The Author Who Only Found Out About the Holocaust in College: How Tara Westover Became 'Educated'

Tara Westover spent her childhood on an Idaho farm, being home-schooled by racist survivalist parents. How she escaped her abusive family, got a doctorate at Cambridge and learned that Jews are not the devil is the topic of her best-selling memoir 'Educated'

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Tara Westover.
Tara Westover.Credit: Natan Dvir
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

When she was 17 years old and in her first year at Brigham Young University, Tara Westover registered for an art history course. When she opened the thick textbook, she encountered words she did not understand. She tried not to panic, however. “I’d seen other students ask questions, so I raised my hand,” Westover writes in her memoir, “Educated.” “‘I don’t know this word,’ I said. ‘What does it mean?’”

The silence in the Mormon school’s large lecture hall could have been cut with a knife. The professor suddenly looked grim and moved on to the next question. Surprisingly, Vanessa, Westover’s only friend at college, looked shocked, and when the class was over, she admonished her angrily that “there are some things you just don’t joke about.” Westover was about to ask her what she meant, but her friend rushed away. Only later, after Westover hurried to the library to search for the unfamiliar word on Google, did she begin to understand the irritated reactions. The word she had encountered for the first time at age 17 was “Holocaust.”

The youngest of seven children in a family living on an isolated farm in Idaho, Westover had never been exposed to the American education system. Her father, whose worldview was inspired by the Mormon sacred texts, apocalyptic horror scenarios and conspiracy theories, wanted to conceal his children’s existence from the authorities. To that end, he refused to register them for birth certificates, to have them interact with the medical establishment (health care consisted of the medicinal herbs and natural remedies in which the mother specialized), or have any truck with Western “institutions of evil,” among them the social services, the legal system or the police. As far as the authorities were concerned, up until the age of 9, when she was issued a “delayed certificate of birth,” she did not exist at all, as Westover writes in her book.

Years after that incident at Brigham Young, Westover, now 31, recalls that the word “holocaust” did indeed exist in the family’s lexicon: As a young man, her father had read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and believed it to be an authentic historical document and not a conspiracy theory that served the Nazis in accusing the Jews of planning a global war.

The realization that her beloved father – and in his footsteps her mother as well – held racist and anti-Semitic opinions developed slowly during Westover’s years at college. Only when she dared to distance herself from her family did she begin to read about the destruction of European Jewry, and she could not get over the shock.

“I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point I’d read enough,” she recalls in her book. “I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure. I do remember imagining for a moment, not the camps, not the pits or chambers of gas, but my mother’s face. A wave of emotion took me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to shout at her, at my own mother, and that frightened me.”

Fourteen years after that startling moment in a college classroom in Provo, Utah, Westover’s life is dramatically different. Her debut book, based on her own life story, was published earlier this year by Random House, and it quickly found its way onto The New York Times Bestseller List. “Educated” won high critical praise and translation rights have been sold in 24 countries (although not yet in Israel).

In the years since she left home and, later, cut off ties with her parents and most of her siblings, Westover has managed to complete a doctorate in intellectual history at Cambridge University (her dissertation is about family obligation in four 19th-century intellectual movements, including Mormonism), and won a visiting fellowship at Harvard University. Today she divides her time between London and New York.

Her metamorphosis is so extreme that it is hard to believe that the impressive young woman I met at a cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan spent most of her years melting down metals and emptying gas tanks from old cars at the family junkyard. Her tremendous success, however, is deceptive. As she repeatedly emphasizes during our conversation, Westover had – and continues – to pay a high price for daring to rebel against her charismatic father and for washing the family dirty linen in public.

Saints and whores

To understand how a young woman with no formal education manages to extract herself from an existence of physical and psychological abuse, it is necessary to go back to the beginning.

Tara Westover was born in Idaho in 1986. Her father, Val, and mother, LaRee, raised five sons and two daughters (Tara is the youngest). Val, who is given the pseudonym “Gene” in the book, is a fundamentalist Mormon who has devoted his life to preparing for the End of Days. His paranoia took a turn for the worse in 1992 after the tragic and highly publicized incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

As far as the authorities were concerned, up until the age of 9, when she was issued a 'delayed birth certificate,' Tara Westover didn't exist.

