We talk to writer Tara Westover, author of the book “Educated,” in this rebroadcast from a 2018 live audience discussion at Literary Arts. Westover was raised by radical, anti-government parents in the mountains of Idaho. Though her parents refused to enroll her in public school, she taught herself enough to take the ACT test and attend university at age 17. She details her upbringing and struggle to attain an education in her book.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: We are coming to you today in front of an audience at the Literary Arts space in downtown Portland in conversation with Tara Westover. Tara Westover grew up in the mountains of Idaho as one of seven children. Her dad was a radical survivalist who mistrusted basically every part of American society, from the government to medicine to schools. So she didn’t have a birth certificate. She never saw a doctor despite suffering serious injuries at her family’s scrapyard and she never stepped foot in a classroom. Against these odds, Westover entered Brigham Young University when she was 17. Harvard and Cambridge Universities followed and she eventually earned a PhD. But that external success is not the most dramatic transformation in her story. As she writes in her memoir, Educated, her overbearing father and her abusive brother had, in a sense, colonized her mind. So over the last 15 or so years part of her task was to reclaim her own sense of reality. Tara Westover, welcome to Think Out Loud. Over the course of your book, you catalog a lot of family trauma. But you also described, especially the beginning but threaded throughout, a beautiful place where you grew up. Can you describe Buck’s Peak?
Tara Westover: Yeah, Buck’s Peak was not the biggest mountain in that mountain chain, not even close. But it was my somewhat biased opinion that I always felt like it was the most finely made. It was kind of perfect in the way that it sloped upward and then formed into this really beautiful peak at the top. And my father had this beautiful story that he told us about the mountain. He said in the springtime if you looked at the mountain when the snow was just starting to melt that you would see the image of a woman’s body on the face of the mountain. And he called her the Indian Princess. And he said that her return, you know, back when there were nomadic indians in that area, he had this story. I don’t know where he heard it but those Indians, the Native Americans, would watch for her appearance as a sign of spring. It’s a sign that winter was over, the mountain was thawing and it was time for them to come home - back to that part of the valley. So it’s a really beautiful story that my father had told me about the place that I grew up.
Miler: A lot of your book is about your process of inadvertent and in some cases conscious fact checking of aspects of your life. Did you ever fact check that?
Westover: I mean I don’t know how to fact check that. It’s just a story that we were told. It’s a funny thing. I mean it’s not like I ever contacted [them]. There were reservations nearby but I never contacted them and said where did this come from? But I don’t know where he got it. I’ve never asked.
Miller: How much freedom did you have to explore that land?
Westover: The mountain? Almost total I would say. I mean, we were the definition of free range kids I think. My parents, if you didn’t come home at night, I think they would have noticed. But you could be gone for 10 hours. And it’s not a guarantee that they would have noticed overnight. So yeah, we had time.
Miller: One of the formative events in your earlier childhood didn’t happen to your family but involved another isolated Idaho family, the Weavers. Can you tell us what you were taught about what happened at Ruby Ridge?
Westover: I was just around five years old when that happened and I think it had a pretty big impact on my father. We lived in a way that wasn’t so dissimilar from the Weavers. My dad was very skeptical of federal government. He was pretty skeptical of state government. We were kept out of school. We didn’t believe in doctors. And so we lived in this way that was not totally dissimilar. My parents drove without having a license and these kinds of things. So I think when that happened to Randy Weaver, for my dad, it was a confirmation of a lot of the fears that he had. And so the story as he was telling it to us as it was unfolding, which is quite shocking actually. What the agents did in terms of killing a young child and then they actually did shoot Vicki Weaver. And she was holding a baby in her own house. There’s really not a way to make a case that she was a threat, I don’t think at that point. But I think the way that I was told that story [made it] a confirmation that this is what would happen to us.
And I always thought it was some kind of giant cover up. This was proof of the federal government and how evil they were. And that nobody knew about it except for us. And later when I was in college and I learned about the event and I read about it, on the one hand, I was astonished at how similar it actually was. Like I said, the agents had actually done unbelievable things. But what really shocked me was the end of the story and the fact that there had been such an incredible public response. So you know, there was government oversight, every national news media covered it, multiple stories, there was a congressional inquiry, the Department of Justice looks into it.
