Tara Westover
Tara Westover (Photo: Jude Edgington)

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Tara Westover: I didn’t think of our family as strange – I thought of us as the right ones

Brought up by Mormon survivalists, Tara Westover escaped an abusive childhood by educating herself. Now, she’s written a memoir about it

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I grew up on a beautiful mountain, in southern Idaho, that was shaped like a steeple coming up out of the earth. I was the youngest of seven, brought into the world by a midwife my mother knew. We didn’t go to the doctor or hospital, and I didn’t get a birth certificate until I was nine.

My father was a religious extremist. He was Mormon, but he’s not typical of Mormons. I think he may be bipolar, but he’s never been diagnosed. He became excessive about homebirth and home-school – he wanted to keep us out of the hands of the evil government – and he was fixated on the end of the world, which he called the “days of abomination”. He was waiting for the apocalypse. We prepared for it actively by stockpiling food, guns and ammunition, so we could feed and defend ourselves when the world of men came to an end.

Dad expected the world to end on January 1, 2000. He thought computers would fail and that the resulting chaos would usher in the second coming of Christ. I was 14 and, on New Year’s Eve, we sat up, watching TV, waiting for it to happen – but it didn’t. I remember going to sleep that night almost feeling sorry for my dad. It was like Noah from the Bible being denied the flood.

I didn’t think of our family as strange – I thought of us as the right ones living the right way. I always felt a great deal of superiority over the fact that we didn’t go to school but, at the same time – that’s one of the remarkable things about being human, that you can think totally contradictory things – I was embarrassed and humiliated by it. Other kids wouldn’t have much to do with me.

My dad had a junkyard, which was exciting but could quite quickly become dangerous. Dad believed that we would be looked after by God and that, if we got hurt, that was His will, so we didn’t wear safety harnesses or helmets. We moved at breakneck speed and there were lost fingers and serious head injuries. I once got dumped with a load of scrap out of a van into a trailer and was badly hurt, and Dad was terribly burnt in an explosion. He would regularly put us in really dangerous situations, either at the scrap yard or in dramatic car accidents, and then we wouldn’t be able to go to the hospital because he thought doctors were evil.

I raised my hand and asked what it meant – the word was 'Holocaust' – and there was this hideous silence. People thought that I was joking

My brother Shawn was almost a father figure to me because he was concerned with my safety. If we were working in the scrapyard and my dad told me to do something dangerous, it was Shawn who said no. He would save me in other situations. We’d break horses together and, when a horse I was on went crazy, and I could have been killed, Shawn rescued me. But he also had this dark side. Sometimes he would say I was his best friend; other times he would say I was a whore.

Shawn would say, “If you are going to act like a child, I’m gonna treat you like one.” He would say it when he was holding me down and choking me so I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes, he would say it to me when he would twist my wrists behind my back and they were nearly breaking. Even once I was a grown woman, it would still work on me. He would make the fact that I was angry and protesting into the reason why he had to handle me that way: “You’re hysterical – I’ll have to hold you down.”

My brother Tyler was a studious person and he taught himself so he could go to college. He encouraged me to think about getting an education and explained that if I could pass a test called the ACT, then I could go to Brigham Young University. I think Tyler knew Shawn had problems and that I needed to get out of the house. I was working in Dad’s junkyard and it was dangerous and people were getting injured a lot. I knew it was just a matter of time before something like that happened to me. I’d never set foot in a classroom in my life, but I figured it would be better than what I was doing.

Dad really struggled with my decision to go to college. He thought the college professors would be too liberal and that I would become a very worldly person. He had this life planned out for me, where I could work in the yard or be a midwife like my mother, so why was I doing this thing that made no sense for my gender? It helped that I was going to study music. He thought that a more acceptable thing for a woman to do.

There were a lot of problems, going straight to college, having never been to school or even having lived in the world in a normal way. I didn’t know anything and I had no sense of hygiene. I didn’t know what a grade was. One day in art class, the professor was lecturing on a painting and I was looking at the painting and noticed a bit of writing in italics. There was a word I had never heard before, so I raised my hand and asked what it meant – I felt very grown-up, like I was blending in so well – and the word was "Holocaust", and there was this hideous silence. People thought that I was joking, but I didn’t know what it was. So then I was pretty alienated from everybody. I didn’t just have terrible hygiene; now, people thought I was making jokes about the Holocaust.

