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How an abused Mormon child read her way into a top university

Tara Westover.

Tara Westover escaped a stifling – not to say hazardous – religious upbringing to write a bestseller about it. 

It’s a question that keeps arising in Tara Westover’s unflinching new family memoir, Educated: was her mother deliberately lying to her or just dangerously deluded? Under normal circumstances, this might be a delicate question to put to a daughter, but nothing about Westover’s circumstances are remotely normal, and she doesn’t mind. “If you ever get an answer to that, I’d love one,” she says, with a wintry laugh. Her voice, on the phone from Cambridge, England, is light, amiable, educated. Only the occasional “y’all” hints at her upbringing on a mountainside in rural Idaho in a family that lived off the grid and, often, right off its trolley.

Westover is 32. Educated made the New York Times bestseller list. She was 17 when she began to make her escape from the foothills of Buck Peak to seek an education or, as her father put it, to go “whoring after man’s knowledge” at Brigham Young University in Utah. It’s a Mormon institution, but it proved confrontingly worldly for a girl who believed that Diet Coke was evil and girls in skimpy clothing were dressing like whores. She had to ask a teacher what “Holocaust” meant.

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She learnt fast, going on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge, where she did a PhD. “I came here 10 years ago,” she tells me. “This feels like home.” Perhaps it feels like a safe distance from Buck Peak, Idaho. “Ha, about 5000 miles. Yeah, I would say so. I could come down where y’all are living and that would be a little bit further.”

You can see why she might need a fairly extensive demilitarised zone. Westover grew up as the youngest of seven children of fundamentalist Mormons. Her father believed the world was run by that sinister cabal the Illuminati. His family were stocked, drilled, locked and loaded, awaiting the arrival of the “Feds” or the Days of Abomination, whichever showed up first. Westover lived “watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood”.

She didn’t officially exist. By the time her mother applied for a birth certificate for her, when she was nine, no one could remember exactly when she was born. She had no medical records, because she’d never seen a doctor. Westover learnt to read from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “The school bus rolls by,” she writes in Educated, “without stopping.”

Much of modern life rolled by the Westover property without stopping. Westover’s mother and father are called Gene and Faye for the purposes of the memoir. Westover grew up brewing herbal concoctions with her midwife mother – the family would develop an essential oils business – and dodging death or disfigurement with her father in the family junkyard.

Hard hats were for those who didn’t believe in the grace of God and his angels, who were working alongside. “If you are hurt,” says her father, “then that is His will.” The book is a catalogue of gruesome accidents – falls, fires, flying metal – that would seem near-cartoonish in their hapless regularity if they weren’t so lethal. Almost no one escapes intact. “Oops!” hollers Gene Westover, as young Tara, made to sort steel from aluminium, collects a steel cylinder full in the stomach. Shortly after that she cuts herself badly trying to avoid a catalytic converter her father heaves her way. “He’d forgotten I was there,” she writes, with touching generosity.

Westover as a child. Photo/Westover family collection

Her brother is badly burnt. The propensity for violent rages of another brother, Shawn, isn’t helped by serious head trauma. Horrific injuries are treated at home with natural potions and without painkillers. Sorry, I say, but that sounds crazy. “No, that’s okay. I know,” she says. “I had to have people tell me that, but I get it.”

Her father seemed almost to invite these disasters. “I don’t know if he would have invited it. He just didn’t seem to have that bone in his head that tells most people ‘this is dangerous: don’t do it’. A serious injury never resulted in an adjustment to our safety practices,” she says.

In Educated, she speculates that her father is bipolar. “I always understood it to be something like that, rather than anything malicious, and certainly not that he didn’t care about us or love us.” For all she’s been through, there remains a stubborn loyalty. She points out that her father suffered a disfiguring injury, too, when a car exploded in the junkyard. “He wouldn’t have put us in any danger that he wouldn’t have put himself in.”

