ve based your and your children’s livelihoods.
Her parents’ certainty that God speaks directly to them and that they understand him perfectly—as in Gene’s total confidence in his biblical interpretations and Faye’s use of “muscle testing,” interpreting her body’s twitches as subconscious divine guidance—is what ultimately makes their countercultural leanings dangerous rather than liberating. The breathtaking arrogance of interpreting one’s own desires as divine will and revelation means there’s no room for ever admitting error—that would mean doubting one’s connection to God. For her parents, there can never be uncertainty; there is only one truth, so even incidences of great suffering are interpreted to confirm that God has a plan for them. In addition, over the course of the 15 years or so this memoir covers, her parents have gone from scraping by to running the biggest business in their Idaho county—Butterfly Express Quality essential oils (unnamed in the book, but easy to find on Google)—and employing the four children who never went on to higher education. It’s clear this success is seen by her family as a consecration; God is acting through capitalism to reward the Westovers’ righteousness.
We liberal readers must realize that Tara’s story is not a clap on our backs for being right all along but rather an effort to tell the story of the dangers of moral absolutism. She was motivated to write history by her recognition that the truth claims of her childhood were only possible because she had no other information available to contradict them: “What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.” What is proclaimed historical truth is a set of stories written to make sense of a mess of fragments according to the beliefs of the writer. Acknowledging that the truth is not absolute—rather unknowable—she reconciles herself to the groundlessness she had known since leaving the security of her family’s righteousness: “In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.” She applies this to her memoir as well, acknowledging how her interpretation of events has shifted and how her siblings and she have different memories of the same experiences. Tara Westover does not use her memoir to prove her parents wrong but to assert that her interpretation is just as valid; she just wants them to accept that her reality is different but can interact and coexist with theirs.
Tara Westover performs a vital sort of embedded anthropology in Educated, explaining her fundamentalist, libertarian and rural Western cultural heritage to the educated coastal elites among whom she’s chosen to live. In her parents, we see that the particular kind of “natural” rhetoric we associate primarily with whimsical, wispy Californians is just as easily assigned to the “Make America Great Again” campaign, emphasizing individual needs over the collective, the private family unit over civic society. Just as her mother’s oils are now bought by thousands of customers as an alternative to costly cures from experts, her family’s political views, once considered extreme, are now also shared by such a large segment of the American public that they’ve taken over Congress and the presidency.
Tara offers a personal history of a family withdrawing into extremism and vividly outlines the disbelief she experiences watching that extremism become the dominant narrative in her home community. She shows us how beliefs shape reality and, in turn, how ideological outliers end up centered in the American cultural consciousness. But this is also the story of a woman who loved her mother and father dearly and had to learn what it felt like not to be loved by them any longer. It nearly drives her crazy, and her loneliness breaks your heart.