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How education saved me after my Mormon survivalist childhood

By Alex Spencer

Tara Westover, speaker at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas
Tara Westover, speaker at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Author Tara Westover will be speaking about her life at the Festival of Ideas this weekend

Author Tara Westover is one of the headliners at the Festival of Ideas this weekend where she will be discussing how education changed her life after growing up in a survivalist Mormon family.

In her memoir, Educated, which was chosen by Barack Obama as one of his books of the summer, Tara details how she was raised isolated from the outside world in a family who didn’t allow her to go to school, turned a blind eye to the severe beatings she received from her brother and refused her access to healthcare.

Tara eventually escaped after applying to the Mormon university, Brigham Young, with the help of her older brother, before going on to study at Harvard and Cambridge Universities. She spoke to the Cambridge Independent ahead of her talk.

“I was raised in the mountains in Idaho by parents who didn’t believe in a lot of the institutions that most people take for granted: doctors, hospitals, schools - really anything to do with the government. So I didn’t have a birth certificate until I was nine and I didn’t set foot in a classroom until I was 17.

“It was a different kind of childhood, but I guess that to me it felt pretty normal. The thing about being a child is that whatever life you have feels normal. It’s not like you have other childhoods to compare it to.”

Instead of going to school, Tara spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or making herbal tinctures with her mother who was a self taught herbalist and unofficial midwife.

She was 17 when she went to Brigham Young University, teaching herself to pass the entrance exams to get there. She went on to complete her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she studied intellectual history and political thought as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

She explained: “At one of my first lectures at BYU I raised my hand and asked what the Holocaust was. I hadn’t heard of it, so I knew pretty quickly that I hadn’t received an education in a sense that a lot of people had received an education.

“I felt kind of panicked: there was the shock of learning about something awful, which was the Holocaust, and then the shock of coming to terms with the depth of my own ignorance.”

Growing up she had suffered many injuries due to the beatings she received from her brother - which she reveals her parents denied happening - and because of the work she did in her father’s scrap yard.

“One time I was working in the junkyard and a big skewer went into my leg just below my knee,” she recalls. “And it was just treated at home. I have still go a five inch scar on my leg from that. I’m sure my mum washed it out with something and probably gave me some of her tincture, which she called infection fighter. My family have a pretty high pain tolerance because we never had any painkillers. I was 17 when I first took a painkiller and was 21 when I saw my first doctor.

“Because my father was opposed to doctors and hospitals and believed they were a part of the Illuminati, we couldn’t go. So, my mother made up the difference by studying herbalism and they used it to deal with all of our injuries and various illness. Mostly injuries. We didn’t get sick much but we got hurt a lot.”

In February, Tara launched her memoir, Educated, at St John’s College. Her book has since been widely acclaimed by the New York Times, USA Today, Vogue, and the Times and is now a #1 New York Times Bestseller. She is explicit in the book that she does not blame Mormonism for what happened.

“I think my dad was extreme in his religious beliefs because he was extreme about everything. It has been my belief for some time now that mental illness probably caused the religious extremism, not the other way around.”

She credits her education with finally giving her the self belief to leave her family behind and “put myself first”. But education came to mean more than that for Tara.

“Education is something you get for yourself,” she says. “There’s a tendency to see it in purely economic terms but I think it is important to not reduce education to just job training.”

She adds: “I wanted to write a story that was about education and in a larger sense rather than just something you do to make a living or to move into a nicer neighbourhood. I wanted to write about all the ways that education makes you into a different person and I think it had that effect on me.”

Tara Westover is in conversation with journalist Hadley Freeman on Saturday, October 20 at 11am in Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Site, 10 West Road, CB3 9DZ. Tickets are free, but booking is required. Call 01223 766766 or visit Festival of Ideas.


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