And that was a very different outcome than the one I’d imagined. You know, Randy Weaver himself. I’d always imagined that he had died in the house with the rest of the family. But he was alive and he had a book deal with his daughter and traveled around giving speeches. And it seemed, in that moment, I thought if this is a cover up, it’s the worst cover up in history maybe. The other thing, I was studying politics and I was studying history and I was thinking maybe this is the sign of a healthy democracy. I mean, maybe a healthy government isn’t a government that is perfect, but a government that responds to abuses of power. And that was a very different way of thinking about what had happened than the way that it had been presented to me, which was that they had gotten away with it almost and no one had ever found out about it.
Miller: But that realization came a decade and a half or so later. When you were 10 years old, it was your turn to start working in the family’s scrapyard, your father’s metal scrapyard. I wonder if you could read us a part of your chapter you have about the first morning that you joined your dad there. And I should just say this again, because it’s important for me to keep in mind even as I hear this, you’re 10 years old.
Westover: Okay, here we go:
“We began to sort the debris into piles, aluminum, iron, steel, copper so it could be sold. I picked up a piece of iron. It was dense with bronze rust and its jagged angles nibbled at my palms. I had a pair of leather gloves, but when Dad saw them, he said, they’d slow me down. ‘You’ll get calluses real quick’, he promised. As I handed them over, I had found a hard hat in the shop, but Dad took that too. ‘You move slower, trying to balance this silly thing on your head’, he said.
Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky. In the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel. Dad saw every piece of scrap as the money it could be sold for, minus the time needed to sort, cut and deliver it. Every slab of iron, every ring of copper tubing was a nickel, a dime a dollar - less if it took more than two seconds to extract and classify. And he constantly weighed these meager profits against the hourly expense of running the house.
He figured that to keep the lights on, the house warm, he needed to work at breakneck speed. I never saw Dad carry anything to a sorting bin. He just chucked it with all the strength he had from wherever he was standing. The first time I saw him do it, I thought it was an accident. A mishap that would be corrected. I hadn’t yet grasped the rules of this new world. I had bent down and was reaching for a copper coil when something massive cut through the air next to me. When I turned to see where it had come from, I caught a steel cylinder full in the stomach. The impact knocked me to the ground. ‘Oops!’ Dad hollered. I rolled over on the ice, winded. By the time I had scrambled to my feet, Dad had launched something else. I ducked, but lost my footing and fell. This time I stayed down. I was shaking but not from cold. My skin was alive and tingling with the certainty of danger. Yet when I looked for the source of that danger, all I could see was a tired old man tugging on a broken light fixture.
I remembered all the times I had seen one of my brothers burst through the back door howling, pinching some part of his body that was gashed, or squashed, or broken, or burned. I remembered two years before when a man named Robert, who worked for Dad, had lost a finger. I remembered the otherworldly pitch of his scream as he ran to the house. I remembered staring at the bloody stump, and then at the severed finger, which Luke brought in and placed on the counter. It looked like a prop from a magic trick. Mother put it on ice and rushed Robert to town so the doctors could sew it back on. Robert’s was not the only finger the junkyard had claimed. A year before, Shawn’s girlfriend Emma had come through the back door, shrieking. She’d been helping Shawn and lost half her index. Mother had rushed Emma to town too, but the flesh had been crushed and there was nothing they could do. I looked at my own pink fingers and in that moment, the junkyard shifted.
As children, Richard and I had passed countless hours in the debris jumping from one mangled car to the next looting some leaving others. It had been the backdrop for a thousand imagined battles between demons and wizards, fairies and goons, trolls, and giants. Now it was changed. It had ceased to be my childhood playground. It had become its own reality, one whose physical laws were mysterious, hostile. I was remembering the strange pattern the blood had made as it streaked down Emma’s wrist, smearing across her forearm, when I stood, and still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of pipe of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter, I lept aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, ‘Don’t throw them here, I’m here!’ Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there when he saw the blood. He walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, honey,’ he said, ‘God and his angels are here working right alongside us. They won’t let you get hurt’.”
Miller: That’s my guest, the writer and historian Tara Westover, reading from her memoir, Educated about her childhood in rural Idaho and eventually her decision to break free from her family. What went through your mind when he said that, ‘don’t worry, the angels will take care of you’?
