Profile | Author Tara Westover on her radical Mormon upbringing, getting into college without schooling, and her bestselling memoir
- Born to Mormon fundamentalists in Idaho who did not believe in traditional education or government, Tara Westover still managed to study her way to college
- Despite suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, she earned a PhD at Cambridge University and her memoir, Educated, became a bestseller
Conspiracy theories I was born in 1986, the youngest of seven. We lived in a rural part of Idaho (in the United States), in the mountains. My parents were radical Mormons and didn’t believe in a lot of the things that most people take for granted. My dad had a lot of theories about what he called the “Illuminati”, or the new world order, which basically was his idea that there was a nefarious band of people who were taking over the world and he thought that they could infiltrate the government and the medical establishment.
My family stayed away from anything to do with traditional medicine or government, which meant that I was born at home and didn’t get a birth certificate. My father became more radical as he aged, so although some of my older siblings had a few years of schooling, the youngest four of us kids never stepped into a classroom.
Multitude of sins As a child, it felt normal because it was all I’d known, and I thought everyone else was the crazy ones. Every morning my mom made pancakes and we would sit around a large table and read scriptures for half an hour, then have family prayer and then we’d go out and work. My dad had a junk yard and that was how he made a living; we’d salvage scrap metal or we would farm.
We had private scripture study at the end of the day and on Sundays we went to church. There were other kids my age in the town, but I wasn’t close to any of them because everyone else was “normal”, for want of a better word – they went to school and went to the doctor – and I had a strange dad who would get up and tell everyone from the pulpit that they were sinning.
I was pretty isolated until I was seven and another family moved into town that was almost as radical as my dad. They became friends with my dad, and then I had my first friend – a girl at church who no one else wanted anything to do with, just like me.
Missed opportunity When I was four or five, I was taught to read by an older brother, Tyler. Actually, he did it to win a bet with another brother. As the youngest of seven kids, I didn’t want to be the only child who couldn’t read, so I was motivated. Dad didn’t like us reading books that he thought put forward any philosophy he objected to.
When I was seven, my grandmother, who lived just down the hill from us, offered to kidnap me. She said, “Don’t tell your parents and we’ll go to Arizona for a couple of months and you can try school.” She didn’t want us to grow up totally isolated, uneducated and without social skills, which was what was happening. Of course, I didn’t go. I was seven and loved my family and, as much as I had a curiosity about school, I was a convert to that way of thinking, so I wasn’t going to go against it.
Brutal brother Tyler did a year of high school before dad pulled him out and then he taught himself. He had an amazing capacity for self-scholarship and really wanted to go to college. He asked the high school for a book on calculus, taught himself trigonometry and crushed the college entrance test.
At the time, I thought he was betraying our family by going to college, but I thought differently five or six years later, when he came back, and I was 15 or 16 and struggling. One of my brothers – who I will call Shaun – was becoming pretty toxic and violent. It had started when I was really young. He would tickle us, and at the end of it I would be covered in scratches; there would be blood. We would be joking around in the kitchen and he would take a dish towel and start zapping and then he would start hitting me with it and I’d have welts all over my skin and it hurt like hell, but we were joking around.
As I got older it got more aggressive and if I said something that he didn’t like he’d knock me over and sit on my chest until I apologised. I was filled with rage but didn’t know why. Also, my dad was exerting a lot of control on my life and I started thinking, maybe I want to be somewhere else.
Tyler had introduced me to choir music, and I’d been taking voice lessons and was obsessed with music. He said if I really wanted to sing, I had to go to college. I started getting up at 6am to study algebra before I worked for my dad in the junk yard. I wasn’t as smart as Tyler, but I taught myself enough to get through the ACT (test for college admission).
The social ladder Tyler helped me study and apply to Brigham Young University to study music. Even though the college was run by the Mormon church, my father was against my going and said I was going to be brainwashed. The real problem was when I got there. I was afraid of people, I didn’t know how to talk to people.
I took classes in political science, biology, psychology, history, and realised there was so much I didn’t know – I’d never heard of the Holocaust or the civil rights movement, and suddenly I was failing every exam, I had so much catching up to do. Socially I was a wreck because I’d never spent time around people my own age and had a lot of crazy ideas that I’d spout at the drop of a hat; I was a real challenge to live with. It was a rough transition for everyone involved, not just me.
After a year, I moved into an apartment with four women, all graduate students. In mainstream Mormonism there is a wonderful tradition of looking after each other and these women saw all the ways I was challenged – I had symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and was waking up in the middle of the night screaming, I had no social skills – and they helped me with my homework, taught me how to live in a house without pissing everyone off, and sat with me at night when I woke up shouting. It was the first time I felt I’d belonged anywhere.
Making history By the time I graduated, in 2008, I was doing a lot better. A professor put me forward for a six-week study programme at Cambridge University (in Britain) and while I was there another supportive professor suggested I come back for graduate school and helped me get a scholarship.
Four years after I first stepped foot in a classroom and asked what the Holocaust was, I ended up at Trinity College, Cambridge, doing a master’s degree in intellectual history.
Cut loose My sister decided to confront my parents about my brother being abusive. I didn’t want to but agreed to back her up. My father responded even more badly than I expected and said my sister and I were possessed. She recanted and then the pressure was on me to say I was possessed, too.
By this time, I was doing a PhD at Cambridge and on a one-year visiting fellowship at Harvard University. My dad came to Harvard and offered to perform an exorcism. For a few days I was thinking seriously of letting him do it, it seemed such a neat solution to the problem, but in the end I couldn’t. I was made no longer part of the family.
When I realised I was no longer allowed to go home, and my mother wouldn’t see me, I collapsed. The PTSD I’d had in college was nothing compared to what happened in grad school. I wasn’t functioning. I’d watch television for 20 hours a day and went weeks without leaving my dorm room.
Writing wrongs Slowly, over the course of a year or two, I got therapy and started to unpack some things. I had a really loving partner at the time, who was helping me through a lot of it – he was on a Fulbright scholarship in Jordan. As I started to come out of it, I was confused and couldn’t figure out what had happened and couldn’t articulate it. I started to feel a compulsion to write it down, to go back to my journals and piece things together.
The writing, for me, was emerging from the rubble and trying to make sense of what had happened. I got my PhD in 2014, but I didn’t publish, teach or go to conferences because for me just finishing was a small miracle. In 2015, I started writing the book and finished it a year later. Educated was published in 2018. I hadn’t realised that the things I struggled with in an extreme way because of the nature of my family are actually pretty common experiences.
A lot of people have difficult family situations – they face choosing between what they owe their parents and what they owe themselves. I toured with the book, which was pretty exhausting because of the personal content, so I took some time off. And that’s where we are now. I feel there’s been a lot of change in my life and I’m enjoying a period of relative stasis, I plan to sit in this space a little longer.
As part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Tara Westover will discuss her memoir, Educated, on Saturday July 24 at the Xiqu Centre, West Kowloon Cultural District. For details, go to festival.org.hk.