Tara Westover was 17 years old before she ever set foot in a school classroom. Reared in isolation by a radical survivalist Mormon father on a mountain in Idaho in the United States, Westover and her siblings spent their childhood preparing for "the End of Days".
Instead of lessons, Westover bottled peaches and readied emergency supplies. She worked tirelessly alongside her siblings in her father’s junkyard, where he played fast and loose with their safety. Medicine was forbidden, so Westover and her mother prepared tinctures from herbs. Weapons, gold and fuel were stockpiled, their paranoid father convinced by the siege at Ruby Ridge that the FBI would come for them next.
Her father’s deep distrust of the government meant Westover had no birth certificate until she was nine. Her birthday still remains unclear.
She spent her childhood wholly unaware of any world outside her own, yet somehow, Westover clawed her way out.
Against her father's wishes, she went to Brigham Young University in Utah having never attended high school, hunting down textbooks to get through entrance exams. By 27, she was among the academic elite at Harvard, and then Cambridge, where she earned a doctorate.
Westover sets out her extraordinary story in her new memoir, Educated. Using childhood journals, she constructs a compelling narrative about reclaiming "custody of my own mind".
Westover tells me how she realised her story needed to be told when, going through the process of losing her family, she found herself searching for similar stories for consolation: “There weren’t really many stories to help me with this particular difficult type of family situation; stories about what to do when loyalty to your family was in conflict with loyalty to yourself. I didn’t feel like there were stories that talked about forgiveness without simply equating it with reconciliation.”
She decided she would write instead from that grey area. “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them, and you could miss someone every day and still be glad they’re not in your life.”
I wonder if Westover only really comprehended the difficulty of her childhood when she sat down to write. The descriptions of her life as a child working in the junkyard have a tone that is at odds with the content. A spike gets embedded in Westover’s leg when her father has her sit in the bin of a moving dump truck; her brother’s work trousers catch fire and he suffers painful burns to his legs.
The lives of the Westover family are punctuated with many serious, often avoidable, injuries. “God is here, working right alongside us,” Westover’s father tells her while they work. “He won’t let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is His will.”
“I don’t think I had really appreciated how extreme bits of it were. I would write about the injuries a lot of times like comedies, and my friends thought, ‘this undermines my trust in you because it doesn’t seem like you understand the situation’.”
Until then, she had considered a lot of her family’s behaviour as simply “eccentric”.
“I really believe my dad didn’t have the bone in his head that tells everybody else this is dangerous. He would never have asked us to do anything or put us in any danger that he wouldn’t put himself in, and in the end it gets borne out because he gets injured probably worse than anyone.” Her father suffers severe burns at one point and there is excruciating detail of his melting skin being treated only with home remedies: Tinctures and salves.
Grand delusions and paranoia
It was only when Westover read about bipolar disorder in college that she realised how it might explain her father’s behaviour: The grand delusions and paranoia which shaped the family’s world view.
“My father created our reality in a really meaningful way because we were so isolated. He would say these things about public education and doctors and the government and we didn’t know any better. We didn’t go to school so as far as we knew the world was exactly the way our father described it.”
In the midst of this already difficult childhood, there was more personal violence. Westover was being openly terrorised by her volatile physically abusive brother Shawn. Ultimately, it would be the desire to have her family acknowledge and confront this abuse that would turn them against her for good.
Westover takes considerable care in her nuanced description of her relationship with Shawn. They worked closely together in the junkyard, they broke in horses together. Then his violent nature emerged. Almost daily, he called her a whore, a slut, shoved her head down the toilet. He broke her toes, her wrist. Seemingly aware of his own uncontrollable propensity for violence, he helps her fix a bolt lock to her own bedroom door.
“I would get these difficult questions from my editor: Please flesh out why he had this kind of power over you. I didn’t know.” She refers to a story of Shawn risking his own life to save her from a wild bucking horse.
“He filled that role of someone who would step up and say, ‘you’re not safe, I’m going to make you safe.’ My father would have loved to play the role but I don’t think he was healthy enough. I must have felt the absence of that really deeply.” Shawn gave her money to pay her rent in college when she was desperate. “My brother Shawn, like everyone in my family, was never just the one thing.”
No longer afraid
Westover is no longer angry with her family because she is no longer afraid. “That’s because I am no longer under their power. I think that anger comes from a self-preservation instinct. It’s a mechanism that the brain does to get you away from situations or people who might harm you. Once you’re away, once you’re safe, it’s possible to just let go of that and live a better life without it.”
Shawn is brazen and open about his abuse, which makes her family’s denial and normalisation of it seem incomprehensible, particularly given the rousing Bible readings Westover’s father conducts in the house. “I think my parents had just felt like it was a very hard thing to confront and was so much easier to not.”
Her parents “demonised” her, to keep people from listening to her, saying she was possessed by the devil. “The kinds of psychological manipulations and reality distortions that my parents had to put themselves, me, my siblings through in order to justify my brother, I think that was much worse [than Shawn’s abuse].”
In her memoir, Westover describes the total breakdown she suffered as a result of her family’s denial. “I actually believed that I was crazy. I have a theory that all abuse, no matter what kind of abuse it is, is foremost an assault on the mind. I think if you’re going to abuse someone you really have to convince them of two things. First you have to normalise what you’re doing, convince them that it’s not that bad. And the second thing is to convince them that they deserve it in some way.
