Date: February 15, 2018 11:37AM
Tara Westover: the Mormon who didn’t go to school (but now has a Cambridge PhD)
She grew up in a very strict religious family, isolated from the modern world, and didn’t enter a classroom until she was 17. Tara Westover tells Louise Carpenter how discovering education proved her salvation
Until she was nine years old, nobody knew Tara Westover existed. She had no birth certificate and no medical records. Instead of going to school, she and her six older siblings lived, isolated, in Buck Peak, a remote part of Idaho, while their father, a strict Mormon, hauled scrap for their junkyard, stockpiled military-surplus rifles, hoarded food and fuel for their bunker, and prepared them all for the “end of days”. There was no car insurance and, for many years, no telephone line.
It wasn’t just the end of days they were preparing for – they were also getting ready for a siege. “When the feds come to Buck Peak, we’ll be ready,” her father told the children. They packed knives and weapons in their knapsacks and practised how to flee to the nearby mountain, so as not to be left behind.
It is a shock to see Tara Westover today, aged 31, since the strongest picture she paints of herself in her much lauded memoir, Educated, is of a 16-year-old girl covered in grease and dirt, wearing workman’s boots and trousers and shifting scrap metal when most teenage girls would be learning at school and experimenting with their hair and make-up at home. She is petite and finely featured, with a watchful, considered demeanour. She is wearing a wraparound dress and Zara boots, but, as she says, “The way I dress now is the least powerful thing about how much I have changed. You could put me back in those same clothes I wore when I was 16 but I wouldn’t think the way I did then.”
It has been 22 years since Westover – now Dr Westover – got her birth certificate. We are talking in Cambridge University, where she studied for her doctorate (gained in 2014) in intellectual history and political thought despite only beginning her education at the age of 17, when she could barely read and write.
Gaining an education taught her everything she yearned to know, but it also taught her she needed to escape. She thought all she wanted was to go to school – to read books and hear lectures at Cambridge and then Harvard and then back in Cambridge, all on a scholarship. But in fact, in stepping away from the world her parents had forced her to inhabit, she learnt also that she could never go back. It has been six years since she last saw most of her siblings or either of her parents, both of whom, she says, think Lucifer lives within her.
“My education was calamitous for me in every way,” she says. “I thought I could learn to read and write and think only of myself, but then still be a child in my father’s household – and I couldn’t. And the price for me was that I couldn’t go back. For me, my education has been coming to terms with the power of it, of what it has cost me, all the things and people and versions of yourself that you lose along the way. There is always a price to be paid for real change. I thought I could leave the mountain and return to it the same. I thought I could go and see the world and live as though I had not seen it.”
There are no regrets, for all that she has lost. She quotes the writer Jeanette Winterson in her memoir on a similar theme, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in which Winterson expresses the sentiment that it is better to live a half-life on your own terms than any other kind of life dictated by another.
Westover’s extremist father – whom she memorably describes as “a charismatic gale of a man” – might have feared the feds, the authorities, the schools and the doctors at the hospitals, but for Westover the fear was inside the house, not beyond its walls.
Westover’s story is particularly resonant because of the recent media coverage of David and Louise Turpin, of Perris, California, and their 13 children, some of them adults, many of whom were found chained to beds, emaciated and stunted in growth, starved of light, food and access to the outside world, after one of the daughters broke free and called for help. Westover and her siblings were never physically restrained or deprived of food, but the Turpin children appear to have been more or less isolated from mainstream society in much the same way as Westover says she was. Reports have included references to the Turpins’ extreme religious beliefs.
But Westover is adamant that her story is not one about the destructive nature of religion, be that Mormonism or religion of any kind.
Her professor said her essay was the best he’d read in 30 years
“My father is not representative of Mormonism at all,” she says. “Most Mormons are very mainstream. They believe in school, they are big into public education and they believe in doctors and technology. I don’t have a medical degree, but I would speculate that my father is bipolar or something like that. I would say that the mental disorder caused the extremism, not the other way round. I think it took me a very long time to realise that [the problems] were always with my parents, and I would say both of my parents.”
In addition to the family’s accidents in unsafe and uninsured cars, and the fires at the scrapyard that saw Westover’s brother and father set alight, their skin melting in front of her eyes, her second eldest brother, she claims, would hurt her.
She tells stories of him shoving her head down the toilet bowl; calling her a whore; threatening to cut and beat her up. On one occasion, she claims he stripped her to her underwear and dragged her across a public car park. All of this played out against a backdrop of her father’s Bible reading and intense Mormon instruction. The children would gather round to hear him speak the prophecies of Isaiah, so they could learn how “to refuse the evil and choose the good”. For years, Westover assumed her parents were unaware of the violence, but it was only with time and distance – and eventual confrontation – that she concluded they’d known and tolerated the abuse all along. “My brother was the most extreme symptom of what was wrong,” she says.
