Silvia Rota Sperti
Tara Westover was born into a fundamentalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho in 1986, never went to school, and grew up without access to any kind of health care, without being registered anywhere. Her siblings grew up just like her: kids who didn’t exist to the world and didn’t know any of the things we take for granted – school, friendships, sports, television, the internet, junk food… These children were kept home by a fanatical and abusive father who was preparing for the ‘Days of Abomination’ by collecting scrap metal and canning supplies, and were unaware of what the world was like outside of their lost microcosm in the middle of nowhere.
It would be difficult to believe, if it hadn’t really happened, as Tara recounts in An Education (published in Italy by Feltrinelli as ‘L’Educazione’ in 2018), a powerful and extreme autobiographical novel that has become a publishing sensation around the world. Amidst the idyllic scenery of Idaho, in the middle of strikingly beautiful nature, Tara and her siblings lived under a bell jar of ignorance and physical violence in the name of a religion derailed by fanaticism. Here the father-master was also a prophet, a lethal mix: his ‘teachings’ and sermons prepared the family for a life paved with nightmares. Amidst terrible violence and physical injuries, for which they did not even consider going to hospital (they were treated at home, with herbs) and a climate of oppressive ignorance, the seven children struggled to even imagine the possibility of a way out.
But redemption, at least for Tara, came, and it did so in an unthinkable, solitary, dazzling way. No one offered her a hand to pull her out of the nightmare, no hero, no institution, no friend or family member. Tara fought alone and succeeded in freeing herself from her family’s madness through what gives the book its title: education – understood in the Anglo-Saxon sense of education, or instruction, self-education. Vexed by her father and her sadistic brother, she found refuge in books and began to study – at first secretly, with difficulty, in spite of challenges and humiliations that are completely understandable for someone like her, who had always lived outside of the world and had no idea what the Holocaust was, for example. In time, Tara managed to get herself admitted to the local college and achieved increasingly excellent results until she won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where she currently teaches.
An Education is the story of a prodigious emancipation, of a self-made woman who nobody bet on and who, by sheer force of will, managed to break the chains that imprisoned her and made a leap that led her to freedom and, above all, to being herself.
It is curious and crucial that this process took place thanks to an element that is little thought of in the contexts of revolution/emancipation, and which on the contrary is too often seen as marginal: culture. Tara’s war against boorish and violent fanaticism took place there, in books, through study and knowledge. It the keystone that enabled her metamorphosis. Culture and knowledge enabled this young girl, a victim of oppressive ignorance, to make the most of her talents and leave behind a life of abuse.
Her story is exemplary and surprising, and belies those who still believe that culture is only a corollary on the road to claiming one’s dignity and value. On the contrary, it can be a fundamental tool, as disruptive as legal or political battles.
‘You could call this selfhood many things,’ Westover concludes. ‘Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.’