At the center of that affair was a Christian fundamentalist named Randy Weaver, a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Vietnam, before settling with his wife and children at a remote farm in Idaho, in the American northwest. Like the Westover family, the Weavers believed in the imminent apocalypse, and tried to live independently of the authorities and be fully self-sustained.

During the 1980s, Randy Weaver attended rallies organized by extreme rightist organizations, among them such neo-Nazi groups as the Aryan Nations. In August 1992, the FBI raided Weaver’s home in search of illegal weapons. The raid went awry and FBI agents shot and killed Weaver’s wife Vicky and their 14-year-old son.

For Val Westover, the Ruby Ridge raid, which elicited harsh criticism of the government and the FBI, was a turning point. According to Tara, her father was convinced that his family was next in line. He believed with all his heart that the FBI intended to abduct his children, for the purpose of entering them in the public school system to “brainwash them.” Hence his decision to school them himself.

The education they received was based on a mix of racist beliefs and conspiracy theories. Val categorized the women in his world as either “saints” or “whores.” Westover relates in her book how her father and her brothers called her a “whore” when she rolled up the long sleeves of her blouse when working at the junkyard on a broiling summer’s day. Years later, when she registered for an introductory psychology course, she encountered the term “bipolar disorder” for the first time and realized to her astonishment that her father suffered from all the symptoms the lecturer described so drily, including paranoia and attacks of rage. She says that now she believes that all his life her father has suffered all from an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder.

“My dad was extreme about all of his views,” she tells me. “His mental irregularity was probably caused his religious extremism, and not the other way around. Everyone in my town was Mormon, and they went to the doctor and sent their kids to school.”

How would you describe your relationship to Mormonism and religious faith?

“Today, I’m not a Mormon or particularly religious. The concept of faith is still an important one for me, but it just changed quite a bit. I titled one of the chapters, ‘The Substance of Things,’ which I took from the [Christian] Scriptures [‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ Hebrews, 11:1]. For me that is important in the sense that there were a lot of moments in my life in which I had to leave something familiar and believe that something better was awaiting. When you find that the violence is not fixable, do you just stay because that’s the only world you can imagine, or do you take a leap of faith and imagine there might be a better world? I remember thinking my situation back home was becoming unlivable. And so I made a leap of faith.”

Who is Napoleon?

The violence that made Westover cut her ties with most of the members of her family is gradually revealed in the book. In her early years, her parents tried to homeschool the children: Together they read stories about Joseph Smith, they taught them reading and writing and lectured to them about religious topics.

However, Tara says, when she was about 8, and her oldest brother, Tyler, left home for college (against the wishes of his father), her parents stopped the improvised schooling entirely and made the children still at home work each day dismantling scrap metal and junked cars at the huge junkyard Val owned. When she was not helping her father with this Sisyphean and dangerous work, Tara toiled for hours in the kitchen helping her mother distill herbal medicines. From the time she was 10 years old, she also joined her mother in her work as a midwife, helping her carry out natural home births.

'I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure.'

In his religious piety, Val believed that “angels were watching over us,” and refused to take even minimal safety precautions. The price was paid by Tara and her siblings – and subsequently by Val himself, who was severely burned in a work accident that nearly killed him.

When Tara was 10, her brother Luke was working at emptying the gas tanks of old cars. At the same time, her father was using a blowtorch to melt scrap metal. Suddenly, sparks leaped from the blowtorch flew in the direction of Luke, whose jeans were soaked with gasoline. His right leg went up in flames, but amazingly he managed to roll himself down the hill and reach the house. Tara, who was there alone, found her brother choking with pain, with severe burns on the lower part of his body. To ease the pain she quickly emptied out a garbage can, filled it with ice and helped Luke – who had nearly lost consciousness – stick his leg in the ice.

