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One woman’s journey from an extreme survivalist childhood to studying at Cambridge

With no schooling, medical records or birth certificate, Tara Westover spent her youth preparing for the End of Days.

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

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.