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Q&A: BYU grad and 'Educated' author Tara Westover talks difference between forgiveness and reconciliation

SALT LAKE CITY — Tara Westover's memoir "Educated: A Memoir" (Random House, 352 pages) hit bookstores Feb. 20 and is already a New York Times best-seller. It tells the story of her childhood in rural Idaho, raised by Mormon parents with extremist views, and the difficult steps she took to learn about life outside her narrow world.

Growing up, Westover didn't attend school and had minimal homeschooling. No one in her family went to the doctor or used contemporary medicine, relying instead on homebrewed herbs and oils. Her father, who Westover wrote was fearful that the government was out to get them, obsessively planned for the apocalypse by hoarding guns, food and gold. The author, the youngest of seven children, didn't get a birth certificate until she was 9 years old.

But limited education didn't stop Westover from wanting to learn. She attended Brigham Young University, thanks to a good ACT score and her older brother (a BYU graduate) who helped her apply. It was while studying there that her world began to expand. As her professors and religious leaders took her under their wings, Westover was able to stay in school despite what she wrote was a lack of encouragement or financial support from home. She eventually did what once might have seemed impossible: She earned a Ph.D from Cambridge University.

Westover wrote that she suffered physical abuse from one of her brothers during her teenage years. When, a few years later, she spoke out about this abuse, it caused a rift in her family that has persisted.

In "Educated," Westover examines what she gained from her unique upbringing and what she continues to learn from the outside world, revealing who she is becoming and what she has come to value most in life. Today, Westover is no longer active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is estranged from most of her immediate family, but she writes of the peace she has found within herself.

Westover spoke with the Deseret News about writing "Educated" and what is at the heart of her memoir.

Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Tara Westover is the author of “Educated.”
Tara Westover is the author of "Educated."
Paul Stuart

Deseret News: What gave you the idea to write a book about your life?

Tara Westover: When I was going through the experience of losing my own family, I became really sensitive to the stories that I was encountering in film or books or even advertising. I felt like we had stories about family loyalty; I didn't feel like we had stories about what to do when you felt that loyalty to your family was in conflict with loyalty to yourself. I felt like we had stories about forgiveness, and most of those stories associate reconciliation with forgiveness. They made it seem like reconciliation was the highest form of forgiveness and I just didn't know whether I would ever be able to reconcile with my family, so I wanted to tell a story that would be about forgiveness but wouldn't necessarily be about reconciliation.

DN: Was is emotionally challenging to write this book?

TW: It was challenging, but the bits I thought would be challenging were easier than I thought they would be. Then there were things I thought would be really easy that were actually the hardest things to write about: the more positive things like the way the mountain looked in the spring or memories I had canning with my mother. The things about my childhood that I really loved the most, writing about those things was hard because I knew they would never happen again. The more difficult things I was able to write about because I knew I wasn't there and I didn't have to go back. It was over.

DN: Have you had victims of abuse open up to your about their experiences since the book has come out? How does that make you feel?

TW: I've definitely had some people emailing me about that kind of thing. I definitely didn't want to write a book that says to anybody, "This is how you deal with difficult or even toxic relationships." But I hoped if they could empathize with me and how I made my decisions, maybe they could empathize with themselves and the decisions they had to make. It's hard to make that kind of decision to walk away from your family because I think sometimes we feel like we don't have the right to make that decision. Maybe it's because we're brought up to be so unselfish and to avoid even the appearance of selfishness. I think because we're so busy trying not to be selfish, we never really learn how to practice anything like self-love.

DN: I noticed you were really careful to say in the beginning that this book isn't meant to reflect on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. How do you feel about the church today?

TW: One of the reasons I put that note there is I don't feel like my dad is representative of the church. I knew at the time that it was going to get published in a lot of countries where people don't know anything about Mormonism. I think most Americans probably would know (my dad) isn't a typical Mormon, but I'm not sure most British or French people would, so I wanted to make sure that people didn't read it and mistakenly think this is what all Mormons are like. It has been helpful because in a lot of cases when I'm being interviewed, people will ask me about it because it's the first thing they saw (in the book) and then I get a chance to explain. I didn't want any of the more negative aspects of my family relationships to be pinned on the church. That was important to me.

"Educated" is by Tara Westover.
"Educated" is by Tara Westover.
Random House

DN: What impact did your upbringing have on how you feel about the church now?

TW: I'm not sure that is has so much, because I don't think of my parents as mainstream LDS. BYU was a really positive place for me. I can't imagine that I could've gone somewhere that would've been a better environment for what I needed. It has a great tradition of pastoral care and community. I had a bishop (who I talked about) in the book who made a huge difference in my life. He really noticed that something wasn't right and put a lot of time into talking to me. I think he was probably the first almost father figure that I felt like I had in my life. The relationship I had with that bishop was the first time I knew what you're supposed to feel like with a parent. So BYU had this amazing effect on me. I've always been really grateful to the church. I'm not a practicing Mormon now, but I have pretty positive feelings overall.

DN: Do you feel like there's a part of yourself that's still affected by how you were raised?

TW: Absolutely. I found myself humming "Book of Mormon Stories" the other day and it was a pleasant memory of singing that in Primary. There's always going to be bits of that. Often when I'm at dinner parties in Cambridge and people are asking questions about Mormonism, I'll find myself saying, "We don't believe that" or "No, we really are like this." It's funny, when I talk to Mormons I tend to have my list of things when they ask what I don't like about the church, I'm like, "OK, I'll tell you." But when I'm with people who aren't LDS, I'm super defensive of the church because what people think in the United Kingdom especially is just so off the mark.

DN: You talked about in the book how it was at Cambridge that you moved away from actually practicing Mormonism. Was it at Cambridge that you felt like you could experiment with other things?

TW: It's something I wanted to do gradually. I've seen friends exit Mormonism in destructive ways and I just didn't want to do that. I wanted it to be slow and careful and thoughtful. I didn't want to suddenly do a bunch of things that I would never have done before. It's a policy I have in my life now whenever I feel like things are changing really quickly — even right now with the book things are changing really quickly — my instinct is to try to stay as grounded as I can and keep as much of the old around as I can, even while new things are coming in, and slowly change, steadily, but not violently. I think my relationship with the church was like that. When I came to Cambridge, I was involved in the ward for a little bit, but I did have a very gradual process of trying to work out what I thought a good life consisted of.

DN: What is the overall message you wanted people to get from your book?

TW: For me the book is about education and family. I was trying to write a story about how complicated family relationships can be and all the conflicted feelings that a person can have. You can really love someone and choose not to have them in your life and miss them every day and still be grateful you don't have to see them again. For me, the book is about education as an idea of how you create yourself, not just education as a way to get a better job or make a living, but as a way to make a person.

If you go …

What: Tara Westover book signing

When: Thursday, March 29, 7 p.m.

Where: First Unitarian Church, 569 S. 1300 East


Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.