Westover: I think probably two completely contradictory things. On the one hand, I think I believed him, I think that made sense to me. On the other, I think I was still frightened, you know, I was still scared. I still knew that that was probably gonna happen again and that there’s a tension there I guess between ‘have faith, nothing bad will happen’ and ‘duck’, you know, like those two things can both be true and trying to work out what you should do to have faith. Does that mean that you just get hit? And I think as children, we don’t always, I think we very often don’t have the tools that we need to understand what’s happening to us. And so when I was a child and I was a little kid, I don’t think I knew how to reconcile the fact that I didn’t understand mental illness. I had no concept of it. I didn’t understand that my father could love me and value my safety and just be completely unable to keep me safe for reasons that had nothing to do with love, had nothing to do with the kind of father he wanted to be. But that was, nonetheless, the reality. He could not, the way his brain worked - the way he understood the world, was such that he was going to do these very dangerous things. And as a kid, I think you just experienced that, or the way I experienced it, as one that was my fault. Like why couldn’t I do these things he was asking me to do? Why was I getting hurt? Or that maybe he didn’t love me because he was putting me in danger. So I think it was a lot of these kinds of confusing, self-blame emotions that you feel when you’re a kid because you don’t necessarily have the tools that you need to understand the situation.
Miller: Your family was in a really tough physical situation because on the one hand you are being exposed to 20th and 21st century dangers - these gigantic scary metal crushing machines or dropping machines or cutting machines. But the only defense you had once you were injured was 12th century medicine, just herbs and prayers. I lost track, reading the book, of how many serious injuries there were to you and your siblings and your mother and your father. Can you give just a sense of some of the big ones that you watched or that became a part of family lore?
Westover: When I was writing the book, I didn’t want to wear people out with all of this chaos.
Miller: You consciously held back because it would have been too much if you’d written all of it?
Westover: I felt like there’s a pointlessness to it. I mean there’s a point at which it becomes gratuitous and pointless. I kept some repetition because I found that repetition to be meaningful. So my family had a number of car accidents coming back from Arizona. I wrote about two of them. I think for me, there was something meaningful in the parallels. I don’t know if you’ve read Don Quixote, but there is almost this- the same things keep happening and there’s a real rhythm to it and it’s kind of a comedy of tragedies in a way, but I felt like there was some meaning in establishing like this. These are the rules of this world, but beyond that, no, I don’t think there’s anything once you’ve established what you want to achieve, what you want to establish in terms of the rules of that world and in terms of our artistic repetition or whatever you wanna call it. No, I don’t feel like there’s much to be gained from dragging everyone through any more explosions and burns.
Miller: Your parents talked about the fact that you and your siblings were homeschooled, especially you and the younger set because some of your older siblings had gone to school briefly. But I get the sense reading the book that there actually wasn’t that much homeschooling going on. Can you give us a sense for how official the lessons were in your home?
Westover: Yeah, I can’t speak for my brothers and I don’t quite know what I think. I think it was better when my older brothers were kids. I think my mom started off with really good intentions and then she had seven kids and became a midwife and became an herbalist and life gets in the way. I’ve heard conflicting accounts. Sometimes my brother Tyler will say, ‘oh the home school when I was a kid was actually really great and was really disciplined’. But then he’s also said, ‘well when I decided to learn trigonometry, there wasn’t a book and I had to go buy it and I had to teach it to myself’. So I don’t know, I get mixed. From my own memory of it and I think Richard and I, we were similar ages by that point. I never wrote an essay for my mother, I never took an exam. And we never had anything like a lecture. There was just nothing formal. I remember my mother teaching me how to do long division because I asked her and I don’t remember a whole lot more formal than that. Remember she taught me fractions because you have to cook.
Miller: So she was practical?
Westover: Very practical so she spent time doing that. But I think by the time I came along, my mother had this kind of idea that we would pick it up.
Miller: You did end up picking up a lot of books. In your mid teens you started reading voraciously what, it seems, was at hand. What was your reading diet?
Westover: You know it’s funny that you say that. I started studying math. I didn’t read that widely. I guess I did read a lot of scripture and a lot of 19th century mormon lectures but I wouldn’t say I read widely. I would say I read very narrowly. I read anything of Joseph Smith papers that I could find - these really dense 19th century essays. Ditto Brigham Young. I read the bible from cover to cover I think twice.
Miller: So at an age when your age peers would have been reading Harry Potter or whatever else, you were in the 19th century or in King James English. What effect do you think that had on your reading brain or your writing brain?
