‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our mind’. These lyrics from Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ course through Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir. She describes hearing them whilst studying Isaiah Berlin’s concept of ‘positive liberty’ at Cambridge University, and how they became for her the definition of Berlin’s theory. What Marley and Berlin were advocating was intellectual self-reliance, and this is the touchstone to which Westover’s tale advances.
And it’s a remarkable tale: Westover was born into a Mormon family led by a fanatical father who refused to enrol his children in school. As a result, she first stepped into an educational institution aged seventeen, having managed to pass the entrance exam for Brigham Young University based entirely on her own preparation. From there she gained entry to Cambridge, which she now holds a PhD from. It’s the educational equivalent of a rags-to-riches story.
What makes Westover’s journey all the more extraordinary is the violence she endured during her childhood; she was tormented by an abusive brother and refused access to a hospital each time she was injured working at her father’s junkyard, a place that would horrify any health and safety official.
Whilst this makes for a gripping narrative, the memoir could have fallen into sensational territory if it were not for the equanimity of Westover’s voice. Her language is crisp and unindulgent, albeit marred slightly by the occasional cliché; hackneyed phrases such as ‘I could hear the blood pounding behind my ears’ interrupt her otherwise sophisticated prose.
However, the singularity of Westover’s life-story sustains the reader’s interest on every page. The tension that escalates between Westover, with her growing intellectual independence, and her family, with their ideology of self-sufficiency (her father prepares for the End of Days whilst preaching of the evil of government institutions), culminates when her family refuses to believe Westover’s accusations against her abusive brother. Their insistence that she is lying threatens to precipitate a crisis; Westover begins to doubt her own memory. However, she refuses to back down, holding onto the self-belief she has acquired at university. Her words are worth quoting in full:
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”
Westover’s description of the ‘privilege’ of education is an important reminder to any student of the significance of the opportunity they have. Reading her words, I felt newly conscious of the value of learning; we tend to normalise experiences as we become accustomed to them, but reading Westover’s book as a current university student, I felt re-exposed to what the process of being educated entails. ‘Evaluating ideas’ is at the heart of Westover’s book, and the Oxbridge tutorial is its conscience; one of Westover’s salient achievements in Educated is an affirmation of the continuing relevance of tutorial teaching. She learns through reassessment of her upbringing and her exposure to historiography that knowledge, personal and public, is not absolute. Westover writes that “in knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it”; she shows us that such an awareness is the real reward of a university education, and that out of this, selfhood can be formed.