The question that hovers over the story is why did Luke arrive at the house alone? If he was working with his father, why didn’t Val drop everything to treat his son’s burns? At this point in the book, Tara stops the flow of her narrative and confesses that there are various versions of Luke’s accident and its consequences. She says she remembers very well how she had to treat her brother’s burns by herself, praying that their mother would return home quickly from a home birth.

Luke himself, however, has a different version of the events. In a phone conversation with him, years after the incident, he insisted to Tara that their father had brought him home, filled a bathtub with ice and rushed back up the hill to extinguish the flames. Her brother Richard, too, remembers that the father was there and took care of his son before Tara arrived.

Still, in her memoir, Tara describes the horror she felt in seeing the peeling skin of Luke’s leg as he lay helpless in the front yard of their home, begging her to help him stop the pain. “Luke’s account differs from both mine and Richard’s,” she writes. “What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.”

“Everyone knows that human memory is fallible and there are problems with it,” Westover says when I ask whether she believes human memories can be trusted. “In my book, I acknowledge that by consulting other people, by having footnotes when there were major disagreements or things I couldn’t reconcile, and by trying to acknowledge why certain narratives persist and where they come from. But I think sometimes people use the basic fact of the fallibility of human memory to try and undermine other people’s sense of reality and their trust in their own perception, and that has a lot more to do with power than with the limitations of memory. It’s a way to control other people by saying ‘my memory is the truth and yours isn’t valid.’”

Indeed, the memories Westover describes in “Educated” are so shocking that it is easy to understand why her parents have done everything possible to refute them. Her childhood is described in an ambivalent way: On the one hand, she experienced the first years of her life as an attempt to survive in surroundings that were isolated and full of challenges (including preserving fruit and vegetables, and stockpiling equipment for an emergency that would help the family survive after the apocalypse). On the other hand, even today she emphasizes that in her childhood she was surrounded by family, wild nature and animals, and even today she stresses that her environment was fascinating and loving. She knew by heart every path and tree on the mountain that cast its shadow on the house, and before she reached the age of 10, she knew how to tame wild horses, dismantle a used car and prepare natural tinctures.

The idyll, however, crumbled quickly during her adolescence. Luke’s accident wasn’t the last one involving the children of the family, and that the parents tried to conceal from the authorities. The entire family was involved in a bad road accident but her father chose not to call the police because, not trusting insurance companies, he had never taken out insurance for himself, his children, or his car.

A few years later, another of the brothers, referred to by the pseudonym “Shawn” in the book, fell from a great height after losing his balance while trying dismantling some scrap metal. He suffered a concussion, but his father and his other siblings refused to call for medical assistance. The father just told him to take a break and come back to work.

Tara wanted to believe that the accident caused her brother to become a monster. But she has earlier memories of abuse at the hands of Shawn.

About a quarter of an hour later, after Shawn had recovered a bit from the fall, he returned to the junkyard and started quarreling with his father and shouting at him. After he tried to shove his father, the two other brothers present attacked Shawn and beat him. He received another serious blow to his skull and lost consciousness.

In the book, Tara relates that eventually someone – though it is not clear who – decided to call for an ambulance. This was the first time in the family’s history that someone gave in to common sense and chose to ask for help. Since Shawn’s condition was grave and he was unconscious, the hospital closest to their home sent a rescue helicopter, a decision that probably saved his life.

According to Tara, Shawn was never the same after the injury. He became an aggressive, impatient and fanatical young man. His fits of violence became a heavy shadow over the lives of Tara and her sister. Ultimately, her parents’ choice to side with Shawn and completely deny his violent behavior is what made Tara feel she had to choose between them and her own sanity. This choice took up many years of her life, and even now, it seems like she has not yet come to terms with the severance of relations that was forced upon her. “Once I confronted them about Shawn, my parents tried to convince me that I was insane, and that my memories could not be trusted,” she tells me. “It was an attempt to control me.”

