BYU grad, ‘Educated’ author Tara Westover talks family estrangement, writing memoir
“I’m breaking a big rule in the family, which is not to talk about it. I’ve tried to be as sensitive to the discomfort that that has caused as I can be, but ultimately, I still feel like it was important to do.” — Tara Westover on writing “Educated”
Several years ago, Tara Westover found herself at a crossroads with her family. What she wanted for herself — a formal education — stood in direct opposition to her entire upbringing.
The youngest of seven children, Westover was raised by survivalist parents in the mountains of rural Idaho. Her father was suspicious of the government and opposed to public education, so she didn’t attend school growing up. Instead, she had minimal homeschooling.
Eventually, with some guidance from an older brother, Westover combated these limitations and went on to attend Brigham Young University.
That opened up her world and took her down a path of higher education. It was this second world, Westover said, that gave her the strength to stand up to her first world.
“My family struggled a lot with violence and other kinds of abuse,” Westover said on Thursday, during a virtual Q&A session for Utah Valley University’s Presidential Lecture series. “And we did not in any way navigate that successfully and heal from it. And that’s a choice we made. Families don’t have to deal with it that way. But mine did.”
Noting that she couldn’t control the actions of her family members, Westover said she focused on what she could control, including her decision to separate herself from her family. And in 2014, she went on to accomplish something that at one time would’ve seemed impossible — earning a doctorate from Cambridge University.
It was after that degree — which she struggled to complete as she grappled with the emotional toll of estrangement — that Westover said she decided to tell her story. As she worked through tough questions regarding her family and the value of education, the New York Times bestseller “Educated” came to life.
“I had to make some really difficult decisions as I got older about what I was going to do with my relationship with my family,” the author said in conversation with UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez. “The older I got, I felt like I was going to have to make a choice between what it meant to be loyal to myself and what it meant to be loyal to my family. … And it took me a lot of years to process. So I wrote this book to help other people who might be trying to think through what that means to them.”
Part of the problem, Westover said, is that the many stories she uncovered — whether in film or book or advertising — all touted reconciliation narratives, the idea that “love conquers all.” It was much more uncommon to find a story openly discussing the complexity of family relationships and estrangement.
“There’s a tendency to assume that the goal should always be reconciliation. And for a lot of people that probably is true, but I think for me, I think the estrangement has been a really healthy good thing,” said Westover, who is currently estranged from about half of her immediate family, including her parents. “They were my family. They were everything I knew, and I had somehow made this decision to step back from them. … I think I wanted to write the book because I wanted so badly to read the book.”
So Westover opened a Word document and started writing. She went to an amateur writing group on London’s Brick Lane, rewriting and revising until, eventually, she had something she believed had a point. It wasn’t until she had written the whole memoir that she finally felt OK sharing it with the world.
“The reality is, I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea of publishing it. I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would ever actually read it,” Westover said. “I think individually there’s almost no chapter that I would really want out there in the world, but as a complete ... story, I felt more comfortable saying, ‘I understand why this might be helpful.’
“I’m breaking a big rule in the family, which is not to talk about it,” she continued. “I’ve tried to be as sensitive to the discomfort that that has caused as I can be, but ultimately, I still feel like it was important to do.”
Westover’s parents have since disputed their daughter’s memoir, which came out in 2018. Her mom recently released her own take in a memoir titled “Educating.” When asked Thursday about that version, Westover said, “My version doesn’t have to be the only version, and I’m really comfortable with the idea that there are other ways of looking at it.
“I mean, it’s not my way of looking at it,” she added. “But I think part of respecting yourself, actually, and your ability to have your own ideas is respecting other people’s right for the same.”
Westover does credit her upbringing with giving her a hard work ethic, a passion for reading — even if what she read for a long time was limited by her parents’ views — and a sense of curiosity.
“My dad had a lot of kind of paranoid ideas — mostly about the government — but really about anybody who lived differently than we did, which was almost everybody,” the author continued. “My dad was afraid of us thinking differently than he did, and so I think he wanted to control what we learn.”
That upbringing has informed Westover’s view of education today. The author said education is about uncovering different points of views and using those perspectives to “build your own mind in some meaningful way.”
And during the lecture, when an eighth-grader from Vista Heights Middle School in Saratoga Springs asked Westover for reading suggestions, the author encouraged the student to make her own discoveries.
“I would say any reading list that is made for you by someone else is inferior to the reading list that you make for yourself.
“A lot of my most meaningful experiences with education came from when I had to make a choice of what I was reading, what I was finding,” Westover continued. “We give kids this idea that their life is theirs when it comes to ice cream or the color of their shoelaces, but the life of the mind is just totally passive, and you don’t get any say, and you just do what other people tell you. And then we are annoyed that kids don’t experience education as joyful and discovery.”
Lately, Westover, who is currently a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has been reading up on technology and psychology, delving into theories about social media and political polarization. In terms of future projects, she said she hasn’t ruled out having “Educated” turned into a film — although she also hasn’t sold the film rights yet.
“I’ve had a lot of offers and I just haven’t taken anyone up on them,” she said. “I think it’s something I would want done in a certain way. ... And I’m afraid of it being something that I don’t recognize. So I gotta figure that out for myself. I’m working on it.”