Tara Westover apologises for her little white dog Leo’s excitement as we meet at her house in Cambridge. “Stay! You’re done! Go to sleep!” she orders the pet in her western-lilted American accent. He obeys, dozing on the sofa in the front room.
Westover settles opposite me, folding her small frame into a wooden chair and pulling her knees up to her chest. Drinking tea in a Moomins mug, relaxed in jeans with her blonde hair slung up in a ponytail, Westover looks like any other student holed in on a rainy afternoon.
But the copies of her 2018 memoir Educated, piled on a bookcase behind her, tell a different story. Westover’s account of her extraordinary journey from an extreme survivalist upbringing, working on a junkyard with no formal education, to gaining a history doctorate from Cambridge, has topped the New York Times best-seller list – and lost her half her family.
Westover, who grew up in a remote, Mormon town in rural Idaho, with a population little above 200, was the youngest of seven siblings. She is now 31, although no one knows her true birthday. Her father’s maniacal suspicion of the government meant she was born at home and didn’t have a birth certificate. This distrust extended to doctors – she survived on herbal concoctions from what her father called “God’s pharmacy” – and to teachers, too. Westover didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17.
“I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself as send them down the road to that school,” she quotes her father as saying in Educated. Instead, Westover and her siblings laboured on a scrapheap, and sought to stockpile ten years’ worth of food in preparation for the “End of Days”.
“The crucial piece of information that I didn’t have is that I feel he’s mentally ill,” Westover tells me. “That’s my hypothesis: the mental illness caused the religious extremism.” The family lived in fear confected by her father’s paranoia – seeing the devil or the Illuminati in every outsider. Yet the true terror lay within the household.
Shawn, the second eldest sibling, became abusive to Westover. Deciding that his sister was a “whore”, he pulled her around by her hair, and forced her head down the toilet so many times that she began cleaning the bowl every morning in advance.
One day, when Westover was reluctant to go into a shop after a day’s work – fearing her boyfriend would glimpse her in town looking grubby – Shawn attacked and undressed her in the car park and forced her inside the shop.
Years later, having returned home for Christmas in 2009, Westover alerted her parents to his behaviour. Shawn reacted badly: he killed a pet dog in front of his own son and handed Westover the bloodied knife. “Use this on yourself,” he said. Yet Westover’s father told the family that she was imagining things, and was controlled by Lucifer. “I suddenly was the Illuminati or whatever.”
Denial of the abuse she suffered led to Westover having a breakdown and watching TV box sets for 20 hours a day. She is now estranged from half her family but remains in occasional email contact with her mother and is close to three of her brothers.
One of those brothers, Tyler – to whom her book is dedicated – helped her escape. Eight years older than his sister, he flouted his father’s rule when aged 16 by applying to the Mormon college in Utah, Brigham Young University, and encouraged his sister to follow.
Between stints sorting scrap, Westover studied English language and grammar using the only reading material to hand – 19th century Mormon theological discourses.
“It was probably a lot like reading Shakespeare is for a ten-year-old, I just didn’t understand it,” Westover says. “That was as close as I got to formal education as a child; reading those things and trying to wrestle some meaning out of them.”
It then took Westover two 80-mile solitary trips to buy textbooks to teach herself enough algebra for the university entrance test. After passing, she won an overseas scholarship to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, and went on to Harvard – later returning to Cambridge for her PhD in intellectual history and political thought, which she completed in 2014.
In her first term at university, the future doctor had stunned her classmates into silence by asking what the word “Holocaust” meant.Yet the gaps in her knowledge – she also assumed that the former president “FDR” was a JCB, asking, “You need a forklift?” – were nothing compared to the social strains. Westover balked at fellow students wearing strappy tops and drinking Diet Coke. She even began writing out conversations before interacting with people.
“One or two semesters there was that moment of someone coming over and saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and I would have this fright response that would make me say nonsense,” she recalls. “I do remember writing out and practising: ‘Hi, how are you? Good, how are you?’ It was getting used to being around people.”
In some ways, Westover is still adjusting. She admits to sometimes questioning whether she chose the right path, away from her father’s beliefs. “Psychologically, when you hear something a number of times, you start to believe it,” she says. “They’ll always have that kind of power over me.”
It’s a short walk from Westover’s home, across a Victorian green, Christ’s Pieces, to the grand colleges and manicured gardens of the city centre, but my host appears detached from her academic surroundings. “I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere.”
Tara Westover will be in conversation with NS contributing writer Erica Wagner at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 15 April
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special