However, even this narrative is not as entirely unambiguous as it might seem. As Tara writes in “Educated,” at the age of 16 she wanted with all her heart to believe that it was the accident that caused her brother to become a monster capable of abusing her physically and mentally. The abuse continued throughout most of her adolescence: Shawn would curse his younger sister, hit her and shove her head into the toilet. In two separate incidents, he broke her wrist and her toe when she tried to resist.

But she has even earlier memories of abuse at the hands of Shawn, memories that call into question the relatively comforting belief that it was the head injury that caused his outbursts of violence. There is comfort in cause and effect, she writes, especially with regard to a continuing tragedy that is almost impossible to translate into words.

“When you love someone, you want to absolve them of responsibility for the bad things they have done,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that you could do that if it makes you feel better, but that doesn’t change the decision you will have to make. So, with my dad, I feel like working with him in the junkyard was dangerous, and whether he was responsible for that doesn’t matter. If it turns out this is the result of bipolar disorder, it might make it easier for me – but it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t safe there.

“The question is not whether Shawn or my dad are malicious or evil. The question is what might have happened to me if I had stayed in these relationships. I think that there is a phase of bargaining that you go through when you’re trying to extract yourself from a toxic relationship, and a lot of that is going to be focused on the other person: whether they deserve having you leave them and so on. But a later, healthier, stage is to ask not whether they deserve it but whether I deserve it. If not – you need to get out whether they are responsible for it or mentally ill.”

Did you ever consider filing a police report against Shawn?

(Laughing bitterly:) “I grew up thinking the police were a part of the Illuminati. Calling them was never an option.”

After you told your parents about the abuse, Shawn threatened to murder you and placed a bloodied knife in your hand. He had access to guns, and he had butchered his dog and beaten his wife.

'My dad has some crazy beliefs, including racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, but he is also a full, complicated human being.'

“I remember the night that he threw his wife out of the house,” says Westover, referring to an event that occurred when she was 18. “I remember vaguely thinking that it would be a good idea to call the police so she could have a record for her protection, in case she would want to leave him. But I didn’t want to question my dad’s decision.

“The funny thing is that every time I went back home, I returned to being their daughter. So something that might seem abnormal in any other context suddenly seemed normal again. I was back in a world where the police was never an option.”

Westover’s story raises difficult questions about the role of the authorities – which never bothered to probe why her parents took out a birth certificate for her only when she was 9 years old, never vaccinated her and insisted on schooling her at home. At the same time her story is an impressive and convincing defense brief for the higher-education system. Precisely at a time when anti-intellectualism has become a disturbing trend in America, Westover tells a Cinderella story of a lost girl who becomes a self-confident young woman thanks to her exposure to history, literature, philosophy and art.

She says the sole reason she was able to attend college was the help of her brother Tyler, who had taught himself mathematics and taken the college entrance exams secretly. After Tyler left home to study for his bachelor’s degree, he left his sister textbooks and encouraged her to take the standardized exams in mathematics, reading comprehension and written expression. Westover knew that her father would oppose this and therefore she had to study in secret at night, after exhausting days of working at the junkyard and in her mother’s improvised laboratory (“God’s pharmacy,” as her father called the family kitchen). Ultimately, she took the exams, received excellent scores and paid for her first year at Brigham Young by working the night shift in a grocery store in a nearby town.

The fact that she had never encountered the word “holocaust” wasn’t the only evidence of her unusual background. She had never heard of Napoleon, Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement. She had a hard time understanding an introductory history course until a friend explained to her that Europe is the name of a continent and not a country.

The more introductory courses and seminars she took, the more Westover realized that her father’s view of the world was extreme, distorted and very partial. When her parents came to visit her at college – for the first and last time – she took them to an Indian restaurant.

“We waited for the food, and Dad asked about my classes,” she writes in “Educated.” “I said I was studying French. ‘That’s a socialist language,’ he said, then he lectured for 20 minutes on 20th-century history. He said Jewish bankers in Europe had signed secret agreements to start World War II, and that they had colluded with Jews in America to pay for it. They had engineered the Holocaust, he said, because they would benefit financially from worldwide disorder. They had sent their own people to the gas chambers for money.”

