Educated by Tara Westover

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Opening Lines

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess. The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Setting the Stage

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.
  • Mother didn’t want to be a midwife. Midwifery had been Dad’s idea, one of his schemes for self-reliance. There was nothing he hated more than our being dependent on the Government. Dad said one day we would be completely off the grid.
  • Of all the strange statements from the past half hour, for some reason this was the one that shocked me. The mere fact of them had never shocked me before. Everything they did had always made sense to me, adhering to a logic I understood. Perhaps it was the backdrop: Buck’s Peak was theirs and it camouflaged them, so that when I saw them there, surrounded by the loud, sharp relics of my childhood, the setting seemed to absorb them. At least it absorbed the noise. But here, so near the university, they seemed so unreal as to be almost mythic.

On Familial Dynamics

  • The other possibility is that Mother didn’t ask Dad. Perhaps she just decided, on her own, and he accepted her decision. Perhaps even he—charismatic gale of a man that he was—was temporarily swept aside by the force of her.
  • Mother fell into silence. I studied her as she drove. Her face was illuminated by the lights in the dashboard, and it appeared ghostly white set against the utter blackness of country roads. Fear was etched into her features, in the bunching of her forehead and the tightening of her lips. Alone with just me, she put aside the persona she displayed for others. She was her old self again, fragile, breathy.
  • in his younger years, Grandpa-down-the-hill had been violent, with a hair-trigger temper. Mother’s use of the words “had been” always struck me as funny. We all knew better than to cross Grandpa. He had a short fuse, that was just fact and anybody in the valley could have told you as much. He was weatherworn inside and out, as taut and rugged as the horses he ran wild on the mountain.
  • That’s when Mother announced we were going to Arizona. She said Dad was like a sunflower—he’d die in the snow—and that come February he needed to be taken away and planted in the sun.
  • It happens sometimes in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune. In our family, that was Tyler. He was waltzing while the rest of us hopped a jig; he was deaf to the raucous music of our lives, and we were deaf to the serene polyphony of his.
  • Grandma was even worse, Dad said. She was frivolous. I didn’t know what that word meant, but he said it so often that I’d come to associate it with her—with her creamy carpet and soft petal wallpaper.
  • There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.
  • The play opened a week later. Dad was in the front row. When the performance ended, he marched right to the box office and bought tickets for the next night. It was all he talked about that Sunday in church. Not doctors, or the Illuminati, or Y2K. Just the play over in town, where his youngest daughter was singing the lead.
  • That was how Dad and Shawn became comrades, even if they only agreed on one thing: that my brush with education had made me uppity, and that what I needed was to be dragged through time. Fixed, anchored to a former version of myself.
  • There was a pause, then more words appeared—words I hadn’t known I needed to hear, but once I saw them, I realized I’d been searching my whole life for them. You were my child. I should have protected you. I lived a lifetime in the moment I read those lines, a life that was not the one I had actually lived. I became a different person, who remembered a different childhood. I didn’t understand the magic of those words then, and I don’t understand it now. I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.

On Fractured Relations

  • We understood that the dissolution of Mother’s family was the inauguration of ours. The two could not exist together. Only one could have her.
  • The embalmers hadn’t gotten her lips right—the gracious smile she’d worn like an iron mask had been stripped away. It was the first time I’d seen her without it and that’s when it finally occurred to me: that Grandma was the only person who might have understood what was happening to me. How the paranoia and fundamentalism were carving up my life, how they were taking from me the people I cared about and leaving only degrees and certificates—an air of respectability—in their place. What was happening now had happened before. This was the second severing of mother and daughter. The tape was playing in a loop.
  • That person was Shawn, and I was looking at him but I wasn’t seeing him. I don’t know what I saw—what creature I conjured from that violent, compassionate act—but I think it was my father, or perhaps my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.
  • I hung up, not sure what I’d just heard. I knew it wouldn’t last, that the next time we spoke everything would be different, the tenderness of this moment forgotten, the endless struggle between us again in the foreground. But tonight he wanted to help. And that was something.
  • I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it.
  • What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed—what Emily needed—was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.
  • As I listened, I felt a strange sensation of distance that bordered on disinterestedness, as if my future with Tyler, this brother I had known and loved all my life, was a film I had already seen and knew the ending of. I knew the shape of this drama because I had lived it already, with my sister.
  • Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation, and control….They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty….They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.
  • But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.