I did think of giving up and going home, but I knew that staying at college and failing miserably was more pleasant than going home and working in construction with Dad and being terrorised by Shawn. It was awful. But I got better. I stuck at it.

In my first year, I came home for Thanksgiving and invited a boyfriend over. Shawn really resented this and ended up grabbing me by the hair, dragging me down the hallway and shoving my head in the toilet. I was struggling, trying to run away, and I fell into the tub and broke my toe, and my wrist was sprained because he’d had it behind my back. After it was all over, Shawn said it was just a game – just a joke. And his perspective became my perspective. I tried to convince the young man that this is what had happened, and of course he wasn’t buying it. Not long afterwards, I was in a parking lot with Shawn and he assaulted me. It was a violent and miserable experience, and after it was over I went to my room and wrote about it. While I was writing, Shawn came into the room and said he had no idea that he was hurting me until we got back and he saw that I was limping. He said that the next time we were having fun, I should be sure and tell him if he was hurting me. I didn’t know if he was right or I was right, but what I had written down was different from what he was describing. I didn’t have confidence in my own experience, yet, but it was the first time I had enough of my own perspective that I wouldn’t completely relinquish what I thought had happened.

Although I was supposed to be studying music, I started signing up for more history and politics classes, and one of my tutors suggested I apply to a study-abroad programme he organised. Cambridge was full of really intelligent people and I started learning about other things, like feminism. I’d only heard the word used as an insult or reprimand before. I had always thought, growing up, that I was more like my brothers than a woman should be. I had been told women are drawn towards motherhood and I thought there was something wrong with me because I wanted other things.

I wish I could say I read all these famous writers and everything changed, but it wasn’t the case. I was back in Idaho for Christmas when Shawn’s wife burst through the back door with no coat and no shoes. It was a freezing night – well below zero – and her feet were so red they looked burnt. He had shut her out of the house and locked the door because she’d bought the wrong crackers at the store. She’d had to run up the hill to my parent’s house in the snow and the ice. She was sobbing. I’d like to say that because I’d read about feminism I called the police, but I didn’t. My other brother’s wife was there, horrified, and I explained to her that this was a private thing, something we should let my dad sort out, and I convinced her to leave. I was complicit in covering it up, because that was how I had been brought up.

I spent a couple of years thinking I was completely insane. It was so painful, thinking my own mother would just choose to give me up, rather than deal with something difficult

It took me a long time to see the violence for what it was. Finally, I confronted my parents about Shawn. My dad decided I was lying and that I was crazy. I was completely ostracised from my family.

My academic life was going well. I’d won a Gates scholarship to Cambridge and I got my PhD and became Dr Westover, but on the other side was the complete implosion of the relationship with my family.

I spent a couple of years thinking I was completely insane. It was so painful, thinking my own mother would just choose to give me up, rather than deal with something difficult. When my dad said I was crazy, I almost wanted to be, because if I was crazy it was something I could fix and get my family back.

Dad told everyone I was possessed and that’s what had caused me to say these things about Shawn. If he could just exorcise the demon, everything would be fine. A significant part of me wanted to agree, so I could go back to being their daughter, the kid they had raised, and not the person who had said these things. I tried to force myself to do it, but what my dad wanted to cast out of me wasn’t a demon at all – it was me, the person who had taken all those history classes, read about feminism and didn’t think violence was OK, the person who wouldn’t be quiet. That was who I was now. I was a different person. My education had made me this person and the only way I could have my family back was to not be myself any more.

It was too high a price to pay. So, I told Dad that I loved him, and I would accept any counselling he wanted to give me, but I couldn’t accept a blessing from him. He said there was an evil presence in the room and he and my mother were gone within a few minutes.

I’ve not seen my parents in years. I don’t want to see my father, and my mother won’t see me without him. I don’t know if, one day, I will find a way back.

Everyone has to make peace with their past in their own way. I was really angry for a long time, and the anger turned everything to rot, but writing about it has allowed me to stich everything together. Now, I am a person who had a beautiful childhood and I am also a person who had a difficult childhood. I thought it would be hard to write about the violence, the moments of fear and panic and terror. But it wasn’t. What was hard to write about were the beautiful things: the way my mother’s voice sounded when she laughed, the way she looked when she was stewing herbs or canning peaches. Those are the things I love the most about my childhood, and those are the things I have lost.

As told to Cathy Rentzenbrink. Tara Westover’s family dispute her version of events

Educated by Tara Westover is published by Hutchinson

@tarawestover

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Tara Westover (Photo: Jude Edgington)
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