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Memoirist Retraces Her Journey From Survivalist Childhood To Cambridge Ph.D.

Tara Westover enrolled in school for the first time when she was 17.
Paul Stuart Random House
Tara Westover enrolled in school for the first time when she was 17.

Memoirist Retraces Her Journey From Survivalist Childhood To Cambridge Ph.D.

Growing up in rural Idaho, Tara Westover had no birth certificate, never saw a doctor and didn't go to school. Her parents were religious fundamentalists who stockpiled food, mistrusted the government and believed in strict gender roles for their seven children.

As a girl, Westover says, "There wasn't ever any question about what my future would look like: I would get married when I was 17 or 18, and I would be given some corner of the farm and my husband would put a house on it and we would have kids."


But Westover defied her family's expectations when she enrolled in Brigham Young University at 17.

"I didn't know anything," Westover says of her first semester. "One of my first lectures, I raised my hand and asked what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it."

After graduating from Brigham Young with honors, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University. Westover writes about her awkward transition into the mainstream and her painful struggles with her family in Educated: A Memoir.

Interview Highlights

On why her father stockpiled food and weapons

My father had some concerns that the federal government might be pursuing us because we weren't in school. I think he conceived of himself as a force fighting against this corrupted government, which he thought had been corrupted by the Illuminati.


It was very much just an idea that I grew up with that everything, from the medical establishment — doctors and hospitals — to public education and anything to do with the government ... that these things had all been corrupted. ... And we had all these supplies in place in case the world ended, but also in case we needed to defend ourselves.

On her parents' approach to education

When [my brothers] were younger, my mother tried quite hard to conduct a home school. And as time went on, my mother had seven children, she was very much looking after the house and the farm. And then she was doing herbalism, and then she became a midwife. And I think my father became more and more insistent about having the boys in the scrap yard working. By the time I came along, the home school had fallen by the wayside.

I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or never wrote an essay for my mother that she read, or nothing like getting everybody together and having anything like a lecture. It was a lot more: If you wanted to read a book you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that.

On the eye-opening experience of going to college

In classes, I was just kind of in a state of terror because I immediately had to face the reality of my own ignorance and the depth of it and how much I didn't know that everyone else did seem to know. So any time someone said anything in a matter-of-fact way that I didn't know what they were saying, I just sort of nodded my head and pretended that I did. ...

And after a year or two of being in this environment and learning about all of these things — the Holocaust, the civil rights movement ... the difference between North and South Korea — the world started to feel very big. And that's, I think, when I began to wonder if moving back [with my family] ... was really what I wanted.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.