An Interview with Author Tara Westover
The best-selling author of Educated talks about memory, history, and her journey to Cambridge and beyond.
When Tara Westover arrived in Cambridge in 2008, she was a college graduate without a high school diploma, feeling like an alien “touching down on a foreign planet.” Writing about the experience in her 2018 memoir Educated, she described it as one of disorientation so stark it defied disbelief: “I didn’t think I was dreaming, but only because my imagination had never produced anything so grand.”
Educated was a received as a triumphal story of self-determination, the tale of Westover’s escape from an insular, and at times violent, upbringing in rural Idaho, in a family whose anti-establishment beliefs extended to mainstream religion, medical care, and public education. Teaching herself from hand-me-down textbooks, Westover enrolled in university at age 16, without setting foot in a classroom, and made her way from there to Cambridge for a PhD in History. For all of this, however, Westover believes that to focus on her personal resilience is to miss the real lesson of the story.
“People ask me if I want to say something to my younger self. And the answer is, not really,” she said on a phone call, on a snowy day in February. Now a research fellow at Harvard, Westover credits her PhD advisor, the historian and Gates trustee David Runciman, for supporting her when her own resolve flagged, mid-PhD; he even encouraged her to write down her experiences, and then to publish the manuscript that would become Educated. “It's those kinds of people who can make the biggest difference,” she said, firmly. “Rather than saying to the kid, keep your chin up, pull yourself up, keep working, you’ll be fine— I don't have anything like that to say. It’s more: look what David did. Do that.”
Our conversations has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Amelia Urry: I wanted to start with this scene that shows up right at the beginning of Educated. You describe a childhood memory of what turns out to be the Ruby Ridge massacre, as though it was something that you experienced and not only a story you were told. How did this story influence your family life when you were growing up?
Tara Westover: Countries have founding myths that give people a shared sense of purpose. For my family, that version of Ruby Ridge that my dad told us was our founding myth. It was the justification for the way that we lived, the reason that we kept ourselves separate. That's why we didn't go to school. The reason why we didn't go to the doctor— it was it was all bound up in this story.
What's interesting about it is that the version that my dad told us wasn't necessarily that far off. The story he told us was broadly true, but he left out some pretty important details about how it ended. It was a pretty grotesque example of government overreach. I mean, it's sniping a woman holding a baby who isn't in any way threatening— it seems wrong, no matter what. But what we left out of the story were all the ways that the American democracy responded to that event. I was left to imagine the world only with the first half of the story. So it changed my perception of everything. I didn't realize, Yes, bad things can happen, but there are institutions in place to try to address those things. It became a part of the mythology of why we lived the way that we lived.
"Cambridge is maybe where I learned to trust my perspective, not because it was more correct, just because I had as much as much right to take a guess as anybody. "
AU: In some scenes in the book, you are careful to record how each participant’s memory may differ from your own version. Sometimes it’s a small detail, but other times different people remember dramatically different stories. As a writer, how did you confront these moments of contradictory accounts?
TW: When I was doing my PhD research, I found two sources that didn't agree with each other. Both eyewitness accounts, both seemed credible and accurate to the best of their knowledge— and yet they disagreed. I think that happens a lot. Human beings are not perfect, our recall is not perfect either. Our perceptions are filtered through different mechanisms.
So I just handled it the way I know: I put footnotes and said here, here are the reasons to think that this is the way it was, and more or less said to the reader, you know, good luck to you.
But I think it didn’t really bother me as a writer, because I was trying to write about what it felt like to grow up in a family where reality was fluid. Things that happened were immediately denied— that was part of the experience of growing up in that family. So instead of it being an inconvenience, something that was going to ruin the story I wanted to tell, it seemed like a really important part of the story I was trying to tell.
AU: Do you think that being a historian has helped you look back at your own memories? Or did any of your experiences with the shiftiness of memory shape how you think about how history gets written?
TW: The way I experienced memory when I was growing up was just that my memories were wrong, and my parents’ and my siblings’ memories were right. Now I know that this lack of confidence in my own perceptions is pretty common with kids who grew up in those kinds of families. Cambridge is maybe where I learned to trust my perspective, not because it was more correct than anybody else's, just because I had as much as much right to take a guess as anybody. I think part of my experience of going to school, generally, through my undergraduate all the way through Cambridge, was trying to get the confidence to say, I get to have a perspective. You can have your perspective, but I also get to have my own memories of what happened. I have these journal entries I wrote at the time: I'm gonna take them seriously like I would any other eyewitness. I'm going to take my own mind seriously.
AU: You mention a few points in your journals where you can see yourself disagreeing with yourself on the page, in the moment. How do you make sense of that now?
TW: I think people get a mistaken idea that human beings have one coherent mind, but I just don't think the research backs that up. I think most of us are made up of many different people and perspectives and needs. There are a whole bunch of different personalities walking around in our head. I think it's actually pretty normal to be of two minds—or many minds—about something.
When something painful happens, something having to do with your immediate family— of course, a part of you knows what happened and wants to get away. And another part of you doesn't know and doesn't want to know what happened, because it doesn't want to get away— it wants to stay. I think that duality is present in everybody. There are very, very few things I think that you'll ever do in your life, that all of you either wants to do or doesn't want to do. Almost all the time, part of you does, and part of you doesn't.
AU: Do you remember your first impressions coming to Cambridge?
TW: Like a lot of people for whom touching down at Cambridge feels like touching down on a foreign planet, I've struggled to feel like I belong there. It was really difficult transition in some ways. I definitely found a home in the Gates community. What I remember I valued especially is that there were so many scholars from different schools— not just from the from the big Ivy League schools, but really smart, interesting people from all kinds of schools. I really was able to find a home in that way.
AU: Do you ever think about something you might want to say to someone who's growing up in a position like yours?
TW: People ask me that a lot. There's not a lot I would say to that person. There are a lot of things I might say to the people around that person. I think sometimes when we're talking about resilience, we think in terms of, how can we make kids from poorer backgrounds more robust so that they can thrive in an environment like Cambridge? And I feel like that's the wrong way of thinking about it. Why don't we think about how we can make Cambridge somewhere that those kids can thrive, because they have a lot to offer. Everyone's been telling them what they're supposed to be like and what they’re supposed to do for as long as they can remember. So I might say to their professors and tutors and to other kids that it's worth looking around and seeing how you can make the university fertile soil, you know, for a whole bunch of different kinds of plants.
Tara Westover (Trinity) was a 2008 Gates Scholar in History. She is now the Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy,