When she saw her brother suffocate from the pain of a work accident and her father still insist on treating him at home with herbs, Tara Westover understood, even though she was only a child, that her parents were making a mistake with incalculable consequences.
Tara Westover was born in 1986 to a family of Mormon believers who were convinced that the end of the world was near and that US federal authorities could easily trigger it. Her parents had moved to the mountains in Idaho, where they lived off-the-grid (with no access to electricity, schools, hospitals, police, or social services). They were what Americans call preppers, or survivalists, adherents to the idea that a global disaster is imminent, but that people can protect themselves from its impact by accumulating supplies and knowledge about how to live in suboptimal conditions.
Some preppers are religiously motivated, while others cultivate their beliefs based on conspiratorial motives. Tara’s father was motivated from both directions.
The Westovers, along with their seven children, had a hostile attitude towards the authorities. This attitude was due to the many conspiracies Mr Westover believed in (such as the authorities being corrupted by the Illuminati) but also by resounding government failures at the time, like the Ruby Ridge tragedy.
During that incident, the FBI intervened with lethal force to capture a man whose only crime turned out to be his absence from a trial in which he was accused of illegally selling weapons to a neo-Nazi informant. During the uproar of a two-day siege orchestrated by the FBI at Ruby Ridge, in the Weaver family’s cabin, Randy Weaver’s wife, child, and dog were killed by the intervention forces, although they were not guilty of any crime.
The Westover parents had a vocal anti-governmental discourse, but their main motivation for retreating to the mountains had been religious. Tara’s father was convinced that the Ruby Ridge incident had a spiritual meaning and that it had been more than a tragic mistake. Moreover, the tragedy strengthened his belief that his family was next on the FBI list. That’s why he decided not to send his children to school, but to homeschool them to protect them from what he hated most: state manipulation.
Tara has recounted her experience in an autobiographical novel, based on her childhood memories and the 30 journals she kept faithfully at the time. The resulting book, Educated: A Memoir, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. President Barack Obama put it on his summer reading list, and tycoon Bill Gates said that it is “even better than you’ve heard”.
From the beginning of the book, Tara states that her testimony is not against Mormonism and argues that although she lived in a community of Mormon believers, her family was profoundly different from other Mormon families. In her novel, Tara recounts how, until nine years old, her parents did not even declare her birth to the Civil Registry. Therefore she did not have a birth certificate, an identity card, or any medical insurance.
She would have needed the latter because, while other children were playing care-free, she used to join her older brother and father in the yard where they dismantled cars—a very dangerous job for a child, as she would later say. Once, when she was helping her father to break down a car, a wrong manoeuvre on his part led to a piece of metal piercing her leg. In an interview in which she recounted the incident, Tara confessed that the wound on her foot, which her parents treated with herbs and tinctures, was a smaller accident than the one that could have happened considering the situation she was in: one step away from a knurl press.
Tara’s relationship with her family, from whom she would later become estranged, was marked by her father’s religious radicalism, but also by the physical and verbal violence of an older brother, Shawn, which Tara’s parents witnessed without getting involved. Shawn, says Tara, often dragged her by her hair down the hall to the toilet, where he pushed her head directly into the toilet bowl for no reason. He accused her of “debauchery” if she rolled up her sleeves above her elbows while working in her father’s junkyard and hit her when he caught her using an older sister’s mascara.
Years later, when she confronted her parents, asking them why they had not taken action when they saw what was happening to her, they denied everything and said that Tara was lying. Tara knew that her family was different from other families. Around the age of 4, she said, she realized the differences that existed, but considered them a reason to be proud. “The others were wrong and we were right,” she thought. “The end of the days will come, and we will survive it, because we have food and diesel, and the others do not”.
Gradually, however, as she grew up and her father’s vision—which strongly influenced her mother’s—became increasingly narrowed by a multitude of conspiracies, Tara began to long for something else. She had learned how to read from her older siblings, motivated by the fact that everyone knew how to read, and she, the youngest, was the only one in the family who did not know. She taught herself grammar, after learning to read.