According to Westover, the family dynamic was – is – one big cycle of dysfunction. “I don’t think the violence damaged me in the way that the manipulation and the playing with my head and the general devaluing of me damaged me. It was the power dynamic that was so damaging: the getting inside my head and changing not how I saw people, but how I saw myself; the making me into a person who deserved [that violence], who thought it should happen. That was what was really damaging.”
In one particular episode, which took place when she was 15 after she tried wearing a bit of lip gloss and mascara, her brother told her father that she had a “reputation”. She says her father screamed at her for being pregnant when, in fact, she had never kissed a boy. She was told she was a “whore”, she remembers, suddenly coming to understand the word in a new way. She didn’t have to do anything to be a “whore” – she simply was one, just by being alive. “There was something impure in the fact of my being,” she recalls.
It’s heartbreaking to read her diary entry from this night, both confused and compliant: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.”
Tara Westover was 17 when she got herself into Brigham Young University (BYU), in Utah, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a 98.5 per cent Mormon student body. It is, she thinks, the only university in the US that does not require a student to have graduated from high school. “I think that must be precisely to help radical Mormon children like me.”
She took with her a dozen jars of home-canned peaches from the stockpiled stash in the end-of-days bunker. After long days at the junkyard (for which, mercifully, she was paid), she had worked late most nights in her bedroom studying for the entrance test, often in total despair. Why was she bothering? Education, her father said, was “brainwashing”. Her life was predestined: marriage at 18, a corner of the family farm, learning to deliver babies at home using natural herbs as her mother had (“God’s pharmacy”, as her father called it), having her own children. She had one role model, however. If one brother was her persecutor, another, Tyler, was her saviour, and it is to him Westover has dedicated her book.
Tyler, a quiet, bookish child at sea in the violence and the grease, told her to “buy books and learn it” when she complained she knew no maths. In fact, Westover taught herself everything. She learnt to read and write by reading the Bible, the Book of Mormon and speeches by the religion’s founder and its second president, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. She also began to believe that she had been brainwashed. But even now she says, “Something really great about my upbringing was that my parents were very much of the attitude that you can learn anything better than anyone can teach it to you. In other words, any curriculum that you design for yourself is going to be ten times better than what someone will design for you. You don’t have to do that rote, prescriptive thing.”
Removed from a climate of hostility, fear of authority and the conviction that the rest of the world was hostile, this self-service education was to provide Westover with the means of escape, not that she saw it that way for years. Even at BYU, she remembers looking at the other relaxed Mormon girls wearing spaghetti-strap tops in her dorm and thinking they were “Gentiles” – not really members of the Mormon church.
It was a bumpy ride, but gradually she began to acclimatise and also take some informal counselling from the university’s pastoral service. Even so, it would be a further few years before she got proper help. “I dragged my feet so long about getting a counsellor. I had to wait until I was in the absolute blackest place.”
Soon, she learnt how to look at paintings and understand events in world history. “What’s the Holocaust?” she wondered. The names Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks meant nothing to her. Learning about the American civil rights movement was all the more stark for Westover – she says her brother had long delighted in calling her “n***er” when she had a grease-covered face while hauling scrap.
Slowly, she began to get A’s. As part of her course, she was recommended for a year-long programme at King’s College, Cambridge, an institution she’d never heard of. She applied for a passport with her new birth certificate. And there began a total immersive learning experience, in which she began to learn not what to think but how to think for herself.
When her professor told her she had written the best essay he had read in his 30-year career, she fled. “I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness.” Once back in Utah, with her work getting better and better, she was recommended for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, with full funding, an opportunity she thought “comically out of reach for someone like me”. But she applied anyway and was awarded one, to study at Trinity College, much to her father’s regret.
Westover’s parents did not attend her graduation from BYU because she forbade her father from passing on to her professors what he called the “Lord’s few choice rebukes”. He replied, “I won’t go anywhere that the Lord’s spirit isn’t welcome.” Her mother complied with her father’s wishes. Westover told her friends that her parents had car trouble.
Before she boarded her flight to the UK, her father drew her aside and told her that, when the “end of days” came, he had planned to use the fuel he’d buried in the field to come to get her, to make her safe. But how was he going to save her when she was away across an entire ocean? The abiding memory she has of that exchange, she says, is her father standing before her full of fear.
It was during this time back at Cambridge that Westover rejected Mormonism. She began a relationship with a man called Drew, also American and a more mainstream Mormon, which lasted for eight years. They split a year and a half ago, and are still close. “At 21, it felt so important to be with someone who understood all that [religious background] but was not actually Mormon any more. Drew was the only one in Cambridge who fitted that bill and I was the only one for him. I think that’s why we ended up together.
It seemed to me that it would be helpful to have a story that said, ‘There are limits to the obligation you have to your family’
“I actually found not being a Mormon really terrifying for a long time. I thought maybe I wouldn’t be a good person without it, because that is something you are told. It was a surprise to me to learn that I was pretty much the same after I stopped believing. If there had been a way of forcing myself to carry on believing, I absolutely would have done that. In fact, I did try that for a long time. Then there was a period of my life when I considered just pretending for the rest of my life. I really considered that very seriously.”
