If Tara Westover relied on memory alone, even she might question her bittersweet tale of growing up in an isolated, public school- and doctor-eschewing family ruled by a self-styled prophet-father’s survivalist gospel.
After all, today half the members of her rural southeastern Idaho Mormon family — especially Westover’s parents — dismiss her newly published New York Times best-seller, “Educated: A Memoir,” as a misremembered, if not predominantly false, narrative.
She writes of awakening one night to being choked by an older brother, angry with her “whorish” makeup and budding friendship with a boy. Westover says he then dragged her by the hair from her bedroom, shouting “slut,” “whore” and “bitch” as her mother tried to stop him.
That is only one of many assaults Westover says she endured from a sibling who was her “best friend,” loving and generous one moment but raging and violent the next.
Her parents, however, insist these accounts of repeated physical and emotional abuse were either misunderstandings or simply imagined by their estranged daughter.
Anti-government paranoia that led to stockpiling of food, fuel and weapons, as well as to not filing for birth certificates to keep Westover and other siblings off government databases? Exaggerations, the parents counter.
Still, Westover writes in detail of her father’s fears — stoked by deadly clashes between government agents and religious-survivalist contemporaries at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho — that the end of days was imminent. Frenetic food canning sessions, installation of a large, hidden gasoline tank, and purchases of ammunition and firearms followed, she recounts.
Inconsistent “home schooling” that left her and six siblings ignorant of the world and ill-prepared for normal lives? Just not so, her parents contend.
Yet, Westover remembers that while she was taught to read and write, the family library consisted of little more than a Bible, the Book of Mormon, writings of early LDS prophets and a tattered history book. She turned to a brother’s hidden encyclopedia, along with books on such mysteries as algebra and trigonometry bought with money earned from odd jobs in a nearby town, to broaden her horizons.
“Educated” also recalls an upbringing in which injuries, including serious, even life-threatening burns, were treated with folk remedies, “essential oils” and homemade salves administered by her midwife mother.
Well, yes, that happened, family members say, but they insist professional medical help was sought — when really needed.
Certainly, memories can be fickle things. They are shaped by fluctuating emotions, fragmentary childhood perceptions interpreted as adult recollections, or even fears and guilt imposed upon psyches from within and without.
But Westover had more than memories for her story: She had her journals.
Kept since childhood, those diaries inform her story of not just familial dysfunction, but also a determined, even desperate quest for self-education — one that took her from her family’s remote Buck Peak, Idaho, junkyard to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, Harvard and the University of Cambridge in England, where she earned her doctorate in history.
“My journals supplied me with a level of detail I could never have had if I relied on memory alone,” Westover told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I recorded meals I’d eaten, conversations I’d overheard, work I’d done for my father in the junkyard or my mother tincturing herbs.”
Those voluminous personal archives, which she began at age 10 and continued up to 2014, when she completed her Ph.D., became Westover’s literary lodestar.
“Much of the specificity in the book,” Westover says, “is taken from these entries, or from correspondence, or from fact-checking conversations I had with other members of my family.”
That’s an important distinction, too. While her parents, Val and LaRee Westover, along with some of her siblings, will not accept her accounts, other family members do.
“I am estranged from half of my family. That half were not supportive of me writing the book,” Westover acknowledges. “[But] I am close with three of my brothers, and do feel that they have been supportive; I’m very grateful to them for that.”
Efforts to contact other Westover family members were unsuccessful. Val and LaRee Westover referred inquiries to their attorney, Clifton, Idaho-based Blake Atkin.
“[They] are disappointed their daughter would malign them, their religion and their love of country as she has done in this book,” Atkin writes in emails. “They not only disagree with the unfounded stories in the book, but disagree with the premise of the book itself.”
The premise, Atkin maintains, is that Tara Westover survived and thrived academically despite being denied public education in favor of spotty, inadequate home schooling.
“Tara was a loved daughter who was educated by her parents such that, at age 16, she received a scholarship to attend BYU,” Atkin adds, noting that two of Westover’s brothers also went on to earn doctorates.
In her book, one of several examples Westover provides of her inadequate schooling was not being taught about the Holocaust. It was not until she was in a college classroom, she writes, that she even saw the word. When she asked a professor what it meant, he and other students castigated her, unable to believe she really didn’t know about the Nazis’ World War II mass murders of 6 million Jews.
Atkin dismissed that gap in historical knowledge. “We used to think education was not about learning facts and dates so we could regurgitate them on a test,” he says. “[Education] was sharing enough … that when the time came to leave the nest, we could find our own way.”
Westover, though no longer a practicing Latter-day Saint, denies her book attacks her former faith. Also, she does not see the way she was raised as representative of mainstream Mormonism, which values the public education and medical profession she says her father opposed.
Indeed, Russell M. Nelson, the recently appointed president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a renowned heart surgeon, and virtually all of the faith’s apostles — many of them lawyers, physicians or former college presidents — earned advanced academic degrees.
“I have a lot of respect for Mormonism,” Westover says. “In particular for … the people at BYU, all of them Mormon, who helped and befriended me for no reason other than because they were kind, good people.”
As for her parents taking any credit for her educational accomplishments, however, Westover is less accommodating. Rather, she sees that as just part of a “pattern of avoidance” regarding the catalyst for a broken family.
“They would much rather debate the home school than engage with the central cause of our estrangement, which is that my brother was violent — toward me, toward others,” she says. “When I confronted my parents about his violence, I was ostracized from the family for speaking out.”
Today, Atkin says, Westover’s parents still love their youngest child, even going so far as to say they are “sorry for the trauma she undoubtedly has felt.”
But do they believe the details “Educated” shares about the violence and verbal degradations purportedly inflicted on Westover by an older brother, identified in the book by the pseudonym “Shawn”?
“The recollections of those events she recounts in the book are not what she told them at the time [they allegedly occurred],” Atkin retorts, “and not like the recollections she recorded in her journals.”
Westover allows that there is some truth in that, and she does so in her book. She explains that she both loved and feared that brother; he was often kind, but too often manipulative and cruel.
While assaults often were followed by heartfelt apologies, other times he would brush off the attacks as a game that got out of control or blame her “whorish” behavior for triggering them.
So, though her arm might be painfully twisted up behind her back and her head smashed into a wall or toilet, she might laugh, as if it were indeed a game. Later, in her journals, she would edit details of some, but not all of those incidents to reflect Shawn’s account.
But Westover says that, deep down, she always knew the truth. And she remembered, too, how a teenage girl, fearing rejection and judgment of unbelieving family, kept her narrative suppressed for years.
Now 32, Westover says time, new friends, a study of mental disorders she suspects may have afflicted some in her family, and her own submission to therapy have brought her a measure of tranquility.
“[Therapy helped] me deal with the psychological stress of losing my family,” she says. “It was not an easy or immediate fix, but, in general, I found therapy to be effective [and] I do think I have arrived at a place of peace.”
Westover, who now lives near Cambridge, still recalls happier moments from her childhood: exploring the latest arrivals at the family’s junkyard, watching the wild wheat roll in the winds streaming off Buck Peak, the sweetness of her mother’s laughter and the smells of herbal concoctions wafting from the kitchen.
But for now, at least, it is as it has been for many years: Westover cannot go home again. The memories — among them, she says, being declared by her father to be “possessed” and thus exiled as a “danger to her family” — still scar her.
“My feelings are in a constant state of flux, like anybody’s. Sometimes I feel anger toward my family, but mostly I feel love,” she says. “I love them, I miss them. I wish our story was different.”