Westover: I don’t know about my writing brain. I think it was helpful later when I was trying to learn how to write. I would think about Biblical language. It was nice to have a familiarity with the way that kind of poetry worked. But I think my reading brain, I don’t know, I think probably it helped my attitude quite a lot because I had an idea of reading. I think nowadays we often make stories that are for children and what we mean by for children is that they’re a bit inane. And this idea that you’re not always expected to understand everything, you actually want to be reading above your level. Like there are things that you shouldn’t get on the first pass and you should get them on the next pass or the tenth pass. I think I’m really grateful for that. I had a lot of patience when I got to college to read for an hour. Even if I only understood 5% of what I was reading and I would still do it because that was my experience reading Joseph Smith.
Miller: So what was driving you when you were reading Joseph Smith or speeches of great mormon leaders or whatever? What was behind it? Why were you doing it?
Westover: I think just piety? You’re supposed to study the scriptures, you were supposed to study the word of God and the word of God’s prophets. And so I was going to do that. And then you develop a taste for some things more than others I guess. And I, for whatever reason, really liked the 19th century speeches.
Miller: Your older brother Tyler was the first member of your nuclear family to go to college and you’ve been close to him. He’d shared music with you, he would talk with you, you’d watch him study and prepare so he could actually go to college. What impact did it have on you seeing him leave the house and leave the house for this reason - not to get his own house nearby and work in the scrapyard, but to leave?
Westover: I think I experienced it as a betrayal because the way that I understood that, the rest of the world was corrupted by the illuminati and that my family was safe from that because we were living in this isolated way. And then Tyler had chosen them, you know. He had chosen to go be a part of this evil worldly system. So that was kind of how I experienced his departure and it was quite a few years before I thought of it any differently than that.
Miller: What was the process of deciding for yourself that you actually, ‘I wanted to follow his footsteps’? You didn’t study the same thing, but you made the same choice to leave and to, in your case, study at Brigham Young University?
Westover: I mean he told me to go there. So he disappeared from my life when I would have been around 12. He just disappeared. He went to school and he was gone. And I didn’t really see him again very much and he didn’t come home very often. I don’t remember him in my life at all until I was about 16. And then I was working in my dad’s junkyard. I had a very very dysfunctional relationship with my other older brother who I called Shawn in the book. Tyler came home really unexpectedly and just witnessed a really unpleasant scene between me and my brother Shawn. And I think he had also been Shawn’s brother. So on some level I think he knew what that was and just said to me ‘you’ve got to get out of here’. And I love my family. I love my parents. I love my brother Shawn even. And it was extremely uncomfortable for me to hear him say that and I remember saying to him, ‘this is home… how could this be, this is where I should be’. And he said to me ‘and I think this is the worst possible place for you, you need to leave’. I don’t know as though I was persuaded by that. I mean whatever is familiar, always feels safer than something you don’t know.
But he was kind of clever and what he said to me was - I was really into music and I loved to sing. He had this kind of hero who lived in the town who directed the church choir who had this beautiful, beautiful voice. He played for me some opera music. I became obsessed with that. Where do people learn how to sing like that? That was so clear to me. That’s not something that you just know how to do. You have to go somewhere and there are people in the world and you go find them and they know how to do that. And he sort of said to me ‘well you know how Lisa learned to sing the way she does. She went to BYU and there’re teachers here and they will teach you how to sing’. And I thought okay, I’ll do that.
And so I started. I drove 45 miles, I found an algebra book, I bought one - really expensive - and then I realized I didn’t know how to do any of that. And I went back and bought the book before that and started trying to teach myself algebra, which was pretty awful as things go. But it’s quite strange I guess to tell people and try to be believed, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, I taught myself algebra because I love to sing. That was the reason. I really, really wanted to sing and this was one of the steps.
Miller: We’ve got a lot more coming up, including what happened when you got to BYU and everything that followed. We’re talking with Tara Westover, the historian and writer. Her memoir, Educated, has been named one of the top 10 books of 2018 by the New York Times, The Economist and many, many, many other publications. Let’s take a question from our audience. What’s your name?
Audience member Sarah: Hi Tara. Thanks for being here. My name is Sarah and I’m jumping ahead in the timeline a little bit. But we were just talking about music and we know that you went on to study history and politics. I just wanted to know what role music continues to play in your life at all if at all. And if you’ve had any formative music experiences outside of your life in Idaho.
