Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir Educated captures her escape from her fundamentalist Mormon upbringing in rural Idaho. From her fanatic father, who refuses to send his children to school and believes the end of the world is constantly upon them, to her mother working as an unlicensed midwife, and her increasingly abusive brother, Westover’s upbringing is anything but ordinary. A true account of how she leaves her family, goes to college, and eventually receives a PhD from Cambridge, Educated reads like fiction. For more stories on unconventional family upbringings, survival, and self-making, add these eight books to your shelf.
1. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Journalist Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle tells the tale of her deeply flawed family and her determination to create a life for herself. When she was a child, Walls’ committed nonconformists parents moved their children across the Southwest, camping in the mountains as a way of a life. Her father home-schooled them in the moments that he was sober, while her mother created art and disregarded any responsibility of providing for her children. After their money ran out, Walls’ family settled in a down-on-it’s-luck Virginian mining town where her parents became increasingly dysfunctional and Walls and her siblings were left to fend for themselves.
Against all odds, Walls writes the story of her childhood and how she escapes from it, while simultaneously describing her family with unconditional love and warmth. Her story, like Westover’s, is a touching portrayal of a family at its best and at its worst. In The Glass Castle, Walls both breaks free from and honours her roots. Her memoir is a must read for fans of Educated.
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The first in a series of autobiographies by acclaimed writer and activist Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a powerful depiction of her early years. After being sent to live with her grandmother in a small southern town, Angelou is alienated by the local white community. Sent back to her mother in St. Louis when she is eight, an attack by a much older man inflicts trauma that she will live with for a lifetime. Much like Educated, Angelou demonstrates the power those early years had in dictating her life story.
Angelou’s I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings is a poetic portrayal of her development from a difficult childhood to finding love for herself, others, and writing. The detail she delves into in telling readers of her highs and lows is poignant and eloquently done. This book, like Educated, documents the process of becoming free, both creatively and literally, and should be on any reader’s list.
3. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama has become one of the most iconic women of the twenty-first century. In her memoir Becoming, Obama dives into her childhood in Chicago, her experiences of marriage and motherhood, and the work that has shaped both her and America. Adding writing to her list of achievements, Becoming highlights Obama’s witty and honest mode of storytelling.
A champion of inclusivity and a fierce advocate for women both within the United States and globally, Obama’s memoir documents how she defied expectations to become the woman she is today, and inspires others to do the same. Like Educated, Becoming illustrates how we can define ourselves in spite of our backgrounds, and this stunning autobiography will inspire fans of Westover.
4. I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
At just 16 years old, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and a global icon of peaceful protest and education rights. I Am Malala documents the incredible tale of her refusal to be kept from school by the Taliban, the subsequent gunshot which nearly took her life, and her journey from her hometown in Pakistan all the way to the United Nations in New York. Accompanying Malala is her parents who, despite all societal expectations, support her seemingly impossible fight for an education.
I Am Malala is an inspiration chronicling a family’s resilience in the face of global terrorism, their unwavering love for one another, and above all, the power of education. This focus is what drove Educated, and both texts document Yousafzai and Westover’s inspiring fights to gain theirs.
5. Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese Laymon
In his thought-provoking memoir Heavy: An American Memoir, essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon tells a personal narrative of a black family while eloquently commenting on national failures. In this vulnerable depicition of his upbringing in Mississippi, the uncovering of secrets and lies that separate him and his mother, and other complex relationships, Laymon deals with some of the most difficult topics: abuse, sex, eating disorders, and a nation that ultimately refuses to reckon with its past.
Heavy’s exploration of black identities is both haunting and impactful. By emphasising the influence of his childhood on the shape of the rest of his life, Laymon ultimately uses his own story to ask the rest of America to confront its moral failings. This memoir is as brutally honest as Educated, and both depict complicated families and upbringings as a way to expose the realities of bigger problems in American society. Heavy takes the hard-hitting and important conversation about family and American society from Educated and brings a new perspective to these common yet infinitely diverse issues.
6. Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot
Another memoir, Therese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries arose from an attempt to reconcile with her trauma through writing. Growing up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, Mailhot’s severely dysfunctional upbringing culminates in her hospitalization and a double diagnosis of PTSD and bipolar disorder. As she works through this, Heart Berries both memorializes her activist mother and reconciles with her mysteriously murdered father, a talented artist but an abusive drunk.
As Mailhot works to bridge her love for her family with the shame of their story, Heart Berries echoes Westover’s struggle to escape from a family that, in spite of everything, she still loved. The two authors ask readers to acknowledge that their memories cannot always be exact, but rather a combination of truth, imagination, and the aspects of pain that they can bring themselves to accept. The result is two incredibly honest voices who take control of their own stories and tell them to the world. If Educated moved you, be sure to check out Heart Berries.
7. North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, by Cea Sunrise Person
Another compelling story of a noncomforming family, North of Normal tells of Cea Person’s youth in the Canadian wilderness and her tale of physical, emotional, and psychological survival. Living without electricity, running water, or heat, the Persons want to escape society altogether, and so as a child, Cea’s world is confined to the forest. When her single mother takes her on the road with a new boyfriend, Cea begins to question her world and the people in it, and her life becomes a series of choices she must make to save herself.
North of Normal is full of intimate family descriptions, and it will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Person grapples with issues much like Westover, such as how to love a family who did not love you as they should have. Person’s story of self-discovery and unwavering strength in the face of shocking adversity is another gripping tale of survival and resilience.
8. Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, by Jessica Berger Gross
Jessica Berger Gross’ Estranged confronts a childhood of abuse and the implications of what it means to leave your family behind. Despite her seemingly normal upbringing in middle class Long Island, as a child Gross suffered years of physical and emotional abuse from her father. Estranged details how Gross, who at 28 was still emotionally dependent on her family despite her trauma, eventually severs all ties with them. Years later at the time of writing, Gross lives in Maine with her husband and child, and maintains that this decision saved her life.
In Estranged, Gross documents the internalization of abuse which kept her from breaking free for so long, as well as acknowledging the difficult road which followed her separation from her family. Both Gross and Westover break free from taboo and bravely discuss how hard it can be to leave family, despite the pain they may inflict. Neither author shies from mental work that must be done to reconcile with their pasts, and their embrace of their stories will reframe any reader’s conception of family. Another indisputably powerful family memoir, Estranged will tick all the boxes for fans of Educated.