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‘Educated’ by Tara Westover: Uncovering Radical Mormonism in Rural America 

Written by Sally Dolphin. Tara Westover's 2018 memoir tells the story of her life growing up as a Mormon in rural America. An isolated childhood, Westwood's experiences leaving such a sheltered environment can shed light on our own cultural awareness.

February 2018 saw the publication of the incredible autobiographical memoir, Educated by Tara Westover. A gripping and inspiring story, Westover invites the reader to explore the journey of her unconventional – to say the least – childhood, abundant with obstacles, enduring abusive relationships and, above all, pursuing a desire to receive an education. Educated tells the story of Westover’s journey from her isolated home in rural Idaho under the control of her parents, who were fundamentalist Mormons, to her search for education, graduating from Brigham Young University (BYU), and eventually receiving a PhD from Cambridge University. The memoir was ranked by the New York Times as one of the best books of 2018, and Westover herself was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2019.  

Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion, also known as the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in 1830 in the United States. The introduction of the religion was marked with the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, by Smith, which he claimed he received in religious experience. In her memoir, Westover recalls how she was taught to be literate by her parents for the sole purpose of reading religious texts, in particular the Book of Mormon. 

Westwood grew up on a mountainside in rural Idaho as one of seven children. Her domestic environment was extremely unconventional and foreign to most Americans. Unlike other children her age who attended school, wore modern clothing, and regularly visited the doctor, Westwood was subjected to a childhood that was extremely isolated from the conventional American lifestyle. Westwood’s father, with whom she recounts her abusive and controlling relationship with, was opposed to many conventional aspects of American life – doctors, hospitals, and most notably, education, believing that the American educational system was corrupt and only distracted children from following the word of God. Westwood, as a result of her parents’ radical beliefs, did not have a birth certificate until she was nine years old. As John McCormick highlights, Mormon aspirations “were both utopian and communitarian” meaning “they were at odds with the basic values and structure of their contemporary American society.” Westwood describes, from the viewpoint of her naïve and unknowingly ignorant self as a child, how the majority of her days would be spent in her father’s junkyard, working, playing, and preparing for the ‘End of Days’, the day which Mormons believed would bring Christ’s return.  

Westwood unapologetically and unequivocally rehashes her experiences with her abusive older brother, who would relentlessly brand her a ‘whore’ for befriending a local boy, as well as physically attacking her. At the age of sixteen, Tara decided to seek an education for herself and escape the tightly bound restraints of her radically Mormon family. She passed her university exams for which she trained herself from her home and secured a place at BYU. However, receiving an education posed a deeper threat for Tara, highlighted in arguably the most pivotal part of the book, where readers become inspired by her drive for success. Once at university, Westwood became overwhelmed by culture shock, and, on numerous occasions, was tempted to retreat to the familiarity of her old life in Idaho. A notable moment in Westwood’s recollection of her time at university encapsulates the extent to which she had been sheltered during her childhood. In one of her first university classes, Westwood recalls how, out of pure curiosity, she put her hand up and asked what the Holocaust was, understandably to the horror of her classmates. However, as Westwood persisted with her degree and learns to assimilate into the culture and customs of modern America, she began to learn of the existence of mental illnesses, which she previously had little knowledge about whatsoever. Westwood describes this as a turning point in her educational and personal life, as the symptoms of Bipolar Syndrome began to resonate with the actions of her father. Once Westwood made the connection between this mental illness and her father, she was able to comfortably transgress into the modern world, keeping her life in rural Idaho separate from her education.  

Not only does Educated describe the inspirational story of a young girls’ determination to succeed and offer a heart-warming presentation of a woman’s journey into adulthood, but, as Bill Gates notes, it also “touches on a number of the divides in our country [America]: red states versus blue states, rural versus urban, college-educated versus not.” Westwood eventually graduated from BYU, went on to earn a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge in 2014, and continues to inspire people of all backgrounds and abilities to strive for success.  

Written by Sally Dolphin 

Bibliography  

Gates, Bill. “Educated is even better than you’ve heard.” GatesNotes The Blog of Bill Gates (blog). 3 December 2018. https://www.gatesnotes.com/books/educated 

McCormick, John S and John R Sillito. History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic, and Decidedly Revolutionary. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2011.  

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