I made 59 highlights while reading Educated by Tara Westover. The book will give you insights into the transformative power of education.
Mother charged about five hundred dollars for delivery. That was another way midwifing changed her: suddenly, she had money. Dad didn’t believe that women should work, but I suppose he thought it was all right for Mother to be paid for midwifing because it undermined the Government.
You can’t be a person without a birthday, they seemed to say. I didn’t understand why not.
Until Mother decided to get my birth certificate, not knowing my birthday had never seemed strange. I knew I’d been born near the end of September, and each year I picked a day, one that didn’t fall on a Sunday because it’s no fun spending your birthday in church.
There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain. A perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion.
It sometimes happens in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune.
Music became our language. Tyler’s speech impediment kept him quiet, made his tongue heavy. Because of that, he and I had never talked much; I had not known my brother. Now, every evening when he came in from the junkyard, I would be waiting for him. After he’d showered, scrubbing the day’s grime from his skin, he’d settle in at his desk and say, “W - w - what shall we l - l - listen t - t - to tonight?” Then I would choose a CD, and he would read while I lay on the floor next to his feet, eyes fixed on his socks, and listened.
Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself after your work got done.
The teacher laughed in his face. “You can’t teach yourself calculus,” he said. “It’s impossible.” Tyler pushed back. “Give me a book. I think I can.”
The seed of curiosity had been planted; it needed nothing more than time and boredom to grow.
If I couldn’t get back down to turn on the light, Richard would pull the book to his nose and read in the dark; he wanted to read that badly. He wanted to read the encyclopedia that badly.
I read the Book of Mormon twice. I read the New Testament, once quickly, then a second time more slowly, pausing to make notes, to cross-reference, and even to write short essays on doctrines like faith and sacrifice.
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 other girls rarely spoke to me, but I loved being there with them. I loved the sensation of conformity; learning to dance felt like learning to belong.
It was as if, when I sang, Dad forgot for a moment that the world was a frightening place, that it would corrupt me, that I should be kept safe, sheltered, at home. He wanted my voice to be heard.
“You’ve got money,” Tyler said. “Buy books and learn it.”
I was drawn to the Pythagorean theorem and its promise of a universal. The ability to predict the nature of any three points containing a right angle, anywhere, always.
What I knew of physics I had learned in the junkyard, where the physical world often seemed unstable, capricious.
Mother said that if I wanted to learn trigonometry, it was her responsibility to teach me. She set aside an evening, and the two of us sat at the kitchen table, scratching at bits of paper and tugging our hair.
My trig equations were far beneath his abilities, but if he was bored, he didn’t show it; he just explained the principles patiently, over and over. The gate opened a little, and I peeked through it.
I woke up every morning at six to study - because it was easier to focus in the mornings before I got worn out from scrapping.
I was sixteen, had never taken an exam, and had only recently undertaken anything like a systematic education; still, I registered for the test.
My teacher said I had a knack for writing but that my language was oddly formal and stilted. I didn’t tell her that I’d learned to read and write by reading only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Then, without any explanation, as if the connection between the two were obvious, I wrote, I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to get a decent education as a child.
“Read the textbook” turned out to be excellent advice.
I began to understand that we lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others. Nurturing that discourse was easier. Retaining power always feels like the way forward.
I understood this one fact: that a thousand times I had been called Nigger, and laughed, and now I could not laugh. The word and the way Shawn said it hadn’t changed; only my ears were different. They no longer heard the jingle of a joke in it. What they heard was a signal, a call through time, which was answered with a mounting conviction: that never again would I allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I didn’t understand.
Charles said my behaviour was self-destructive, that I had an almost pathological inability to ask for help.
To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but there is a strength in this frailty: the conviction to live in your own mind, not in someone else’s.
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
While my father and brother shouted, ignorance kept me silent: I couldn’t defend myself because I didn’t understand the accusation.
It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.
The bishop sat calmly behind his desk. He asked what he could do for me, and I said I didn’t know. No one could give me what I wanted because what I wanted was to be remade.
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.
I’d believed the money would be used to control me, but what it did was enable me to keep my word to myself. For the first time, when I said I would never again work for my father, I believed it.
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.
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.
My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant, I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.
If I could pretend to be normal for a while, maybe it’d feel like the truth.
I overestimated my progress. I was so focused on what was working; I didn’t notice what wasn’t.
My love of music, and my desire to study it, had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not. And yet they called to me.
First, find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.
The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge. You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.
I wanted the mind of a scholar. But, I saw in myself the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged in a crane.
From my father, I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled.
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 lights - but that is the illusion. And it always was.
“The most powerful determinant of who you are is inside you,” he said. “Professor Steinberg says this is Pygmalion. Think of the story, Tara.” He paused, his eyes fierce, his voice piercing. “She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself, then it didn’t matter what dress she wore.”
He said positive liberty is self-mastery - the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.
Sometimes, I think we choose illnesses because they benefit us in some way.
Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.
And yet, triumphant. I remembered the words of Sancho Panza: An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.
The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you.
Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than in distress, I’m not sure.
The distance - physical and mental - that had been traversed in the last decade nearly stopped my breath, and I wondered if I’d changed too much.
All my studying, reading, thinking, travelling, had it transformed me into someone who no longer belonged anywhere?
The counselling did nothing at first - I can’t think of a single session I would describe as “helpful” - but their collective power over time was undeniable.
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.
In January, nearly ten years to the day since I’d set foot in BYU, I received confirmation from the University of Cambridge: I was Dr Westover.
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.
Join over a thousand readers and get my short and insightful monthly email. I share seven related highlights from books I have read and more.