When I ask Westover why she didn’t try to argue with her father even though she knew for certain that he was mistaken, she replies that she realized full well that she didn’t stand a chance of changing his mind.

“I’ve never tried to educate him, because it would just lead to a much longer lecture. There was one conversation I remember having with my dad, when he talked about the Founding Fathers, and said it [that is, the early years of the United States] was the most moral epoch in the history of mankind, and if only we could go back to that, everything would be so much better. I remember saying to him, ‘You mean, when women couldn’t vote or own property and you could legally rape a woman if she was black? Is that really our Golden Age?’ And that was the only time in which he kept quiet and thought about what I had said. He wasn’t willing to defend that argument.”

'I grew up thinking the police were a part of the Illuminati. Calling them was never an option.'

In the book, you write that there were some things in the unusual education you had from your parents that you are grateful for.

“That’s right. My parents believed that it was your responsibility to learn, and that you could teach yourself whatever you put your mind to. When I did get access to an education, in college, the idea that it was someone’s else responsibility to teach me would never have occurred to me.”

No blacks, no Jews

The ongoing success of “Education” has made Westover a reluctant star. In the months since it was published, she has been running from one news studio to the next, telling CNN about her years at Cambridge and being photographed in a red dress and high heels for The Times of London. The release of the book, however, constituted a mortal blow to her relationships with Shawn and her parents. Today, she says, she is in touch with only three of her siblings.

Her parents declined a request to be interviewed by Haaretz. Their lawyer, Blake Atkin, however, denies many of Westover’s accusations and asserts that the education she received at home has enabled her and siblings to pursue higher education. (See his full statement, below.)

Beyond Westover’s talents for writing and storytelling, the success of “Education” can also be attributed to the American thirst to learn more about the lives of “the other America.” When asked if she thinks her book can provide new insights into America’s fundamentalist right, Westover hesitates and explains that her family is not a typical white family.

“I didn’t set out to write a political book. I wanted to humanize people who have radically different beliefs They are still full, complicated human beings. My dad has some crazy beliefs, including racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, but he is also a full, complicated human being.”

When you were growing up in Idaho did you ever meet someone who was either black or Jewish?

“No, no one,” she says with a smile. “I think I met my first African-American when I was a senior at BYU, at age 22. I only met Jews when I went to Cambridge at 25. But I probably never had a conversation with someone who was African-American till my mid-twenties. So for me racism was theoretical. And theoretical racism is really easy to hold on to. If there is no one there to contradict it, it is very easy to pass on these ideas.

“I think sometimes people think that they have a right to be prejudiced and dehumanize other people if those people dehumanize a third party. But then we risk being incredibly prejudiced against racist people. It means that there are people we don’t want to engage with, and it’s okay to reduce their entire existence to a very simplified view. We wouldn’t reduce a black person to just one part of their identity. And I think it’s a hard case to make because it sounds like I’m defending them and I’m not. I don’t defend their beliefs. But I do say that if we’re serious about persuasion and enlightenment, that has to stop. It’s not productive for dialogue or any exchange of ideas.”

Who helped you change your way of thinking?

“It was a very long process. When I went to Cambridge, I was extremely homophobic. The only things I’d ever been told about gay people was that people become gay if they were molested as children, and that they will molest children when they grow up. This was my education on this topic. So if you asked me back then, ‘Should we allow gay couples to have children?’ my answer would be ‘absolutely not’.

“But when I got to Cambridge I had a really long conversation with someone who forced me to say out loud ideas that I had, that once I said them I felt very uncomfortable. The only reason I said them was that he never walked away or was appalled. He never said, ‘You’re a terrible human being.’ He just said things like, ‘There are no data that support that claim. Why do you believe that?’ I didn’t feel attacked or dehumanized. He was much more generous to me than I was to homosexuals, and that allowed me to change my mind. We argued till 3 A.M. and the next day I wrote him an email and said, ‘Thanks for talking with me last night. I decided that you’re right and I was wrong.” He was the first person who took the time to make the other case to me, over and over.”