But a father’s job is to not put his child in danger at all and he almost wilfully failed to keep his children safe. Her mother didn’t intervene. There were other instances of suboptimal parenting. They failed to protect Westover when she tried to get them to confront the physical and psychological abuse to which Shawn was subjecting her. She writes of waking to find him with his hands around her throat, calling her a slut and a whore. He’d seen her wearing lip gloss.

There is a brutal assault in a parking lot. She takes to cleaning the toilet each day – not standard behaviour chez Westover – because he would regularly force her head into the bowl. Her mother sometimes seemed to support her daughter, but it never lasted. “I would say that she’s my mother until my father gets in the room. Then she becomes him. Which version of her is right? I don’t know.” In the end, she feared for her life.

Westover is estranged from her parents and three of her siblings. “At the end of the book, my mother’s mother passes away and I go to the funeral,” she says. “That was the last time I saw my family all in one room.” In the end, it wasn’t violence that drove her away. “What broke my family apart wasn’t the abuse; it was the response to the abuse. My relationship with my brother needed to change. That is a fundamental experience of my life that they deny. We always have to fall back on the narrative that I am lying to destroy the family. Why I would want to do that I don’t know, but that’s what they fall back on.”

She’s possessed. She’s evil. The word “gaslighting” – a psychological assault designed to convince someone they are mad – comes to mind. “My parents are obviously pretty deeply invested in the whole idea of kind of gaslighting. I think all abuse, not matter what kind, is foremost an assault on the mind.

Photo/Westover family collection

“To abuse someone, you have to invade their reality in order to distort it. You have to convince them to undervalue themselves the way that you undervalue them, and you have to kind of normalise what you’re doing.”

She could have made things easy, just played along. “All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs and I could have my family.” She took to her heels.

Writing well is the best revenge. Educated reads like a powerful counter-testimony to the gospel according to her parents. “That’s exactly what it is. They have their version and this is mine. They have their reality and this is mine. My parents had created this whole alternative history of me and I had been evicted from my life.” It had upset her that she had left silently. She didn’t want to perpetuate the silence. She cites something Shawn said to another of her brothers, Tyler, when he tried to confront Shawn’s violence. “He said, ‘You can never bring this up again or I will get you out of this family. Look what happened to Tara.’ That’s probably not going to be enough to silence Tyler, but some other kid, it might be.”

She also needed to reclaim herself. “My mother, my own mother, did not think I was a good person. If you can’t tell someone, it feels like she’s right. It helped me to just bring it out to myself and other people and say, ‘This is a fact and I’m not happy about it but I’m not ashamed of it.’”

For a long time, in repeated, increasingly disastrous visits, Westover tried to go home. “I can still fix this, I chanted as the plane lifted off the tarmac,” she writes. “People do ask me why I keep going back. One of the reasons is that they were good people. They had things about them that really were good. They weren’t tricking me.”

If Westover seems sometimes inclined to let her parents off the hook, maybe that’s a survival strategy, too. “For a long period after what happened with my parents I was so angry.” It was no way to live. “It turned every positive memory that I had of my family to rot. I became someone who had no good memories.” It’s a shocking thought: they stole her memories. In Educated, she took them back.

“I could write about evenings breaking horses in the corral with Shawn and him saving my life or doing other kind things for me and I could keep those moments separate from the times that he was hurting me, even though I would know in my head it’s the same person. When I finished the book, I felt like I had been able to get back some of the good things. Now I feel like someone who had a beautiful childhood. I also feel like someone who had a difficult childhood.”

Well, it’s all part of what made her. “Exactly. I think it’s really important that, eventually, at the end of the healing process, everything gets restored, the good and the bad.”

