Tara Westover: Educated



“I have been teaching in Cambridge for more than thirty years,” he said, “and this is one of the best essays I‘ve read.”

I was prepared for insults, but not for this…

I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it. I wanted the Professor to shout at me, wanted it so deeply I felt dizzy from the deprivation. The ugliness of me had to be given expression.

This was a really shocking moment for me in this extraordinary memoir. The shock was not only at Tara’s reaction to praise, or her understanding of what was going on in her as she heard that praise, but at the sickness in her that made her want to be abused and belittled. This is a constant theme in her life, even as she excels academically and delights in the world of thought and opinion that opens to her at university: she still feels ugly, unnatural, unworthy, and at the same time as she pursues her intellectual needs she accepts her family’s judgment that she is doing something terribly wrong.

Tara grew up in rural Idaho in a family ruled by a father who believed that the end of the world was at hand, that the family was under constant threat from the government and that schools and hospitals were instruments of mind-control. She had no formal education, but she got herself into university, won a scholarship to Cambridge and ended up with a PhD. The price of this, which she has never really come to terms with, was estrangement from her family. But the rejection is theirs, not hers; in her the ties of blood are as strong as ever.

This is not a bitter or recriminatory book; it’s Tara’s balancing act between the gifts that drive her towards the outside world and the bonds of a shared family life. She can’t reject either. The book is a marvel for its intelligence and insight and the subtlety of her handling of a topic that could all too easily be sensationalised.

If you’re interested in learnig more about Tara, here’s an interview she did with her PhD supervisor David Runciman after her book was published.  He knew nothing at all of this history in her years at Cambridge. 


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10 thoughts on “Tara Westover: Educated

  1. Extraordinary is the word for this – there’s something astonishing on almost every page. I read this with my book group where it generated much discussion, particularly about the brothers. We also wondered whether the mother could have done more to protect Tara from the abuse that seemed to be endemic within the household. To what extent she was complicit in it etc. etc…

    1. Yes, the mother is a very interesting character. I don’t know if it was in this interview with Runciman or in another interview that Tara talks about her mother being quite sceptical of the father’s views early on, but gradually coming more and more under his sway. But it does amount to a terrible betrayal of Tara.

  2. I am approaching the end of this memoir and continue to be amazed at the writer’s insightfulness, wisdom and clarity. Her perspective on her reaction to Rome was revelatory. A marvellous book.

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