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It took me all of four paragraphs before I was hooked on Educated. Tara’s writing is vivid and beautiful, and from the earliest pages she sets the scene for the telling of an incredible story about her upbringing that is both unsettling and inspiring.
Tara was one of 7 children, raised in rural Idaho, with a father who was a Mormon survivalist and a mother who, while occasionally would show signs of not being entirely on board with some of his actions, was more or less willing to go along with it.
They were “homeschooled” (if you were to ask her parents), but it’s clear from Tara’s telling that there was precious little “schooling”. She hasn’t heard of the Holocaust before an embarrassing sequence in college. She has to teach herself algebra, geometry, and trigonometry as part of her self-studying to prep for the ACT. Much more of her time is spent helping her mother and father with their respective businesses than doing anything resembling school.
While the book does tell the story of how Tara eventually made her way to college, and even to ultimately earning a doctorate from Cambridge University, it really centers around relationships. At the beginning of the book, her relationship with her father dominates the story. For awhile her brother Tyler is the focus. Later it’s her relationship with her mom, with her brother Shawn, with her sister Audrey.
That they dominate a lot of the narrative isn’t a surprise. Tara was surrounded by strong, frequently abusive, personalities and they shaped her perception of herself and the world around her. It isn’t until much later in her life, while at Brigham Young University, that she slowly starts to find her own voice.
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
I mentioned those relationships were often abusive, which is the understatement of the century. Her father set the tone, with his extreme beliefs and temperament (Tara suspects he may be bipolar, her parents of course dispute this). He is frequently angry, irrational, and judging of, well, everyone around him. He often complains about the immodest attire of women in church. He despises and distrusts the government. He firmly believes doomsday is coming and so he spends much of his time preparing for it by storing goods, guns, and ammo.
And he despises the healthcare system. To the extent that when his wife is severely injured in a car accident, when his son is severely burnt, when he himself is severely burnt later on—the hospital is never considered an option. His rationale that “God will do all the healing they need” is not so much as an expression of his faith as it is a misunderstanding of it.
As jarring as the early stories in the book are, they pale in comparison to what happens as Tara gets older. Her brother (“Shawn” in the book) is abusive physically and mentally. Her interactions with him are truly horrific, and it’s beyond gut-wrenching hearing the impact they had on her self-worth. There was one scene in particular that I don’t really want to detail because it’s incredibly upsetting. But it happens in front of her boyfriend. Tara talked about how she panicked. Not because it was happening to her, but because it was happening in front of her boyfriend. Because, as she put it:
He could not know that for all my pretenses—my makeup, my new clothes, my china place settings—this is who I was.
I don’t know the effect that has here, in my abbreviated review, but in the context of the book it was one of many times where I had to pause, had to set the book down for a minute just to process and deal with the gravity of it all.
She gets very little help from her family. The majority of her family, instead of dealing with it, look the other way and make excuses. Tara takes awhile to confront it herself, something far from surprising given the situation.
When she finally does confront everything head-on, when she finds her own voice and stands up to her dad and to Shawn, she pays the price of having a relationship with her family. Only a couple remain in touch from the sounds of it. It’s easy for us on the outside to feel that perhaps that’s the best thing after all given the horrors she went through, but as Tara points out, it’s never that easy when it’s your family.
Tara seems to be writing this book for herself as much as anyone else and you see the impact abuse had on her, the way she struggles with her confidence and self-worth and the way she grapples with coming to terms with the toxic relationships with people she cared deeply about.
The most common criticism I’ve seen of the book is that it can’t possibly be true. There is so much that happened to Tara. How could that much bad happen? How could someone with no education manage to score well enough on her ACT to get to BYU? How could she go on to get a doctorate? In the context of today, with the wide dissemination of misinformation and examples of other popular memoirs exaggerating facts, I suppose that’s fair to some extent.
Her parents have stated that the book is not accurate, as you would fully expect given the terrible stories the book tells.
But two brothers also are on record as having said that while their exact recollection of some of the stories differs from Tara’s, they felt the book accurately depicted Tara’s upbringing. Doug, an ex of Tara’s who is mentioned quite a bit later in the book, has also written that Tara’s book lines up with his experience with her family as well.
In other words, there’s enough smoke here that there must be something to the fire. Tara is also incredibly transparent about where her telling differs from that of family members. The book is peppered with footnotes where bits and pieces of stories are contradicted by the family members she still has an active relationship with. She even has a whole final section of the book detailing how her accounts of some scenarios differ from what others remember.
And, perhaps, some of the memories aren’t entirely accurate. Who of us could claim to have 100% fidelity of our memories? Or tell stories of the people in our lives without perhaps missing some details? Tara’s very open in pointing out that her memories likely aren’t 100% correct. In an interview after the book’s publication, Tara addressed the criticism:
Everyone knows that human memory is fallible and there are problems with it. In my book, I acknowledge that by consulting other people, by having footnotes when there were major disagreements or things I couldn’t reconcile, and by trying to acknowledge why certain narratives persist and where they come from. But I think sometimes people use the basic fact of the fallibility of human memory to try and undermine other people’s sense of reality and their trust in their own perception, and that has a lot more to do with power than with the limitations of memory. It’s a way to control other people by saying ‘my memory is the truth and yours isn’t valid.’
The criticism leaves me with a similar feeling to what I had after reading The Road of Lost Innocence and finding out that some argued the author was lying. That is to say, I almost want the story to be a fake. I want to find out I was duped. As inspiring as it is that she was able to overcome, what she went through and what she still is going through is awful and I don’t want it to be true. That doesn’t seem to me to be the case here, however.
I had expected, knowing little about the book before picking it up, for something dealing with a more traditional definition of “education”. But what Tara wrote is more powerful and more important. Education, as Tara sees it, is about self-discovery and transformation. It’s about finding your own voice amidst the cacophony of voices that surround you.
It had played out when, for reasons I don’t understand, I was unable to climb through the mirror and send out my sixteen-year-old self in my place.
Until that moment she had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed—how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance—I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.
That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.