Westover: Music is still important to me, but I would say it’s definitely moved into that realm of hobby, something I do with friends. I do it for my own pleasure. I think when I went to BYU, I imagined this would be my life in some way. I imagined I’d be a stay at home mom, but I thought I would be the choir director. This will be my thing besides my family. It’ll be music. And got to BYU and music was great. But then I discovered history and politics and geography and got almost as obsessed with those things as I’d been with music. And then [I] got obsessed with language and then wrote a book and then things got out of hand. So I don’t know what there is really to say about that or what kind of moral that you extract from it. But I do think in a time in our history where we’re kind of obsessed with kids studying useful things, I would make an argument for letting kids follow the things that they love, the passions that they have. Because I think you don’t really know where having a passion will take somebody. I wouldn’t have thought that I would go to Cambridge or be here because I like to sing. But I think that if you don’t have any kind of love or passion for anything, you’re not really gonna’ go anywhere. So that’s really all I have to say about music.
Miller: Given that you didn’t have any formal education, you hadn’t been into a classroom, you didn’t know how to fill out one of those bubbles for a multiple choice test, which in itself seems like a kind of blessing in the 21st century. But what was it like when you got to university?
Westover: It wasn’t the smoothest transition that you’ve ever heard of. It was kind of bleak I guess. Socially it was bad. I was really awkward. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I had never really spent a lot of time, very little time really with people not in my immediate family. Actually, a little bit, sitting awkwardly in the corner of Sunday school every week. But I never went to those kid’s houses. They never went to mine and I didn’t have friends, so that didn’t go great. Then there was just the academic side. I didn’t know anything. I raised my hand one of my first classes and asked what the holocaust was. And I had never heard of the civil rights movement. I thought Europe was a country.
Miller: You write that people didn’t believe you. They thought, for example, for the holocaust comment, they thought you were making some sick joke.
Westover: They thought that I thought I was saying ‘whaaat is this’. And what I meant [was], ‘what is this?’ They couldn’t conceive of somebody who was a freshman in college in America not knowing about the holocaust.I don’t hold that against them. It just didn’t occur to them that that could be a sincere question. But it was. So there was a lot separating me from the people that were around me, including ideology. They were very mainstream Mormons and I was not a mainstream Mormon. [I] had grown up in a much more extreme version of the church. And so there were so many things about them that I found to be lascivious actually. I just thought they were on the path to hell. Not good for friendship.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience.
Audience member Charlotte: My name is Charlotte and I’ve been very curious about what you are doing now besides book tour. Are you working? Are you a professor or teaching or what?
Westover: I’m working on a documentary about rural education and what happens to rural kids after high school, mostly because changing economics and rural areas which make it very hard for kids to be farmers the way they used to be. And so looking at this kind of almost forced migration into urban areas. That happening I think is quite hard for rural kids. They really struggle in college. For example, they’re much more likely to drop out and have a lot of debt for degrees they never finish and that kind of thing.
Miller: You mentioned Shawn briefly before the break and I think it’s worth returning to him because he’s a really significant part of your book and your story. Even as you were learning about the world and about history, you were still, in the early parts of college and for years after that, you were still in your family’s orbit and in some ways in his orbit too. Can you describe this older brother?
Westover: Describe him? He was a person of extremes I guess. I mean he could be incredibly kind. He could be really thoughtful. I think when I was a kid, he was the only person who I felt was aware of me in any kind of sustained way. And he was the first person, who ever, when we were in the junkyard and my dad was doing crazy things [like] coming up with some totally insane idea of how to do something to save five minutes that was going to result in someone losing an arm, he (Shawn) was always the one that said, ‘no, we’re not doing it like that’ and then they would fight. So I think early in my life, you know, I knew my father loved me. But I also felt the need to have someone in between me and him. And that became my older brother Shawn. So he was this incredibly kind person, but he had a whole other side of himself. Someone once put it to me that he had an incredible ability to make you hate yourself as much as he hated himself. And I think that’s probably the best summary of it that I could give.
Miller: He ended up, as you describe it, physically abusing you and then making you doubt what you had experienced and making you, in a sense, complicit - either feeling like it didn’t happen or it was all a game. And he was very clever at that kind of mental manipulation as much as a physical hurt. A lot of the abuse happened in front of your mother. Some of it your father was made aware of, especially later with Shawn’s wife. You told them that you had been the victim of his abuse. So did one of your sisters. And your parents said, ‘no, this didn’t happen.’ What do you think was at stake in this for them? Why take his side?
Westover: There’s a chapter at the beginning of the book that’s not about any of this stuff. It’s about choices that my family made around and after and during a car accident that we had. And the metaphor I used to explore that is the Arizona desert that we saw that has these layers of pebbles. At first they’re just little and then more of them come and they layer and layer and then they solidify because of the pressure and pretty soon what starts out as just little tiny bits of sand in the end, it’s rock is what it is.
