(published in the News and Observer, July 29, 2018)
I can’t drive by an accident without both dreading and being curious about what happened. I had that kind of listening experience with Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated,” read by Julia Whelan (book and audio from Random House).
During the days I binge-listened, I was up too late, dawdled over deadlines and ignored my husband because I didn’t want to come out from under my headphones. And yet … I was horror-struck by Westover’s innocent and honest point of view, and Whelan’s ability to pull you deeply (sometimes almost too deeply) into the story.
Westover was one of seven children born to devout Mormon parents. Her father, who was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder for most of her youth, became a survivalist.
Born into the spare, isolated beauty of Idaho’s mountains, Tara was home-schooled. That homeschooling seemed to come in an unusual form — most often constant scriptures quoted at difficult times — so they seemed more like justifications than teaching — and helping her father in scrapyards.
Whelan’s portrayal of the father’s careless attitude toward his family is painful. He seems unaffected when Tara puts aside her fears to take on a dangerous task and is left bleeding when metal rips her flesh. He has the same lack of response when her mother suffers a concussion after an accident.
It’s no wonder Tara turns to the comfort offered by her older brother Shawn. Whelan’s reading of their bonding road trip brings out the tenderness, warmth and Tara’s surprise at the receipt of affection and attention she’s never before experienced. Westover’s lyrical writing gives this event emotional power that makes Shawn’s later brutal abuses all the more chilling.
Even more shocking is Tara’s reactions to the real-world learning she gains after leaving her mountain home. Whelan affects a neutral tone as the author describes the educational twists and turns that begin when Tara crams advance math classes to pass the ACT and enters Brigham Young University.
Her initial discovery in an art history class that a book of pictures is the text that will aid her during tests is almost as hard to believe as her meteoric rise to academic success. These lead to studies at Stanford, Cambridge, and finally Harvard where she earns a Ph.D. It’s not that her brilliance isn’t astounding, it’s how much she has to wade through just to learn how to learn. And that is dwarfed by her more difficult task — understanding and coming to grips with the wounds and misconceptions that she, and other family members, suffered during her growing up.
The uncommon combination of distance and subdued emotion of both writer and reader gives listeners an unusual experiential vantage point. It is the listener who feels gut-wrenched at painful moments and soaring hope in brighter times.