Author Tara Westover On What It Means To Be 'Educated'11:07
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"Educated," by Tara Westover. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Educated," by Tara Westover. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

One book that's on most "best of the year" lists — including that of Time magazine, Bill Gates and the Obamas — is Tara Westover's "Educated." In the memoir, Westover recounts growing up in and ultimately leaving behind an extreme survivalist Mormon family in Idaho.

She and her siblings had no friends and no formal schooling. Everyone suffered terrible injuries in their dad's junkyard. No medical treatment was allowed. One brother beat her and called her a whore, while her mother looked the other way. Another brother encouraged her to get out. She did.

Westover taught herself algebra, aced the entrance exams and went from Brigham Young University to the University of Cambridge in England, and then to Harvard University as a visiting fellow.

"I never really think about counterfactuals," Westover (@tarawestover) tells Here & Now's Robin Young, on what might have happened if she was raised differently. "People have asked me, would I really want to, if I could, would I just want to go back and have lived a different life, and ... been born to normal parents and gone to school. And I kind of feel like to wish that in a way would be to wish myself out of existence."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Educated"

Interview Highlights

On her experiences growing up

"There were things that were hard about my life. There were moments I didn't know if I was going to be OK. But I was OK. And now I think to wish I had a totally different life would just be to almost wish I didn't exist.

"It was a different kind of life. It was entirely different, I guess, than what a lot of people had."

"Education I really believe is a privilege. It cannot be allowed to putrefy into arrogance, and we always need to be attacking the bigotry and the prejudice."

Tara Westover

On being in college but not being familiar with Rosa Parks or the civil rights movement

"I'd heard about slavery, but I'd never heard of the civil rights movement. And then the professor starts telling a story about this woman who had been arrested for taking a seat on a bus. The only way that I could understand it I guess, I just assumed that she had stolen the seat — like 'take a seat,' or, to take the seat. It never would've occurred to me that there would have been a time in our country where you could get arrested for sitting down because you looked the wrong way."

On challenges students in rural America face

"Rural kids are way less likely to graduate from college, they're way more likely to take on debt for a degree they don't finish. Even when they do finish, they tend to take — just on average — twice as long. That used to be fine, because people could do what their parents did, and you could be a farmer and it was a good life. But large farms are taking over. A lot of these kids now have to try to function in an urban environment, and they have a function in a global economy, and they have to function in a technological economy. Education is a key to that.

"For some people, education is self-determination, and that's what it was for me, and for other people, it's like predetermination and it's something that keeps them down. It's like the difference of education being a ladder or being a fence."

"I do think that whatever life we have becomes normalized to us, because it's the only one we have."

Tara Westover

On ideological purity in education

"I think it has a lot to do with our politics, and why certain segments of the population feel left behind. Mormonism gets criticized quite a lot. People say it's a cult — and I'm not Mormon anymore, so I really have a dog in this fight. But I think of a cult as anything that maintains ideological purity by ostracizing members who depart from that purity. And I did experience more of that at Harvard and Cambridge than I did at BYU. I did feel like there was more of a culture of not being able to depart from the rules of what it's OK to say. And that's not to say that I think if someone is expressing a racist view, that we all have to just pretend like it's fine — I think you should absolutely attack the idea. But I think we need to stop attacking the people.

"I've had every kind of appalling view that you can imagine: I've had sexist views, I've had racist views, I've had homophobic views. And the only way that I was able to change my mind is that people let me express my beliefs, and they gave me an opportunity to hear myself say the words, and having that experience, I learned I never wanted to say those words again, actually. They weren't really my words. They came from somewhere else.

"I'm just not sure there's a real point to smugly kind of saying, 'Well I'm very educated, and these people are very ignorant, and I'm better,' because I kind of just think, if you had their life, you probably would have their views. I think that — maybe I have to think that I did have that life and I did have those views. Education I really believe is a privilege. It cannot be allowed to putrefy into arrogance, and we always need to be attacking the bigotry and the prejudice. But I don't think we should be attacking people for not having an education that there's no way they could possibly have had."

On how she came to understand her relationship with her brother

"I do think that whatever life we have becomes normalized to us, because it's the only one we have. I saw a film — I can't even remember which one — when I was 16, at my grandmother's house, and I remember afterwards asking myself, 'I wonder if my relationship with my brother is abusive,' because it had those elements to it. I decided it wasn't, because this person that I'd seen in this movie was just this kind of wife beater-wearing, alcohol-soaked man, who ranted all the time and had no redeeming features. My brother Shawn wasn't like that — even though he would crack my wrists, and even though he would call me a whore, and drag me through the house by my hair and shove my head in a toilet, I still thought, 'Well, this isn't an abusive relationship, because he is a good person, and he sometimes is really loving and caring, and so everything is fine.'

"One of the things I wanted to communicate a little bit by telling this story was to help people understand something it took me a long time to understand, which is that people are incredibly complicated, and if someone was only violent, it wouldn't be so hard to walk away."

Book Excerpt: 'Educated'

by Tara Westover

I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.

The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.

I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse.* We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.

Of course I did exist. I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.

I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountain, rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical. The same sun appeared each morning, swept over the valley and dropped behind the peak. The snows that fell in winter always melted in the spring. Our lives were a cycle—the cycle of the day, the cycle of the seasons—circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all. I believed my family was a part of this immortal pattern, that we were, in some sense, eternal. But eternity belonged only to the mountain.

There’s a story my father used to tell about the peak. She was a grand old thing, a cathedral of a mountain. The range had other mountains, taller, more imposing, but Buck’s Peak was the most finely crafted. Its base spanned a mile, its dark form swelling out of the earth and rising into a flawless spire. From a distance, you could see the impression of a woman’s body on the mountain face: her legs formed of huge ravines, her hair a spray of pines fanning over the northern ridge. Her stance was commanding, one leg thrust forward in a powerful movement, more stride than step.

My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.

All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.

*Except for my sister Audrey, who broke both an arm and a leg when she was young. She was taken to get a cast.


Excerpted from Educated by Tara Westover. Copyright © 2018 by Tara Westover. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Robin Young produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 31, 2018.

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