And I think of that for a lot of the choices that my family made, and I think of it, especially when it comes to my brother. I think my parents initial response - they just didn’t want to deal with it. They were, I think, afraid of it. They thought it was something that they could just shut down and bury and never talk about again. And I don’t think that they foresaw all the ways that it would spiral out of control. I don’t think that my mother thought that if she didn’t believe me, and my father thought that they didn’t believe me that the end result would be estrangement. I don’t think it occurred to them. It had always worked in the past to just pretend like it wasn’t happening and to tell me that I was imagining things. That had always worked before and I think they just thought it would work again.
Miller: And it wasn’t just that they took his side. They actively called into question your memory, your experience, your sense of reality. What effect did that have on you?
Westover: Maybe that this happens sometimes, but I don’t think it does. I think this kind of abuse, I think all abuse fundamentally has to begin or end with some kind of assault on the mind and reality. I just think if you’re going to abuse someone in any way physically or otherwise, you have to invade their reality. You have to distort it a bit. You have to make them question what happened. You have to make them question their own ability to perceive things and their own worth. So I tend to think that abuse always has that element to it and I think because it’s distorting for the people involved in the relationship. But I think it’s distorting for the people around it as well.
One of the things that my brother would do if he was getting physically aggressive and there were people anywhere in the vicinity, and he often did, he would kind of narrate what was happening all the way through it. And there was a specific instance that I write about in the book where it was Thanksgiving and my brother kind of jammed a finger into my rib and I dropped this glass. I think it was a salad bowl and it broke. I started yelling at him and he got angry with me and pulled me into the other room and started choking me. And so my mother could hear what was going on, but she couldn’t see what was going on. And he was just narrating that for her. I think at the time I would have been 17 years old. I think, for most people, you need to have it explained to you why it’s appropriate for a 27 year old man to grab a 17 year old girl and go lay on her in the other room. And he was doing that.
He was saying things like, ‘oh you’re being very violent towards me, I really need to control you if you’re going to behave like a child, I need to treat you like one’. He was giving her explanations for what he was doing that she could either choose to accept or question. But I think it’s so much more comfortable to just say ‘well, that makes sense I guess’ and go on about your life. And ‘I don’t know why Tera is being so difficult’ and ‘oh good, Travis is going to deal with her. She’s clearly having some kind of fit’. And I think that that was just something that always happened to some degree. And then those narratives become reinforced over time.
Miller: Given that a number of people so close to you had worked really hard to undermine your memories, your sense of reality, what was it like to write a memoir, which is the entire craft of it is, in a sense, making art out of reconstructed life?
Westover: I think there was a long time I thought I couldn’t write it because I knew I’m gonna make this claim that my brother is violent. And some people are going to support that, but a lot of people aren’t. My parents are not going to support that. And I thought that just means I can’t write it. And then I started thinking maybe that’s what it is about. It’s about the fact that we actually don’t know what happened. I mean, whether you’re talking about families or nation states, the past is gone, it’s over. You can’t actually access it. And what we’re left with is the political negotiation. It’s a power negotiation of who gets to say what happened, Who gets to maintain their own version. Who gets to have a voice in that discussion. And I think I came to believe that in a family and as much in a country, who gets to talk tells you as much about those relationships as you would ever get from reconstructing perfectly any single event.
I think I would say this, I don’t think what broke my family apart is my brother’s violence. I’m not even sure it matters how severe it was, whether it was much worse than I remember. Whether it was much better. I don’t think that’s what tore us apart. I think what tore us apart is that we had a family culture where someone could come forward and say, ‘I’m frightened and I need help’ and the response would be ‘you’re trying to destroy the family and we think you’re possessed’. I think it was the present that was the issue. The past, who gets to have their own memories of the past, that’s just a power question. And what I discovered is that in my family, I didn’t have any.
Miller: One of the more fascinating parts of the craft of the book that I kept being made aware of, because you made us aware of it as readers, is that in so many instances and not just in questions of abuse, but accidents or family stories, you say ‘this is what happened’. And then there will be a footnote saying, ‘or maybe it didn’t happen this way, other people who I thought were there, don’t remember them being there’, or ‘someone who I didn’t think was there have their own memory of this’. And in a lot of ways the memories aren’t just conflicting. They’re mutually incompatible. And you show us all of that, which felt really rare in a memoir. Normally the sense I get is memoirists say tacitly ‘well this is the way I remember it and it’s my book and this is where I’m going to write it’. You took a very different approach. Why?
