Memoirist Retraces Her Journey From Survivalist Childhood To Cambridge Ph.D.

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 7:17 am

Growing up in rural Idaho, Tara Westover had no birth certificate, never saw a doctor and didn't go to school. Her parents were religious fundamentalists who stockpiled food, mistrusted the government and believed in strict gender roles for their seven children.

As a girl, Westover says, "There wasn't ever any question about what my future would look like: I would get married when I was 17 or 18, and I would be given some corner of the farm and my husband would put a house on it and we would have kids."

But Westover defied her family's expectations when she enrolled in Brigham Young University at 17.

"I didn't know anything," Westover says of her first semester. "One of my first lectures, I raised my hand and asked what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it."

After graduating from Brigham Young with honors, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University. Westover writes about her awkward transition into the mainstream and her painful struggles with her family in Educated: A Memoir.


Interview Highlights

On why her father stockpiled food and weapons

My father had some concerns that the federal government might be pursuing us because we weren't in school. I think he conceived of himself as a force fighting against this corrupted government, which he thought had been corrupted by the Illuminati.

It was very much just an idea that I grew up with that everything, from the medical establishment — doctors and hospitals — to public education and anything to do with the government ... that these things had all been corrupted. ... And we had all these supplies in place in case the world ended, but also in case we needed to defend ourselves.

On her parents' approach to education

When [my brothers] were younger, my mother tried quite hard to conduct a home school. And as time went on, my mother had seven children, she was very much looking after the house and the farm. And then she was doing herbalism, and then she became a midwife. And I think my father became more and more insistent about having the boys in the scrap yard working. By the time I came along, the home school had fallen by the wayside.

I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or never wrote an essay for my mother that she read, or nothing like getting everybody together and having anything like a lecture. It was a lot more: If you wanted to read a book you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that.

On the eye-opening experience of going to college

In classes, I was just kind of in a state of terror because I immediately had to face the reality of my own ignorance and the depth of it and how much I didn't know that everyone else did seem to know. So any time someone said anything in a matter-of-fact way that I didn't know what they were saying, I just sort of nodded my head and pretended that I did. ...

And after a year or two of being in this environment and learning about all of these things — the Holocaust, the civil rights movement ... the difference between North and South Korea — the world started to feel very big. And that's, I think, when I began to wonder if moving back [with my family] ... was really what I wanted.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guest, Tara Westover, grew up in a family of nine at the base of a mountain in Idaho. Her parents were religious fundamentalists. Her dad spent more time talking to his children about the end of the world or an apocalyptic confrontation with the government than college or careers. She never saw the inside of a classroom before she was 17.

Westover has written a remarkable memoir about her journey from a childhood defined by her father's fundamentalism and paranoia to awkward ventures into the mainstream world and eventually high academic achievement. She graduated magna cum laude at Brigham Young University and then studied at Harvard and in England, where she earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Along the way, there were injuries from working in her father's scrapyard, violent assaults from an older brother and painful struggles with her family. Tara Westover's memoir is called "Educated." She spoke to me from a studio in London.

Well, Tara Westover, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin by just talking a bit about the setting. You grew up in a rural household near a mountain in Idaho. And I'd like you to read a bit from the very beginning of the book, the prologue. You're kind of describing the mountain and what your family is like. If you would, just go ahead.

TARA WESTOVER: (Reading) The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending one after the other as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

(Reading) Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind - tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his calloused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.

(Reading) I am only 7, but I understand that it is this fact more than any other that makes my family different. We don't go to school. Dad worries that the government will force us to go, but it can't because it doesn't know about us. Four of my parents' seven children don't have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we've never set foot in a classroom.

(Reading) When I am 9, I will be issued a delayed certificate of birth. But at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist. Of course I did exist. I had grown up preparing for the days of abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I had spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating emergency supplies. When the world of men failed, my family would continue on unaffected.

DAVIES: And that's Tara Westover from her book "Educated," a memoir of her childhood and early adult life. This is a remarkable place where you grew up, this mountain. You want to just describe it a bit?