To say that this internal push and pull – the desire for a new life while still hankering after the old life – produced in Westover great anxiety is something of an understatement. As she writes of her terror at finally undergoing her vaccinations, “Although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.”
“Drew became this incredibly important steadying force in my life,” she tells me. “I am really grateful to him, because I don’t know how I would have got through that without him.” It was a new and different kind of terror.
It was while Westover was on a fellowship to Harvard that she finally confronted her family over her brother’s violence. Westover had no idea at that point that it would lead to the almost complete estrangement from her family that exists today. “I really thought as a family we would just deal with it, that my father would put a stop to it. But my father started to say I was lying and that I was trying to destroy the family, and my mother started to say I was insane.” She claims that the confrontation led to her brother threatening her and ruminating with a glee on how he would kill her.
For a whole year, she wondered if she should take it all back, that her parents were right in their belief that she had trod the wrong path, and that in wanting her own life, her own way of doing things, she had made a dreadful mistake. She says her parents told her she had been “taken by Lucifer” and that she needed to be cleansed. But for all this, she could not submit to the old rules, the old power. “I love you,” she told her father, “but I will not submit.”
“I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” her father told her. “It’s coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility.”
“I was no longer the kind of person who could go back,” she says. “I was kind of split. I had all this guilt and all these issues around what I had done, but I also wasn’t in a position to undo it, because I had been changed. Getting an education had changed me. I couldn’t go forward, because my parents couldn’t go forward with me, and I couldn’t go back, because that person didn’t exist any more.”
It was not long after this, when Westover was back in Cambridge beginning her PhD, that she had a nervous breakdown and began thinking about suicide.
Tara Westover does not want revenge, nor is she angry any more – a phase she passed through, she feels, in order to protect herself. “I don’t want to live a life of rage,” she says. “But I also don’t want other people to invade my mind.”
After her breakdown, which saw her screaming and crying in the street in the night and spending 22 hours a day in front of box sets, unable to leave her flat, she received proper medical help. “The counselling made me functional,” she says. “I would say the rest of the work I had to do for myself.”
She wrote the book for herself, encouraged by her Cambridge professor and mentor, listening to New Yorker fiction podcasts so that she could learn how to write proper prose. The saddest part of the process has been realising that it was not the violent and abusive scenes that were the hardest to write, but some of the loveliest things from her childhood: her mother’s laugh; the view of the mountain from their farm in Idaho; standing by her mother’s side as a small child, watching her mix up her lotions and potions. Ultimately, this woman could not or would not protect her, but in those moments she made her daughter happy.
“Writing about them, being so close to them and knowing I would never have them again was incredibly painful, like attending the wedding of someone with whom you are still in love. I had come to terms with the bad and I was very angry, but I needed to come to terms with the good things.”
It took a long time for Westover to rid herself of a sense of shame, however much she intellectually understood her decision to have been the right one. “It’s a really hard thing to admit to myself that my mother doesn’t think I’m a good person. And then when you do admit it to yourself, or to other people? Because your mother is supposed to think that you are a great person and when she doesn’t, it knocks a hole in your own belief that you are.”
‘I love you,’ she told her father, ‘but I will not submit’
The book has allowed her to view her life in segments, placing the good next to the bad. And it has allowed her, too, she says, to reclaim these good memories, because for a long time, “The anger had turned all that to rot … I feel like I absolutely forgive her. I don’t feel angry about my mum [any more].
“I see the story of my education and the story of my family as the same story,” she says. “For a long time, I tried only to write the story of my education. It wasn’t possible.”
In the past few years, she has managed to reclaim some family members from what she describes as her parents’ smear campaign: another brother; two aunts on her mother’s side and their children.
She is single, but open to finding a partner. “There have been lots of periods in my life when I felt too broken to have a relationship or be with someone,” she says. “But I don’t feel that way now. It’s an adventure. I do feel pretty healed, pretty functional.”
But if she feels the old tremors of guilt, shame and anger, she uses a mantra she has written for herself, which grounds her back in the present.
“I have forgiven my family, but I don’t know if I am going to reconcile with them. A lot of that depends on me, and a lot depends on them. Either they would have to change, and they don’t have to change for me to love them because I love and forgive them either way. But they do have to change for me to have them in my life.
“Or the other option is that I grow enough as a person and become independent enough that them being that way is OK for me, that it doesn’t make me go insane or suicidal and take me back to that place I was before.
“In so many stories or movies about families, reconciliation always seems to be the goal. And it just seemed to me that it would be helpful to have a story that said, ‘There are limits to the obligation you have to your family.’ And, ‘You are allowed to pursue your own happiness and insist on your own safety.’
“These are good things. And you are allowed to go after them.”
Educated by Tara Westover is published by Hutchinson on February 22, priced £14.99. Tara Westover’s parents dispute her account of events