Photographed for a story in the Times, Tara Westover, publishing sensation, is glamorous in a red frock and killer high heels: educated, free, 5000 miles from Buck Peak. Though in some ways the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Westover has been a sort of survivalist herself, stockpiling schools and degrees, self-knowledge and self-invention and now a memoir against the long siege. Writing about the abuse wasn’t difficult. “What was difficult to write about were the beautiful things, such as the way the mountain looked in the spring, the way that my mother used to laugh. These were the things about my childhood I had loved the most and they were the things that I have lost. It was incredibly painful to be so close to them but know that I would never have them again, like attending the wedding of someone you are still in love with.”
Harvard University. Photo/Getty Images

She’s been brave. It’s taken a devastating toll. Working on her PhD at Harvard, she wakes from a dream of home to find herself standing in the street at 2am, screaming. Back in England, work on her thesis stops. Headaches, panic attacks, waking in the street, shouting. It sounds terrifying. “I think you have to be more connected with yourself to be terrified,” she says evenly.

“When my parents didn’t believe me, they set about with this full campaign to discredit me. I thought I was insane. It was like living in a permanent fever dream. I was very disconnected from myself and from other people. So it wasn’t terrifying, it was just miserable. All I wanted was to go back to this life that I had lost and there was no way back.”

So extreme is some of what happened to her – on one visit home, Shawn places in her hand the bloody knife he’s just used to kill his son’s beloved dog – it seems lucky she is here to do an interview at all. “Yeah. I credit Tyler a bit for that. He made an intervention at a really key moment for me.” He refused his parents’ narrative and believed his sister. “I was pretty much a wreck before my brother came back into my life. It wasn’t an immediate fix, but I would say from that day forward, I was just getting better. One person can stop it. It’s like the emperor’s clothes: one person can say, ‘That’s not what I see.’” The dedication in Educated reads “For Tyler”.

Is she anxious about her parents reading Educated? “They have read it.” They were not supportive. “They did send a review of the book and I made a few adjustments on points of memory.” There were differences over exactly which years the family didn’t have a phone; whether her brother Luke’s flesh was torn by “the Shear”, a fearsome iron cutter her father acquired, or in a roofing accident. “I don’t have a footnote in there saying my parents generally dispute that my brother [Shawn] is violent, because that is in the book.”

She asks that we don’t dwell on the disputed territory. “I don’t want to fuel the fire. I don’t want them to see an article that’s all about how we disagree about things. I can understand completely why you want to ask, but there’s so much risk of misstating their opinion and getting into trouble or something.” Fair enough.

Even a family fled from still wields power. She’s had enough trouble. “There was a part of me that was hoping that they would read the book and we would understand each other better and maybe things would get better,” she says wistfully. “It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe …”

A part of her education her parents did attend to was teaching her sad lessons in the limitations of love. “It’s powerful and beautiful, but there are things that are outside the power of love to change. Love couldn’t make my brother not be violent. It couldn’t make my father not tell people I was possessed.”

Not that she recommends estrangement. “But in cases where it’s really needed, it’s an act of self-love. I worry that we never really learn how to practise self-love and it can be very difficult to get to the place where we say, ‘I’m allowed to pursue my own happiness and I’m allowed to insist on my own safety.’”

Family. They get sick. They die. Will she go home again, for illness or funerals? It’s complicated. “I try to make those decisions based on weighing all the factors. What are my obligations to people? Who will I hurt by not going? Will I be able to look after myself? It depends on where I’m at, who will go with me.

“There are days when going to a place where my family might be would be out of the question. Then there are days when I think, ‘Bring it. We can deal with it.’”

The freedom to choose her own path started when she left home for university and got herself an education. It has come at a cost. “An education is powerful, but power means change and change can mean calamity. And in my case it did. It cost me a lot. It cost me my family.”

It’s a price she’s willing to pay. She cites a line from Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about surviving her religious fundamentalist adoptive mother, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? “It’s about how it’s better to be barely alive on your own terms than to live a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms. And I would say, as someone who was barely alive for a couple of years, yes, she’s right.”

EDUCATED, by Tara Westover (Penguin Random House, $38)

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.