WESTOVER: Yeah, so we lived in a small, yellow house that was set in a field at the base of a mountain. And when I grew up, I heard a lot of stories about this mountain. My father told me a story about the - this Indian princess, this image of this woman that would appear on the mountain face in the spring. And he said that the - when the nomadic Indians had lived in that - in our valley, that they would watch for her appearance as a sign of spring, that winter was over and it was time to come home. So there were a lot of beautiful elements of my childhood.

We had a farm which belonged to my grandfather, and we had a salvage yard full of crumpled-up cars which belonged to my father. And my mother was a - she was an herbalist and a midwife. And as children, we spent a lot of hours walking on the mountain, gathering rose hips and mullein flowers that she could stew into tinctures.

So in a lot of ways, it was a very beautiful childhood. And of course to me, it was the only life I had ever known, so it seemed normal to me. Now I'm an adult. I can see that it wasn't exactly normal. There were several aspects of it that were quite unusual.

DAVIES: Sure. You were the youngest of seven. Your older siblings went to school for a while. But eventually your parents pulled you all out of school, and you were home-schooled. And as you said, your dad had a scrapyard and at times would do construction in the area. You write that as a kid, you had a head-for-the-hills bag. Everybody did. What was it for?

WESTOVER: Well, my father had some concerns that the federal government might be pursuing us because we weren't in school. I think he conceived of himself as this sort of force fighting against this corrupted government, which he thought had been corrupted the Illuminati. And...

DAVIES: The Illuminati being (laughter)...

WESTOVER: The - he called it many things - the Illuminati, the New World Order. So it was very much just an idea that I grew up with that all of these things from the medical establishment - you know, doctors and hospitals - to public education and anything to do with the government - that these things had all been corrupted in some way by the Illuminati, by the New World Order. And we were very much prepared for that, and we had all of these supplies in place in case the world ended but also in case we needed to defend ourselves.

DAVIES: That someday might - the government might come in, intrude, try to arrest you, take you away, take over your lives.

WESTOVER: Well, I think my father had - he had very strong Second Amendment beliefs certainly, and he felt that the right to bear arms was a - the best safeguard against a tyrannical government in general. But I think very specifically because my family - we were living in this unusual way where we we didn't go to the doctor. We didn't go to the hospital ever; we didn't go to school. I think he was particularly concerned about some kind of intervention, that we might be forced to go to school, which he was very much opposed to. He believed that public education was a kind of brainwashing institution.

DAVIES: So when - you were a little kid when you had your head-for-the-hills bag. What was in your bag?

WESTOVER: Everything from water purification tablets, MREs. I had a knife. I had an emergency blanket. I had mosquito netting. I mean, it goes on for quite some time. I had a little heater to heat up meals, can openers and cans of things. It was a pretty fully stocked bag.

DAVIES: And did you practice grabbing it and fleeing for the hills?

WESTOVER: I did. And, I mean, when I was 5 or 6 is when the Ruby Ridge - that happened when I was a young child, the Ruby Ridge event. And my memory of it, my experience of it was of something really terrifying because as far as I knew, that family was my family, and the reason that the government had come for them - those were reasons that the government might come for us. And there was a period where I think my father was very worried about that and very much saw himself as being in the same position as Randy Weaver.

And so when he told us that story, it very much entered into my imagination as something that could happen to us at any moment. And so for me, that whole period of my life became a period where I thought the government might arrive at any moment and we would need to run to the mountain and survive on the mountain, which I thought we had quite a good chance of doing because we were so familiar with the mountain. And I thought, well, the feds won't have a chance because we know Buck's Peak so well.

DAVIES: Right. And we should remind listeners the Ruby Ridge siege was - involved this guy Randy Weaver who was wanted by federal authorities I think on a gun charge, and he had been associated with an Aryan supremacist group I think. And his dog was shot. His son was shot. His wife was shot. There was an investigation, a lawsuit and a lot of public outcry - pretty horrific set of things. But to your father, this was presented to you as the government coming after them because these people had withdrawn from society the way you had.

WESTOVER: Well, I don't remember him ever telling me the end of the story. So when I was a child, I remember him telling me that these people were trapped in their home, that the federal government had surrounded their house, that the son had been killed and that when the father had tried to visit his body, that he had also been shot. And also the mother had been killed by a sniper while holding a baby. That's the version that I was told.

And actually, all of that is true. But in my mind, I don't know how I thought that my father knew about it. We didn't have a TV. We didn't have a radio. Somehow he'd discovered this, and he told us this story. What I didn't realize until I was much older and at a university was that my father knew about this story because everyone knew about this story, and it had been a national media event, and there had been interviews, and there had been congressional inquiries and that there had been a lot of outcry about what had happened.

And I think it changed that story for me. As a child, it had been a story about how the government was terrifying and about how we were all vulnerable to the government at any moment and how there was no checks on power. And when I learned about the full story when I was at the university, it became a different kind of story about the kind of institutional checks that you have to abuse power.

DAVIES: Right. What steps did your dad take besides packing a getaway bag? In what other ways was he preparing for either the end of the world or a government invasion?

WESTOVER: Well, as I said, he was a big believer in the Second Amendment, so he did have some guns. And then there was quite a lot of food preparation in my family, a lot of canning. Pretty much I think what other kids would have called summer, I (laughter) called canning season. So we would can for most of the summer and fall in order to get - I think my father's goal would have been a 10-year supply. He would have really liked to have 10 years. And I'm not sure how close we ever got to that, but we certainly tried - and then water, fuel, Morse code, mirrors, all kinds of kind of walkie-talkie and radio-type things that you need if you're going to communicate without power - those kinds of things.

DAVIES: Yeah, you learned Morse code, right?

(LAUGHTER)

WESTOVER: I mean, I don't know how much I remember now, but when I was - say, when I was 12, I think Morse code was one of the few things that I had undertaken a systematic study of actually.

DAVIES: I mean, this was a beautiful, tranquil place that you were in, and yet I wonder if you grew up as a kid with, you know, the fear of these powerful, unseen forces that could destroy your lives without warning. And you know, things that we learn when we're little can really have a lasting, emotional kind of residency. Do you think that affected your outlook of the world at all?

WESTOVER: I think it certainly must have. It was a quality of my upbringing that everything had these kind of two sides. So the mountain was an incredibly beautiful place, and the junkyard was this exotic playground. And my mother's herbalism was kind of like magic. And it was something that was beautiful and fun but also, you know, to me carried a lot of power. But then there was another side of all of these things because that mountain could be kind of terrifying, and the junkyard could be a very dangerous place. We were injured a lot in the junkyard.

My brother once lit his leg on fire. And after when the fire was finally out, his leg was covered in third-degree burns. And we made the decision - or my parents did - not to take him to the hospital but to treat that at home with a salve my mother made of comfrey and lobelia. And then even the herbalism - it still has a magic quality, but there was also kind of a terrifying quality because there were no painkillers involved. Obviously he had to recover from that through strength of will, no morphine, nothing. And so there was a sense with all of these things that there was a lot of beauty, but there was also another side to it.

DAVIES: Right. You were home-schooled. How much schooling did you and your six brothers and sisters get?

WESTOVER: I think we all had a different level. When the older boys were younger, my mother I think tried quite hard to conduct a home school. And as time went on, my mother had seven children. She was very much looking after the house and the farm. And then she was doing herbalism, and then she became a midwife. And I think my father became more and more insistent on having the boys in the scrapyard working so that by the time I came along, the home school I think had kind of fallen by the wayside.

And there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tara Westover. Her new memoir is called "Educated." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tara Westover. She has a memoir of her childhood growing up in rural Idaho in a fundamentalist family, and she was home-schooled. Her memoir is called "Educated."

Your dad is quite a character in this story. Since you didn't do a lot of studying in your younger years, you also - you did a fair amount of work working in this scrapyard. Do you want to just describe what that was like?

WESTOVER: Well, the scrapyard was this really fun, wonderful place when I was a child. And we played in it. We would play hide-and-seek among the cars, and we would loot them, essentially. And we would - we had all these elaborate games. But as I got older, it became a place where we - where we were - where we worked.

And that could be pretty terrifying because my father - I don't think he ever would have intentionally put any of us in danger, but for whatever reason, he just didn't have that bone in his head that said, this is dangerous; don't do this. And he had a really hard time understanding injuries even after they had happened and how severe they were. I just - I don't know what it was about the way his mind worked. He just wasn't able to do that.

And so oftentimes the working conditions were pretty dangerous, and we weren't allowed to wear hard hats or gloves because my father thought it might slow us down. And again, I don't think this was out of callousness. I just don't think he understood that people could get hurt. And of course people did get hurt...

DAVIES: Yeah.

WESTOVER: ...Pretty often.

DAVIES: Yeah. I'd like you to describe one of these incidents. It's where you were - I think you were probably around 10, and you culled a bunch of scrap metal and filled it into a bin. And then the way got - the way you would, as I understand it, take these bins and empty them into a trailer so you could go and sell them was there would be a forklift - right? - that would pick the bin up. Tell us what happened here with this little operation.

WESTOVER: Yeah. So I had filled up a bin full of iron, and then I went and told my father so that he could get in the forklift. A JCB is what he had, which is a forklift that has an extendable boom on it. And he said, right, well, jump into the bin, and ride it up. And then I'll give you a minute to kind of jump into the trailer, and you can skimmy (ph) to the side, and then I'll dump the bin. And I sort of thought, this is - let's not do it like that. Why don't you take me up separately, and I'll - because he wanted me to climb into the scrap and kind of settle it so that more would fit when we dumped the next round. But...

DAVIES: So you're in the bin while it's being lifted by the forklift, like, 15 feet off the ground, right (laughter)?

WESTOVER: Yeah. So he tells me to climb into the bin. And I was not in the habit of not doing what my father told me to do. I was very much in the habit of doing what he said. And so I did. And what happened was while he was driving the bin over to the trailer where he could dump it, a really sharp bit of metal shifted and it just went straight into my leg like a spear, almost like something going into butter - like a knife going into butter. And it just pinned me in place and I couldn't move.

And so my father lifted the bin level with the trailer so that I could crawl off and then he was giving me a minute so I could run over and maybe climb on the cab and get out of the way. But I couldn't move. And I couldn't shout to him to tell him that I couldn't move because it's a very loud diesel engine. And he couldn't hear me. So what happened was he lifted the bin and effectively dumped it while I was still inside.

And I was lucky in that when the metal started to shift, I was able to throw myself over the side, rather than hit - rather than go down with the scrap, which would have just been like going through a meat grinder, I think. But I went off the side and I smacked the side of the trailer wall and then fell to the ground. And it was - for me anyway, it was a moment where when it was over and I was sort of laying in the dirt and my father came over and asked me what had happened, all I felt was ashamed that I couldn't do this thing that he'd asked me to do.

And in retrospect, it seemed like a very simple thing. And I think as children, it's so easy to take the weight of those kinds of things onto yourself.

DAVIES: And you were hurt, too. I mean, your leg was bleeding very badly.

WESTOVER: I was hurt. And I - but I didn't understand - I don't think I had an understanding or the ability to understand my father at that moment. I knew he loved me, and I knew he cared about my safety. And I wasn't - so I had to assume that the problem was me and that I had done something wrong. And so even though I was injured, I was terribly hurt, there wasn't anything I could have done differently, I still internalized that as my fault.

And I think the reason I did that is because I didn't have the tools to understand that my father could love me and could value my safety but he might not be able to keep me safe. He just might not be able to do that because of some beliefs that he has or some way that his mind works. And I had to get much older, I think, before I could see moments like that and understand them - not to be so angry with him, to realize that he was doing the best he could, but also not to internalize them and blame myself.

And I think the greatest evidence for the fact that my father really believed what he was doing - he would never have put us in any danger that he wouldn't put himself in. I think the greatest evidence for that is that probably the worst injury that ever happened to anyone in the scrapyard happened to my father because he was trying to remove a fuel tank from a car and a spark from the cutting torch he was holding made it into the tank of the car and the car exploded.

And he was burned terribly. And so he, I think, was injured worse than almost anyone. And I just think it shows this was a belief that he had. I'm not a medical professional and I'm not qualified to diagnose him, but I do think that there was something - maybe a bipolar - something going on that he wasn't able to understand these kind of risks, I don't think.

DAVIES: Well, didn't he also believe that the Lord had a plan and if he was burned or your leg was cut, there was a reason for it?

WESTOVER: I think he had a trust in God in that way that went - almost absolved him in his mind of having to take the kinds of precautions that anyone else would take. And then after it was over, he would find ways to explain that it was supposed to happen that way. And so even with his burn, very quickly that became a narrative of that needing to happen to teach him some things, to be a path to greater spiritual enlightenment.

And then he's told me since that time that he regularly will go get a cutting torch and try to take the tanks off of cars with a torch, even though he has had this experience and been really terribly burned by it.

DAVIES: Tara Westover's memoir is called "Educated." After a break, she'll talk about physical abuse she suffered at the hands of an older brother and about making her way into college and her father's attempt to bring her back to the world she'd grown up in. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of essays from Zadie Smith. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW POKE'S "ROCKIN' IN RHYTHM")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Tara Westover, whose new book is about growing up with fundamentalist parents in rural Idaho. As a kid, she didn't have a birth certificate, never saw a doctor and didn't go to school. She eventually made her way to college and earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Her memoir is called "Educated."

Your family was Mormon, and you grew up with some pretty clear understanding of gender roles. I'm wondering what, you know, as you were a kid and then as you got a little older, did you have a vision for the kind of life that you would lead?

WESTOVER: Well, my family was, I think, a bit more radical than most Mormons, especially on the question of gender. So in my mind growing up, there wasn't ever any question of what my future would look like. I would get married when I was 17 or 18. And I would be given some corner of the farm and my husband would put a house on it and we would have kids. And possibly, I would become a midwife like my mother and take over with the herbs.

When I was a child, this was very much the path as it was laid out for me. And music became very important to that because music became something I wanted to learn how to do. And the first time that I had heard something like opera or a choir, I realized this is something that takes discipline, and you have to go somewhere and learn how to do this and that there are people in the world who know about this and can teach this to you.

And so I think it was really a draw of music that first made me think maybe it would be all right if I went away and went to a university, which my father was against, but maybe it would be all right because the reason I would go is to learn about music, and then I could come back and live on the farm and be a voice teacher or direct the church choir. And so in my mind, that was acceptable. I could do that.

DAVIES: Did you rebel with the thought of getting married and getting a house on the corner of the farm? Did it feel constricted?

WESTOVER: Eventually I suppose I did, but initially, no. I think initially my rebellion, my rebellion of going to college when my dad would have liked me to stay home and work in the herbs, I think that it was a pretty mild rebellion in the sense that I thought, well, I'm going to go learn how to be a music teacher so that I can come home and do choir. It was pretty tame rebellion. I had to be - I was in school for probably three or four years before I began taking courses in history and political science, and I just started to realize how big the world was. I mean, when I arrived in college, I didn't know anything.

One of my first lectures, I raised my hand and asked what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it. And a year or two of being in this environment and learning about all of these things - the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, the 39th parallel, the difference between North and South Korea - the world started to feel very big. And that's, I think, when I began to wonder if moving back, if that was really what I wanted.

DAVIES: You know, there's another thing about moving into the mainstream world. I mean, you lived in a rural community where people worked hard all day. And, working in a scrapyard, I mean, I've done industrial work and I know what it's like to get that dirty. I mean, I'm wondering if your kind of habits of personal hygiene weren't exactly consistent with the mainstream world.

WESTOVER: Yeah. And I think some of that might have been the fact that I had worked construction, but I think some of it was just my family. You know, my dad used to tease my grandmother, my mother's mother, because she would say, don't you teach your kids to wash their hands after the bathroom, after they go to the bathroom? And my father would say, no, no. I teach them not to piss on their hands. And that was just his idea of hygiene.

And of course when I went to the university and carried on with this, my roommates were pretty - they were pretty horrified. And I had to be - you know, they sat me down and sort of said, this doesn't cut it. You need to do this differently. So I think some of it was just specific to my family.

DAVIES: Do you still identify as Mormon?

WESTOVER: I don't. I have a lot of respect for Mormonism, and my entire family and extended family are Mormon and I'm always conscious of that and try to be respectful of that. And I always try to point out, you know, my family are not representative of Mormonism. Most Mormons believe in public education, and they believe in doctors and hospitals and all of that. So I don't think it was Mormonism that explains my childhood. I think my father had, again, these kind of paranoias or mental irregularities, and I think that religion was a vehicle for that. I don't think that religion caused it.

DAVIES: One of your brothers, Shawn, had a violent streak. You had several incidents where he attacked you. Do you want to just explain a little bit what would happen and what triggered it?

WESTOVER: Well, I'd said that my childhood had a lot of beautiful elements but that there was this kind of duality to everything. And I think my brother, Shawn, is a really great example of that in a way because he was 10 years older than I was. He was my favorite of my brothers. And he and I were very close. He could be kind, he could be sensitive, he could be really loving. But he had another side.

He could be manipulative, even cruel. He liked to play this kind of game where he would ask you to do something, maybe get him a glass of water. And you would. And then you'd bring it to him, and he would say, well, actually, I want ice in the water. So you go get ice and then you'd bring it back, and he would say, no, you have to take the ice out. I don't want it. What is this? And you could do that for 20 minutes. Bring the ice, take the ice out. Bring the ice, take it out. And at some point, you'd just get tired of the game, and you would say, I'm not going to do this anymore.

And then he would get very, very angry, and he would become violent. He would grab my wrist and twist it behind my back until it started to sprain, or sometimes he would grab me by my hair and haul me down the hallway and shove my head in the toilet and call me a whore. So this was the kind of interaction that I had with him, and it was, again, just this duality where sometimes he was so kind, and then other times he was just very cruel and quite dominating.

DAVIES: Right. And when this would happen, sometimes it would happen in the presence of others. Like, once at a parking lot, another with this good friend of yours, Charles. And you write that you would laugh kind of in this crazy way to make it seem like it was a joke. What was going on there?

WESTOVER: Well, I think I have a theory. I think that all abuse, no matter what kind of abuse it is, I think it's foremost an assault on the mind. I think if you're going to abuse someone, you have to invade their reality in order to distort it and you have to simultaneously convince them of two things, one, that what you're doing isn't that bad, which means you have to normalize it. And, two, that maybe they deserve what's happening.

And I think the second one is the easiest because people, they internalize that kind of shame when they're being hurt. But the first one is quite hard. And my brother was good at that. So the one example that you mentioned where my friend was present, Charles, I had brought him home for Thanksgiving. And I think my brother was upset 'cause this was my boyfriend, and he was - I think he felt the need to show some kind of control over me.

So before the meal had even started, he grabbed me by my hair and yanked me down the hallway and shoved my head in the toilet. And Charles was obviously horrified. He had no idea what to do. He was frightened. And after it was all over, my brother came into my room and said that he'd had no idea that he'd hurt me, that it had been a game and that it had just gotten a little out of hand and that the next time we were having fun, I should be sure to tell him if I was getting hurt.

And I took his perspective a hundred percent and made it my own, so much so that I tried to convince Charles of it, and of course he didn't believe me. He knew what he had seen, but he also knew that there wasn't much point in trying to argue with me because reality was irrelevant and he could see, I think, how deeply under my brother's power I was.

DAVIES: You know, the thing about - as I hear about this, it became an issue later in the family. You had a sister who had suffered some violence at Shawn's hands. And it arose, and your parents just wouldn't deal with it. And it's clear as you describe these incidents that they had seen some of this. And, you know, if you have parents who won't keep you safe, that just has to be a really damaging thing to go through. Did you feel that?

WESTOVER: Well, I said I think all abuse is foremost an assault on the mind, and I think what's interesting about what happened with my parents, you know, the night that I talked to them, that I confronted them about my brother, my sister had asked me to and I agreed that I should. So I confronted them. And I really believed that we could just put a stop to it and forgive it and, ultimately, probably forget it. But what happened was my parents didn't - I don't know if they didn't believe me, but they certainly said they didn't believe me.

And so my father said I was lying. He said I was trying to destroy the family. My mother said possibly I was insane and my memories couldn't be trusted. And it was pretty terrible having my parents not believe me. But that wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was that they told my brother - immediately, my father called my brother Shawn and told him what I'd said. And what followed then was a period of a lot of threats and menace from him where he would call and threaten me or say that he was going to hire an assassin to come kill me. And ultimately, he then cut me out of his life and disowned me.

And my parents supported that decision on his part. So getting back to that thing of, I think, abuse - in order for abuse to happen, reality has to be distorted in some pretty serious ways. And I think my parents made the decision to join in that distortion, I think, rather than correct it. And I don't know if they realized at the time the path that they were starting out on. Maybe it didn't seem that different to them, whether they believed me or didn't believe me. But it ended up having some pretty serious consequences.

DAVIES: Tara Westover's memoir is called "Educated." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tara Westover. She has a memoir about her early childhood growing up in Idaho where she was home schooled. The memoir is called "Educated."

The book tells the story of you, you know, going to Brigham Young University and then eventually to Cambridge in England and then to Harvard and getting a Ph.D. and struggling with the poor self-image you had. And it's an amazing story. And there's a moment when you're at Harvard and your father comes with your mother and stays in your dorm room and wants to save you. He wants to give you a priesthood blessing to cleanse you of the thoughts and demons that have corrupted your life.

And you write that you felt this impulse to give in, to just, yes, I'll accept the blessing. I'll return to this. Describe that impulse. I mean, this - you'd spent a long time in a different world.

WESTOVER: Well, I think - I said the first stage of estrangement from my family was really involuntary. My brother had cut me out of his life, and my parents had accepted that and they had kind of disinvited me from coming home that Christmas because they said it would make my brother uncomfortable. And then about ten months later, I had this 10 months where I was ostracized from my family, not of my own choice, my parents announced that they were coming to Harvard. And that was surprising for a couple of reasons.

There are two things my father hates more than anything. One is travel and the other is liberals. So coming to Harvard...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WESTOVER: ...Was a surprise. And I think they had only been there a very short time, my father and my mother, before I realized why they had come. And that is they had come to offer me a way back into the family. That is to say, he'd come to offer me this blessing that I think he wanted to treat as a kind of exorcism of the demon that he believed was inside me that had made me say what I'd said about my brother. And there was a long period where I thought maybe I could do that.

I could just allow the ritual to take place and I could blame the demon. All I had to do was exchange their memories for mine and I could have my family. So there was this period of a couple of days, several days, when I was walking around Boston sightseeing with my parents that I thought this was a bargain I could make. And I was arguing with myself that maybe it was the right thing.

I was trying to convince myself that there would be some dignity in denying my memories and pretending that there was no real difference between what I knew to be true and what I knew to be false, that I was somehow justified in surrendering my perceptions of right and wrong, of reality, of sanity itself in order to win the love of my parents.

DAVIES: And in the end, you couldn't do it.

WESTOVER: In the end, I couldn't do it. The night before my parents were supposed to return back to Idaho, my father offered me this blessing. And I tried to accept it. I really wanted to accept it. But in that moment, I think I understood something important, which was that the daughter that my father had come to reclaim no longer existed. She had studied and she had read and she had grown her own mind. And that mind had no tolerance for violence.

And she could not give way to it. And I think it was in that moment I realized of course it wasn't a demon that had said those things about my brother. I had said those things. And what my father had come, you know, to cast out of me, it wasn't a demon, it was me.

DAVIES: Your parents were in Boston with you a few days. What was it like to see them there as, I don't know, tourists? Did you see things about them that you hadn't before?

WESTOVER: Well, I'd never seen my father travel before because he'd never done it. And it was interesting just seeing them in that backdrop. I was so used to seeing them on the mountain. And, you know, my father came to Harvard and he was wearing his lifetime NRA member jacket and his NRA hat. And, of course, that's quite unusual on Harvard's campus. And then there was just the fact of the scars he had from his burns.

So his right hand was kind of frozen in this slightly gnarled position from the burns, the way his fingers had curled and bent from the tendons being so burned. So it was the first time I had seen him in this place where he looked just so much like he didn't belong there.

DAVIES: It's got to be a scary thing to write about, your - members of your own family. And I'm sure you've thought about how your parents will react. And it occurred to me that if in reading this they see your life as you experienced and examined it, they'll get it in a way that they couldn't before, and it might lead to some sort of breakthrough. What do you think?

WESTOVER: I hoped that when I was writing it. I don't know if that will happen. And I think I will always be watching for signs that my family culture has changed, that it's moved away from this place of secrecy and enabling. So I watch for those signs, but I don't wait for them. I've kind of - I've come to accept that whether or not my family changes is outside of my power, and I just try to live a full life either way.

DAVIES: Have you heard from any of them since the books emerged or since it's been written about?

WESTOVER: Well, I mean, how the - my family situation now - I'm estranged from about half of my family, and there's another half of my family that I'm really close with actually. And the unfolding of that - I mean, we were at Harvard, and this dramatic scene had happened where I had rejected this blessing from my father. And after they left, there was a period of about a year where I effectively had a mental breakdown and - with everything that involves - panic attacks, and I would wake up in the middle of the street having run there and having - screaming but having no real memory of how I got there.

And, I mean, I really fell apart, and what brought me out of that really was my brother Tyler came back into my life. And he showed up. He said he'd been hearing all these things, that my parents had been telling people that I had this demon. And he asked me my version of what had happened, and then he believed me. And so there was this amazing kind of saving thing about that where there had been this small, kind of windy distortions around my brother Shawn and I and this relationship that we had. And then my parents had kind of come along and turned that into a hurricane, and it felt like their version of me and their version of our history together was like a hurricane that was just sweeping through the whole world.

And then my brother suddenly came into my life again, and it was almost as if - I guess it was - it showed me how powerful it is when a - even a single bystander stops bystanding. And I think he really intervened in my life in this way that - I mean, I'll never be able to repay him for that. I was - I think I was pretty close to giving up at that point and just accepting - my parents had tried so hard to discredit me with everyone else that I'd ever known, but the person they really succeeded in discrediting me with was myself. And, you know, my brother came back into my life, and he really changed everything.

DAVIES: And it's worth noting that he also went to college - went to university and made a different life for himself.

WESTOVER: He did. He was the first one who did go to college, and he was the one who told me to go. And then the next brother of mine who really stood up and said that he believed me about my brother Shawn and rejected my parents narrative of me was my brother Richard, and I think that was - it was very hard for him. But I think in these kind of systems, you know, I do think that in order for a beast like this to go on, there has to be a lot of reality bending. And I think it's true that one person can make it stop, and Tyler was that person for me.

DAVIES: Tara Westover, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WESTOVER: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Tara Westover's memoir is called "Educated." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a collection of essays from Zadie Smith. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.