You never managed to have a conversation like that with your father.

“No, but I do think that he is a moral person who always believed he was doing the right thing. Even though some of his ideas are hurtful and weird, they don’t come out of hatred or evil.”

Perhaps that in fact is the tragedy.

“It is a huge tragedy, but there is also a spark of hope. That way it’s possible to think that maybe nevertheless there is away to talk with him.”

What would you tell someone who feels deeply estranged from their family?

“If you could base your reason and choices on yourself and not on them, it’s better. There were many years in which I tried to justify my decision not to see my parents any more, based on things they had done or how culpable I thought they were, constantly tallying up everything bad they had ever done and trying to convince myself that it was bad enough to justify my decision. No matter how angry I felt, I never had enough that I felt justified for doing that. It never felt okay to me. I think I started to feel better about it once I realized it is not about what they have done – but about what I deserve.

“Anger can be a good thing. It’s a mechanism that your brain uses to get you out of situations that are bad for you. But in terms of leading a peaceful life, it is not very productive. You will have to live with it every day. Using anger to justify this decision for 30 years is just going to make you really miserable. Self-respect and self-love is much, much better. I choose not to see my parents because I value myself – and they didn’t value me or my mind. Forgiveness isn’t necessarily the absence of anger; it’s also the presence of self-love. When you value yourself, you don’t have to be angry.”

We all want to believe that if only we could forgive ourselves and others, the road to reconciliation awaits. If it were a Hollywood movie, it would end with a tear-jerking reconciliation.

“It might not end with reconciliation. I can’t have my family in my life because they are abusive, and I don’t have control over that. There is an abusive culture in my family, and I have to turn away from it. So forgiveness and reconciliation is not the same thing. Once I accepted my decision on my own terms I could let go of what they have done to me. If you want to live a miserable life – making your life all about other people is the way to do it.”

Lawyer for parents: Tara’s education was better than one at a public school

Blake Atkin, a lawyer representing Tara Westover’s parents, replied by email to questions from Haaretz. He claims that “Educated” creates a distorted picture of Val and LaRee Westover.

According to Atkin, “We used to think that the purpose of education was to teach young people to think, not to just be able to regurgitate dates or facts that someone else has collated. Tara tells a cute story of being in a college class and not knowing what the professor was referring to when he spoke of the Holocaust, as if somehow that proves her education was lacking. An educated person reading her book might conclude that parents who prepared her well enough that she was accepted at a renowned university at age 16 – on an academic scholarship – ‘without ever having stepped foot in a classroom, just might conclude that her home-schooling really was an education, even if she did daydream through lessons on the Holocaust and other world tragedies, which her mother is adamant she was taught.

“Like her older siblings, Tara always had the option to go to the public school. Some of her siblings went to public school. An educated reader might find it difficult to believe that her home-school education was deficient when she finally reveals near the end that she is not the only Ph.D. in the family. Of the seven children, three hold Ph.D.s. Show me any public school with those kind of results. Of the four without Ph.D.s, three, like their parents, left college when they determined it did not meet their needs. The four who do not hold Ph.D.s are happy, successful, well-balanced citizens of the communities in which they live. No alcoholics, no felons, no drug addicts, no chronically unemployed among them. An educated person would conclude that the Westover home school performed in a way we can only hope public schools could imitate.

Asked why her parents did not protect her from an ongoing abuse by her brother “Shawn,” Atkin writes that, “The story Tara now tells is substantially different from what she was saying to her parents and what she recorded in her journal at the time. Her parents are most heartbroken over the tales she now relates and hope there can someday be a healing for Tara.

“Similarly, although Val and his children were often in harm’s way, due to the physically demanding nature of the work they were involved in, the stories of wanton carelessness in Tara’s book are all fabrication. And while the family was inclined to seek and use alternative medicine in instances of injury or sickness, they were not shy of using doctors for broken bones or other conditions for which traditional medicine provides the best answer.”

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