Reclaiming a survivalist childhood
Describing her childhood as the youngest of seven children growing up without schooling in the shadow of Buck Peak, Idaho, Tara Westover says, “It all seemed very normal to me.”
Speaking by phone from her home in Cambridge, England, Westover, 31, describes her life’s improbable trajectory that led to her startling memoir, Educated. It was so unusual, in fact, that a bidding war erupted over the sale of her book, which is now being published in more than 20 countries and has inspired comparisons to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club.
When her survivalist father recounted the story of the 11-day siege of Randy Weaver in the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, its vivid details became young Westover’s strongest memory. It was as though the Feds had invaded her own house with deadly gunfire. Striving to become fully independent and off the grid, the Westovers stockpiled food, gasoline, guns and a bullet-making machine in preparation for the End of Days.
“I was kind of looking forward to it in a lot of ways,” she recalls. “We were totally prepared. It was going to be a reversal of fortunes. My family had always been poor and looked down upon. Suddenly we were going to be royalty because we were going to have food and gasoline―all the things that people needed.”
The younger children in Westover’s family didn’t have birth certificates or exact birthdates. She wasn’t allowed to go to school, and there was little homeschooling. “By the time I was 10, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it,” she writes. Doctors and hospitals were forbidden as well; the family relied on her mother’s herbs and essential oils, even after car accidents, concussions and severe burns. An older brother taught Westover to read, using Little Bear Goes to the Moon as her primer. A few books lay around the house, but lessons and tests were nonexistent.
She grew up studying the Book of Mormon, the Bible and essays by 19th-century Mormon prophets. Westover emphasizes that her story is not about Mormonism. She believes that mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, led to her father’s extremism.
“There is a caricature of Mormonism that people have,” she explains. “I don’t want to contribute to that. These aren’t Mormon attributes. Mormons send their kids to school.”
Nor does Westover want her father to come across as a caricature. “Sure, his views are interesting,” she notes. “What’s also interesting is the fact that he sincerely believes them and that he is trying to look after his kids.”
Educated is the remarkable story of Westover’s education. She taught herself math so she could take the ACT, and at age 17 she first set foot in a classroom after enrolling in Brigham Young University. Fellow students laughed at her for having never heard of the Holocaust. Despite failing her first exam and fearing she would flunk out, she graduated in 2008 and later earned a Ph.D. in history at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Despite the gaping holes in their early education, three of the seven Westover children ended up earning Ph.D.s. “We seriously overcompensated.”
In many ways, Westover says, she had a positive childhood. “I grew up on a beautiful mountain that was like an amazing cathedral. The scrap yard at times was kind of like an exotic playground. And those are real parts of my childhood.”
“It was going to be a reversal of fortunes. My family had always been poor and looked down upon. Suddenly we were going to be royalty.”
However, a giant cloud overshadowed everything. Her father’s actions often endangered his children, and her childhood was complicated by years of physical and emotional abuse by an older brother. Her brother and parents deny this assertion, which has resulted in her estrangement from them and certain siblings.
Westover says leaving home and becoming educated “made me see my brother’s violence for what it was. . . . Suddenly, I could not accept it. And so once I started writing, I realized it’s really not possible for me to tell the story of my education in any kind of meaningful way without telling the family story.”
At first, the ongoing estrangement posed a problem in searching for an ending to her story. Westover admits, “In the end, I decided that maybe not having a neat ending would be what this book was about.” Perhaps, she adds, “people would see bits of their messy lives in my messy life.”
Her unique history presents hurdles when it comes to how she relates to her family in the present. “Most of the time I am no longer angry with them,” she says, “and the reason is that I am no longer afraid of them. I am no longer under their power.”
Anger did, however, color her outlook for years. “I became someone who had no beautiful memories,” she recalls. Writing helped her reconcile the contradictory truths of her past. “I could keep all of them because they’re mine, and no one can take from me the good, but also no one can obscure for me the bad.”
To prepare to write a book-length narrative, Westover read widely. And then, someone mentioned something called the short story. “I’d never heard of that before.” After listening to favorite episodes of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast 40 to 50 times, she modeled each chapter like a short story. The strategy makes her memoir particularly readable and compelling. “For me it was the greatest curriculum,” she says.
Westover concludes, “You only get the life that you get. I’m glad that I was pushed in that way because now I know what I’m able to do. . . . But I wouldn’t go back and go through that again. Not for anything.”
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Paul Stuart.