Westover: I think it started as a practicality because I wrote this story about my brother’s leg getting burned. And I called up one of my brothers who I remembered being there, the only person I remember being there besides the brother who got burned and checked. We remembered everything exactly the same. And I thought, great, well that’s checked. And I wrote it and then after I’d written it, this other version came out. I mean two other versions came out - from my dad and my brother whose leg was burned. Someone was wrong. In fact three of the four of us were wrong. We all remembered a different version. And if you took all of our accounts and wrote them together, the only person we could agree was present that day was Luke. We agreed that he had been present for the burning of his own leg. And that was as much as we could get. And I was trying to sort it out. I was trying to write in a way that everyone’s memory was represented and I think I just had [gotten] a PhD in history and had just finished it very recently. And that is a footnote is what that is. That is a footnote.
And then I started thinking more about it. And then the next time that happened, I had written this story about my brother falling 12 feet off the palette and my dad not calling 911 even though his life was in danger. And when I wrote that I called Richard. I called Tyler. They remembered it exactly the way I did. So again, check mark, that’s done. And then later everyone started saying ‘no, no, no, that’s not what happened’. And I thought, well Tyler and Richard and I have remembered it this exact same way for nearly 15 years. So, what do you do with that? I almost started feeling like ‘what if we’re wrong’? Okay, what if we’re wrong? If we’re wrong, it’s still kind of a character in the story. The fact that when I had written the book and I sent it to one of my brothers - I said, ‘I don’t know who called 911, maybe it was my brother-in-law, maybe it was Dad’ and Richard had written in the margins ‘definitely wasn’t Dad’. He would have died first. There’s no way.
And there was a part of me that thought the fact that Richard and I spent 15 years thinking if we had had a serious accident, this is how it would be responded to because of the experience we had, that’s important. And if we’re wrong. And my dad wasn’t like that. It’s actually just really tragic. And I don’t know. I’m not a memory fundamentalist. I don’t need to be right about everything. I don’t think that the solution to people not listening to me is to not listen to other people. I don’t. I don’t feel like I need to be right all the time about everything. And I feel like there’s a lot to be gained from thinking about what the stories are that came about and how did they come about? And how did our believing them impact our lives so much? And part of that for me is saying maybe my dad is the kind of person who, for whatever reason, won’t call 911 when one of his children is really injured. But you know what? Maybe he is the kind of person who would call 911 when one of his children is injured. But his children don’t know that.
Miller: After your book came out, a lawyer representing your parents wrote a letter on their behalf arguing that three of their seven children, 42% he pointed out, got their PhDs. He said “you’d be hard pressed to find a public school with those statistics”. And he added this: “We used to think that education was to teach you how to read, think and plan what you wanted to do. If that were still the definition of education, then your home schooling was successful.” How do you feel about this representative of your parents saying that your parents deserve a lot of the credit for your success?
Westover: Unsurprised. I don’t have strong feelings about it.
Miller: You don’t have strong feelings?
Westover: No. My dad, the second I got into Cambridge, said ‘you can’t go there, that’s a socialist country’ and then ‘but it just proves that we were right all along’. It was like ‘you’re being recognized by the world and that’s so wonderful but the world is terrible’. And so I don’t know what to make of that. In a way, they’re right. Three of their kids do have PhDs.That’s kind of shocking.
Miller: But the question is what are they right about? That’s a mathematical fact. But do you think that they gave you something that propelled you to where you are? Or is it that they pushed you away and you grabbed at something else and have made your life what it is or is that too simplistic?
Westover: I suppose I feel like it’s probably a mix. They definitely gave us something. They taught us how to work. They gave us a curiosity about the world. They taught us that we could learn things. I think sometimes I look at the way that our education system is run and how institutionalized and passive and just sclerotic it is. And I feel like, in a way, I’m so grateful that my ideas about education were not that. I didn’t really know what it was, but I didn’t think it was that. And I think that was a real benefit to me. I think it was a real benefit to my brothers. Did they educate my brothers and me in a way that in any way explains why we were able to get where we did? I find that hard to reconcile with my own memories. My mother, I think was very earnest, wanted to teach me algebra. The reality was she didn’t know algebra. So that had to come from somewhere else. But they gave me some things. They absolutely gave me some things.