On Memory and Truth

  • My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened.
  • At first I merely believed this, until one day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn’t affect me, that he didn’t affect me, because nothing affected me. I didn’t understand how morbidly right I was. How I had hollowed myself out. For all my obsessing over the consequences of that night, I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.
  • My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me.
  • Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.
  • If I was insane, everything could be made to make sense. If I was sane, nothing could. This logic seemed damning. It was also a relief. I was not evil; I was clinical. I began to defer, always, to the judgment of others.
  • My journals were a problem. I knew that my memories were not memories only, that I had recorded them, that they existed in black and white. This meant that more than my memory was in error. The delusion was deeper, in the core of my mind, which invented in the very moment of occurrence, then recorded the fiction. In the month that followed, I lived the life of a lunatic. Seeing sunshine, I suspected rain. I felt a relentless desire to ask people to verify whether they were seeing what I was seeing. Is this book blue? I wanted to ask. Is that man tall?
  • I had come to reclaim that life, to save it. But there was nothing here to save, nothing to grasp. There was only shifting sand, shifting loyalties, shifting histories.

On Guilt and Fear

  • We thought it was a great joke, once the black rings had been around for a few weeks, long enough for us to get used to them and make them the subject of jokes. We had no idea it was a medical term. Raccoon eyes. A sign of serious brain injury. Tyler’s guilt was all-consuming. He blamed himself for the accident, then kept on blaming himself for every decision that was made thereafter, every repercussion, every reverberation that clanged down through the years. He laid claim to that moment and all its consequences, as if time itself had commenced the instant our station wagon left the road, and there was no history, no context, no agency of any kind until he began it, at the age of seventeen, by falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel.
  • I walked out of the room. Dad was still shouting when I reached the kitchen. As I moved down the hall I looked back. Mother had taken my place, crouching over the VCR, groping for the wires, as Dad towered over her.
  • The instinct passed through me in the form of a word, a bold lyric, strong, declarative. The word was not new. It had been with me for a while now, hushed, motionless, as if asleep, in some remote corner of memory. By touching me Charles had awakened it, and it throbbed with life. I shoved my hands under my knees and leaned into the window. I couldn’t let him near me—not that night, and not any night for months—without shuddering as that word, my word, ripped its way into remembrance. Whore.
  • While they plotted how to reconvert me, I plotted how to let them. I was ready to yield, even if it meant an exorcism. A miracle would be useful: if I could stage a convincing rebirth, I could dissociate from everything I’d said and done in the last year. I could take it all back—blame Lucifer and be given a clean slate. I imagined how esteemed I would be, as a newly cleansed vessel. How loved. All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.
  • I did not study. I tried to read but the sentences meant nothing. I needed them to mean nothing. I couldn’t bear to string sentences into strands of thought, or to weave those strands into ideas. Ideas were too similar to reflection, and my reflections were always of the expression on my father’s stretched face the moment before he’d fled from me.
  • I’ve apologized to Tyler more times than I can count for what I’ve cost him, but the words are awkwardly placed and I stumble over them. What is the proper arrangement of words? How do you craft an apology for weakening someone’s ties to his father, to his family? Perhaps there aren’t words for that. How do you thank a brother who refused to let you go, who seized your hand and wrenched you upward, just as you had decided to stop kicking and sink? There aren’t words for that, either.

On Education

  • Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. “If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,” he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.
  • In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
  • The misery began when I moved beyond the Pythagorean theorem to sine, cosine and tangent. I couldn’t grasp such abstractions. I could feel the logic in them, could sense their power to bestow order and symmetry, but I couldn’t unlock it. They kept their secrets, becoming a kind of gateway beyond which I believed there was a world of law and reason. But I could not pass through the gate.
  • I wanted to tell Charles about the Illuminati, but the words belonged to my father, and even in my mind they sounded awkward, rehearsed. I was ashamed at my inability to take possession of them. I believed then—and part of me will always believe—that my father’s words ought to be my own.
  • I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.

