I am generally wary of manuscripts bought by a big publisher for a vast sum of money. To recoup the investment there will likely be a wide ranging publicity campaign to ensure the book crosses as many reader’s radars as possible. I question if I am hearing about it because it is well written and worth reading or because it has been cleverly promoted. Whilst recognising that the publisher would not have made the purchase had they not believed in its potential commercial success, I can be a tad cynical about literary worth.
With Educated I was also wary of it being a memoir, not a genre I am drawn to, having been disappointed by the inventions and exaggerations that came to light after publication of such titles as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. Veracity matters if the reader is being asked to accept the words as fact, a work of non fiction, if they are to engage with the author having experienced the story being shared.
What drew me to Educated were the questions the author was asking about how to define oneself having escaped from a family whose existence revolved around a religious belief. As I know from my upbringing in Troubled Belfast, the complex emotions of family loyalty and love are severely tested when measured against the damaging indoctrination of a trusting child. Added to this, the religion in Educated is Mormonism whose tenets, as I understand them, appear at odds with the psychological well-being of, particularly, women. The author’s father was also an end of the world survivalist. I was sufficiently intrigued.
The story is told in three parts: childhood; Tara’s first years away from the family home at the largely Mormon, Brigham Young University; her continuing education at Cambridge in England and, briefly, Harvard. Throughout she is trying to find a way to live within the confines of her family’s blinkered faith whilst discovering that there are other, more rational, ways of thinking.
The first section takes up about half the book. Tara was raised in Idaho, on land owned by her wider family, many of whom lived nearby. Her father earned his money from selling scrap metal and building barns. Her mother added to the family coffers by selling herbal medicines and practising as an unlicensed midwife. Father did not trust the government and believed that the end of the world was imminent. He stockpiled food, fuel and weapons, did not register his younger children’s births and kept them from attending school. The seven siblings were expected to help out at home, including in the scrapyard where many accidents occurred. Even the worst injuries were treated by Mother. Modern medicine was regarded as poison. If God wanted people to live they would be cured with faith, salves and tinctures.
By the time Tara reached puberty one of her brothers had become unbalanced – possibly due to brain damage following one of the many accidents the children suffered, or perhaps inherited mental instability – and viciously attacked her each time he doubted her purity, such as if she talked to a boy. To survive she learned to switch off from the emotional and physical pain inflicted, exacerbated by the knowledge that her parents would not accept that their son was wreaking such damage. By this time several of her older siblings had got away, including one to college despite the limitations of being largely self-taught. He encouraged Tara to follow the same course.
The second section details the years the author spent at BYU where she began to learn of the world history her family had ignored or skewed to support their prejudices. Each time she returned to their home she was put under pressure to conform. A good Mormon woman will marry, submit to her husband and bear his children. A university degree is not required for such a future.
Despite her lack of formal education, Tara wins a scholarship to study at Cambridge, which is covered in the final section of the book. It is here that she begins to truly find herself beneath the many layers of guilt and self-blame that her family inflicted throughout her formative years. Still though she hopes to reconcile the dual aspects of her life. The mental toll this takes proves devastating.
Up until this point the writing is fluent and compelling. Although a memoir it reads as a story, a page turner that is effortlessly engaging. The final few chapters feel more typically memoir, with a slower pace and repeated reflections. A conclusion was required and is achieved but left me wondering how much of Tara’s story was left untold.
Occasionally the narrative points to notes that draw attention to discrepancies in Tara’s memories compared to those of other family members. When the contents of emails are shared it is made clear that these have been paraphrased. I ponder how much has been edited to avoid legal repercussions. Names have been changed but such a closed community will recognise themselves within this self limiting world, presented through a troubled lens.
Tara’s achievements are admirable and her story is well written and worth reading. I remain aware that, as with any personal memories, their curation will be coloured by the circumstances in which they are shared.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson.