I had heard of ‘Educated’ before it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize but hadn’t considered Tara Westover’s widely acclaimed memoir of her childhood growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist family in rural Idaho as a possible contender. Although not immediately obvious from the title or basic premise of the book, there are numerous connections to the main thematic criteria of the prize related to health. Isolated from mainstream society by radical survivalist parents, Westover and her six older siblings didn’t attend school and the family never saw doctors – even serious incidents like car accidents and third degree burns were treated at home with her mother’s herbal tinctures rather than at hospital. She didn’t receive a birth certificate until she was nine years old and spent most of her time working at her father’s junkyard, later studying independently at home.
As a survivalist who believed that doomsday was imminent, her domineering father’s preparations for the End of Days were extreme to say the least and Westover suggests he may have had a severe case of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Rather than focusing on Mormonism per se, Westover’s account is more universal in its exploration of the link between ideological belief systems and how they impact family dynamics. Memory is a particularly important aspect of Westover’s story – certain events such as her brothers’ accidents are remembered very differently by other members of her family and those she is estranged from also dispute her account of the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and her brother Shawn.
Westover enrolled at Brigham Young University at the age of 17 having never set foot inside a classroom before. Even at a Mormon institute, it was the first time she had sustained contact with students who had a more liberal outlook on life and it was also where she learned about important world events which had never been discussed at home such as the civil rights movement and the Holocaust. After enrolling at a study abroad programme at Cambridge University as an undergraduate, she later completed a Master’s degree and PhD there – it is a remarkable journey that is truly against the odds. Learning “how to learn” relatively late may have been an advantage in moulding her as a scholar, although having no frame of reference for how to interact socially with other students was sometimes a steeper learning curve for Westover to navigate.
Westover and two of her siblings remain estranged from their parents and the final split from the rest of the family after completing her degree is evidently painful. ‘Educated’ shows what it takes to survive survivalism and I would be happy to see this powerful memoir on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.