Miller: You write near the end of the book that Tyler, one of the brothers who has a PhD, and his wife Stephanie, homeschool their seven children. And you write that from what you’ve seen there, they’ve been doing that to a high standard. If you were to have children, have you thought about homeschooling?
Westover: Before Tyler homeschooled his kids, I never would have even considered it. I wouldn’t have. Even since watching him, I might be tempted to do a mix only because I do have questions, concerns, snide remarks to make about the education system that we have.
Miller: You called it sclerotic earlier. What is at the heart of your critique?
Westover: I think it’s an institution and I don’t think learning is something that is best done as so institutionalized as it is. But we’ve chosen to make it very institutionalized. We’re having a lot of anxieties about all kinds of things, globalization and technological unemployment. And we’re trying to solve these problems by putting more and more pressure on the education system to deliver workers. I don’t know as though I really would want my children to be made workers. I just want them to be and learn. And I want them to think learning is fun.
What I really like about my brother’s approach is they don’t make much of a distinction between learning and playing. They don’t have the conception in their heads. There’s some things they’re made to learn that they don’t want to learn. But on the whole, they pretty much don’t distinguish and that was my experience, I was never made to learn things that I didn’t really want to know. My idea of an education was not sitting quietly in a room with 40 other kids while someone told me something I didn’t really want to know. That’s not what it was to me. And I don’t think that’s what it is to them. So it would depend on my circumstances if I could afford it financially, if I could have the time, if I had all these things that go into the equation. I wouldn’t want my kids to be homeschooled completely because I don’t want them to be as awkward as I was. But I think there’s something to be said for trying to make our experience of education match up a little more with our ideals of what an education is. And at present, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of that.
Miller: To a great extent, your story is about breaking free of a particular familial dogma and this sort of hermetically sealed world, that was sealed off from nuance and could not be penetrated by logic or outside counter arguments. You’re outside of that world now. I’m wondering if you feel, because of that experience of leaving, that you have finely tuned antenna for new kinds of dogma when you encounter it?
Westover: I’m sure I subscribe to a lot of dogma. You said that I’m now outside of that world. I think we’re all in that world all the time. We just don’t know it. You’re outside of your family. I’m outside of my family. But I think we all live in our own family. I think if you describe [this book] in the abstract, it’s all very sensationalist and a bit extreme, which is always a bit painful to me. Because what I was interested in doing with it, and I hope I succeeded, I didn’t want to take the sensational and make it even more sensational. I wanted to take the sensational and normalize it because that’s what it felt like. And I think that’s what it feels like for everybody. You only have the one family when you’re a child. Whatever you’re told, whatever life you’re given, that’s just the way it is. You don’t have another life to compare it to. It seems completely normal.
And I think you don’t have to have been raised by radicals. You can have a totally normal life. And part of what it means is still growing up and trying to define yourself both in connection to your family and a distinction from your family and figure out whether that was normal. Was that okay? Do I think this or was I just told to think this? What are the stories that I was told that I think everybody agrees [with], but really they’re just my specific group of people [who] think this? I think we all experience that. I don’t think you have to be raised in isolation by survivalists. That’s just our experience all the time. That’s why white people have a different memory of this country than black people. We live in our bubbles and we read the narratives and hear the stories and engage with the history that’s put in front of us by other people. And everybody does that. In my case. It was just a small group of people.
Miller: I mentioned that email from the lawyer representing your parents. There were other parts in that letter where he was saying these things in the book aren’t true. But he was mentioning things that weren’t really even in the book. It made me wonder the extent to which he had read the book. And it also made me wonder if your parents and the siblings, from whom you’re still currently estranged, have read the book. Do you know if they have?
Westover: I don’t know if they have. It would surprise me if the lawyer hasn’t. So it surprised me too.
Miller: But he was mentioning things about polygamy that weren’t a big part of the book at all?
Westover: Yeah, no, I haven’t engaged with everything they said. But I think they said you want a scholarship, which I definitely didn’t. And then they made another weird claim that they had read all my journals and that there were inconsistencies in them that made them doubt my story about my brother. [But] they just don’t have them. I have them. So for me that’s just a strange one. I’m like what are you reading? What is that that you’re reading? Did you find a notebook or something? So I don’t really, I cannot explain their statements because I don’t really understand how their mind works really. But my guess is they sincerely believe what they’re saying, whatever that is.
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