“[My parents] succeeded in making me not trust myself in any meaningful way. It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.”
Westover’s mother is one of the more complicated characters in the book, seeming to waiver between two life paths. She lives within her husband’s world but she wants Westover to go to college. She brings a forbidden phone line into the house. She eventually builds up a massively successful business with her natural remedies that supports most of the family and is still in operation today, “a spiritual alternative to Obamacare.” She once told Westover: “I should have protected you,” before turning on her entirely.
“She’s really talented, really competent, but she is really submissive and passive. She will always defer to my father,” Westover says.
Westover had some anger when she first attended university and struggled to keep up with her peers – but she does not resent her parents failure to educate her: “I don’t think they were being malicious or selfish.”
So what was it in that 16-year-old that made her drive forty miles for text books to get through those entrance exams? She credits her older brother Tyler, who also left for college, as a support and influence. They remain close. But also, she was beginning to recast her idea of what a woman should be.
“I knew what the life that had been laid out for me looked like. If you grow up female in that community, it’s very proscribed what age you get married and what you’ll do after you’re married and what your husband will do and what age you’ll have children. Everyone that you know adheres to that model. It was always difficult for me to imagine myself that way.”
That passive life was impossible to imagine. “Things that I now recognise as just part of my personality: Wilfulness and assertiveness, maybe even a bit of aggressiveness, these are things that I had been raised to think of as masculine features. I always thought there was probably something wrong with me.”
She remained uncertain in her early college days. “I was terrified of being there. So many things went wrong. I raised my hand in my first lecture and asked what the Holocaust was. People thought I was denying it. I was a terrible roommate and I had no sense of hygiene. But it was also a really exciting place to be. There was something really addicting about feeling the world open up like that.”
The professors she encountered played a huge role in changing her perspective, “giving me a very different narrative of myself and what I was worth, and in a lot of ways that was painful and uncomfortable. Eventually I was able to latch on to that idea of who I was.”
Westover begins to break free. She has vaccinations, takes painkillers for an ear ache, gets a passport.
She quickly realises she could never return to life on the mountain, that she could no longer live in her father’s house knowing what she now knew about the wider world. “There was always a sense that I could go back to Idaho if I failed. Then after even a few semesters, there wasn’t that sense anymore.” Her parents did not attend her graduation.
In spite of everything, there is something lush in some of the descriptions of her childhood – a “sense of sovereignty” on the mountain, days roaming in the wild, picking herbs, breaking in horses. Recounting those moments was painful: “Those were the things about my childhood that I had loved the most. It was painful to know that I would never have them again – kind of like attending the wedding of someone with whom you’re still in love.”
Would she have preferred a more ordinary childhood? “I wish that I had a family, I wish that I had a relationship with my parents. But I don’t wish that I were a different person. It’s kind of like wishing yourself out of existence.”
Westover is no longer a practising Mormon but she is at pains to explain that this book is not about religion. “Mormonism, especially, is so not understood by people. The last thing I wanted was for people to think ‘oh, this is a Mormon family’. Most Mormons send their kids to school; they believe in doctors.
“My Dad did use religious language, and he’s never been diagnosed so I’ve no idea if it’s true, but I’ve always understood his behaviour to be more about some kind of mental illness or imbalance. I think religion is the vehicle he uses”.
Readers of The Hillbilly Elegy might look to Educated for some similar insights into America's huge political divide. In Educated, it is not so much the joblessness and despair, but more a tradition of wilful ignorance. Westover's brother Shawn regularly calls her "our nigger" when they're working but it's only when she goes to college that she understands it is wrong. "A thousand times I had been called 'nigger' and laughed, and now I could not laugh," she writes.
She hopes however that the book is not used to affirm stereotypes. “They’re very religious and they’re very pro-gun rights,” she concedes. “If you end there, you have a caricature.” Her father and brother had views that came from ignorance, not malice. “I would hope to contribute constructively to the debate in terms of constructing people as full and complete human beings, and not just as caricatures of political views.”
Westover works hard to combat the lingering effects of being forced to think of herself as “a whore”. “You have to confront the belief and where it comes from. You have to understand intellectually why it’s wrong and you have to convince yourself with as much repetition and effort as it took to convince you into that place of worthlessness.”
In writing her past, she wanted to reclaim it: “I wanted to change the feeling of it,” she says. “At the time I was losing my family, it was just this hideous thing and there was no beauty in it at all. I felt by writing it I could impose something of that, even if it was tragic beauty.
“It felt really shameful to be the kind of person whose own parents just didn’t love you anymore, the only people who, no matter what, are supposed to love you. For a lot of time, I had a feeling there was something really wrong with me. I thought [this story] might remove some shame and stigma for other people.”
With all she has learned, there’s a certain irony when Westover credits her parents with a lesson she holds dear: “Something they said to me very often was, ‘you can teach yourself anything better than someone else can teach you’. I think a lot of people think of education like a conveyor belt that you stand on, that you come out the other side educated.”
But to Westover, it is “a living breathing vital thing that you engage in for yourself. I don’t think getting an education should be about making a living. It should be about making a person.”