On Journey of the Self

  • I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and ever-evolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me.
  • To see one would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette. The toe was not broken because it was not breakable. Only an X-ray could prove otherwise. Thus, the X-ray would break my toe.
  • I have so many bills I can’t imagine how I’m going to pay them. But God will provide either trials for growth or the means to succeed. The tone of that entry seems lofty, high-minded, but in it I detect a whiff of fatalism.
  • When other students asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from Idaho,” a phrase that, as many times as I’ve had to repeat it over the years, has never felt comfortable in my mouth. When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there. I never uttered the words “I’m from Idaho” until I’d left it.
  • “You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.”
  • I knew my yearning was unnatural. This knowledge, like so much of my self-knowledge, had come to me in the voice of people I knew, people I loved. All through the years that voice had been with me, whispering, wondering, worrying. That I was not right. That my dreams were perversions. That voice had many timbres, many tones. Sometimes it was my father’s voice; more often it was my own.
  • My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs. And yet, triumphant. I remembered the words of Sancho Panza: An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.
  • As I walked home carrying the heavy manuscript, I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, “Who writes history?” on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.
  • That peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws, constantly updating the tally, as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life. Once justified, I thought the strangling guilt would release me and I could catch my breath. But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people. I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.

Thought-Provoking Aphorisms

  • The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.—Virginia Woolf
  • I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.—John Dewey
  • “When the hour of need arises,” Dad said, “the time of preparation has passed.”
  • “Negative liberty,” he said, “is the freedom from external obstacles or constraints. An individual is free in this sense if they are not physically prevented from taking action.” “Positive liberty,” another student said, “is freedom from internal constraints.”
  • But sometimes I think we choose our illnesses, because they benefit us in some way.
  • The distance—physical and mental—that had been traversed in the last decade nearly stopped my breath, and I wondered if perhaps I had changed too much. All my studying, reading, thinking, traveling, had it transformed me into someone who no longer belonged anywhere?

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountain, rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical. The same sun appeared each morning, swept over the valley and dropped behind the peak. The snows that fell in winter always melted in the spring. Our lives were a cycle—the cycle of the day, the cycle of the seasons—circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all. I believed my family was a part of this immortal pattern, that we were, in some sense, eternal. But eternity belonged only to the mountain.
  • There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.
  • 12:10. I waited for the screen to flicker and die. I was trying to take it all in, this last, luxurious moment—of sharp yellow light, of warm air flowing from the heater. I was experiencing nostalgia for the life I’d had before, which I would lose at any second, when the world turned and began to devour itself. The longer I sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to inhale the last scent of the fallen world, the more I resented its continuing solidity. Nostalgia turned to fatigue.
  • There was a date beneath the image: 1955. I realized that Mother had been four years old in 1955, and with that realization, the distance between me and Emmett Till collapsed. My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew. The calculation was not made with reference to vast historical or geological shifts—the fall of civilizations, the erosion of mountains. It was measured in the wrinkling of human flesh. In the lines on my mother’s face.
  • “I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” Dad said. “It is coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility. And when you are there, when you are lying broken, you will call on the Divine Father for mercy.” Dad’s voice, which had risen to fever pitch, now fell to a murmur. “And He will not hear you.” I met his gaze. He was burning with conviction; I could almost feel the heat rolling off him. He leaned forward so that his face was nearly touching mine and said, “But I will.” The silence settled, undisturbed, oppressive.
  • The Princess had been haunting me. From across the ocean I’d heard her beckoning, as if I were a troublesome calf who’d wandered from her herd. Her voice had been gentle at first, coaxing, but when I didn’t answer, when I stayed away, it had turned to fury. I had betrayed her. I imagined her face contorted with rage, her stance heavy and threatening. She had been living in my mind like this for years, a deity of contempt. But seeing her now, standing watch over her fields and pastures, I realized that I had misunderstood her. She was not angry with me for leaving, because leaving was a part of her cycle. Her role was not to corral the buffalo, not to gather and confine them by force. It was to celebrate their return.

Last Lines

  • That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.

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