In Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey we meet the Cyclopes, the race of one-eyed giants who live apart from each other in isolated mountain caves. As Richmond Lattimore’s translation has it, “Each one is the law for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others.” Odysseus exploits this weakness in his well-known escape from the giant’s lair. “Nobody is my name,” the epic hero tells the giant, and after Odysseus blinds him, the Cyclops calls out to his brothers for help: “Nobody is killing me by force or treachery.” Lacking a common bond, the other Cyclopes are easily tricked, and no one comes to his aid.
The real “nobody,” it turns out, is not Odysseus but the Cyclops himself. For how can he have an identity without a community?
In Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover recounts her own kind of Cyclopean upbringing in rural Idaho in the 1990s. “Feral” might be a better word for it. She and her six older siblings were raised on the side of Buck’s Peak by a fundamentalist Mormon family of survivalists. Ruby Ridge was a rallying cry for her bipolar father, who stockpiled weapons and fuel in anticipation of the government’s eventual collapse. The family sustained itself by selling herbal remedies and working in their own junkyard, and much of the book is a litany of the wounds the author and her siblings received there from flying exhaust pipes and exploding gas tanks. Though more than a few injuries were life-threatening, none received treatment from doctors or hospitals—herbal tinctures and salves were all her father allowed. Westover’s father kept his children out of school, and several of them, including the author, did not receive birth certificates. As far as the outside world was concerned, Tara Westover was a nobody.
How, then, did she become a someone? In telling the story of her improbable journey from Buck’s Peak to Cambridge, where she received a PhD, Westover searches for an answer.
The Westover children clearly have limited options for their future. Their work in the family business occupies most of their time, and homeschooling consists of periodically leafing through encyclopedias and grade-school science textbooks. Yet the outside world still makes its way into the family home. Lying on the floor at her older brother’s feet, listening to his CD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the young Tara Westover’s education begins:
The hymn was familiar to me—we’d sung it at church, a chorus of mismatched voices raised in worship—but this was different. It was worshipful, but it was also something else, something to do with study, discipline, and collaboration. Something I didn’t yet understand.
The allure of the world outside begins to work on Westover in fits and starts. She babysits for other families in town, and takes dance classes and voice lessons. In her teenage years she studies math on her own and scores high enough on the ACT to enroll at BYU against her father’s wishes. Culture shock ensues. Her mainstream-Mormon classmates drink caffeine, wear form-fitting clothing, and shop on the Sabbath. In one class she is astounded to learn that the Emancipation Proclamation did not set all things right among the races in America. Another class goes stone-silent when she asks what the word Holocaust means. She had never heard it before.
Despite the steep learning curve, Westover proves herself to be naturally gifted and intensely curious. Her professors notice, and encourage her to pursue an intellectual career. She travels to Cambridge on a Gates Scholarship and stays there to earn a PhD in history, completing a dissertation, appropriately, that examines Mormonism through the lens of social science.