At the age of 13 she visited a friend, enrolled in the state education system, for the first time, but she did not repeat the visit because her friend had teased her because she did not know what a fraction was. When her brother, Tyler (to whom she dedicates her book) decided that, despite her parents’ protests, he would go to college, Tara began to secretly hope that she could do the same. Tyler had left her his textbooks, so she began to learn the math she needed to get in.
Tara Westover, PhD
Without even a day of formal schooling, Tara was able to enter Brigham Young University, a prestigious Mormon university. There she heard the word “Holocaust” for the first time, and because she did not know what it meant, she raised her hand during the course and asked. Her colleagues thought she was making a racist joke and none of them gave her an answer, so Tara went to the library to find out. After hours of shocked reading, Tara’s disgust for the historical tragedy turned against her mother, who had kept her for so many years in an ignorance unworthy of the age in which we live.
“I don’t know how long I was there reading, but at one point I felt like I had read enough,” she writes in the novel. “I leaned back in my chair, staring at the ceiling. I was probably in a state of shock, but I’m not sure what was greater: the shock of learning about something terrible or the shock of discovering my own ignorance. I remember that, at one point, before my eyes, I could no longer see the concentration camps, or the depths of the gas chambers, but my mother’s face.”
“A wave of emotions swept over me, a feeling so unfamiliar that I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to scream at her, at my own mother, and that terrified me”.
With a keenness which matched the size the educational shortcomings she endured as a child, Tara spent whole nights studying, so she was able to get a Gates scholarship for a master’s degree at Cambridge and then a research scholarship at Harvard. She then returned to Cambridge to pursue a doctorate in the history of ideas.
From the shadow of a mountain and from the radical nest in which she grew up, Tara started to receive invitations to prestigious academic meetings, where she has spoken about the transformative capacity of education and how it practically saved her life.
Throughout this story, the voice of Tara’s parents is only heard through their lawyer, Blake Atkins. He denied most of Tara’s accusations and said that it was the education Tara received at home that provided her and her siblings access to higher education. “An educated person reading her book might conclude that it was her parents who prepared her well enough that she was accepted at a renowned university at age 16…even if she did daydream through lessons on the Holocaust and other world tragedies, which her mother is adamant she was taught,” the lawyer said in a statement to Haaretz.
“Like her older siblings, Tara always had the option to go to the public school”, the lawyer points out. “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 PhD in the family. Of the seven children, three hold PhDs. Show me any public school with those kind of results.”
It is true, he said, that “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”. “The stories of wanton carelessness in Tara’s book are all fabrications,” the lawyer concludes.
From her perspective, Tara told a Haaretz reporter that “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”.
Whether or not they have a religious element, the common denominator of toxic relationships—whether it is a violent husband, an abusive parent or a manipulative friend—will be the harm done to the victim who endures without retaliation. Too often, the meekness of the wounded will also cause them to assume the transformation of the abuser, as a personal project of redemption of good in the midst of evil.
Nuances to forgiveness
In many professed Christian families, this is reflected in the experience of wives who “turned the other cheek” when faced with their alcoholic husbands who beat them and their children. Pastor Adrian Bocăneanu has lamented, in a comment on an article in the Adventist Review, the existence of two extreme attitudes towards abuse. At one pole is the attitude that makes the victim even more vulnerable and exposed: that of protecting the perpetrator. “This is still practiced especially in places where the church is closely watched and often labelled as heretical or harmful. Members and leaders feel pressured to avoid further negative exposure and to preserve the church’s reputation as a beacon of light”. At the opposite pole is “the adoption of a purely humanistic, legal attitude, almost devoid of Christian principles such as communicating the truth in love, overcoming evil through good, and showing confidence in the prayer of the whole body of believers”, the pastor said.
“Prolonged exposure to the reprehensible nature of abuse in Christian families can turn us into cynics and determine us to take a strictly legal position. Constantly reflecting on the grace of Christ transforms us and makes us partakers of a higher wisdom and supernatural power”. Like forgiving.
Tara Westover forgave her parents. But for her, forgiveness did not mean the same thing as 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”. As she herself confessed in an interview for CNN, Tara no longer practices any religion. She says she still values the Mormon cult, but that its anti-feminist stance is incompatible with her vision and that the militating for change has exhausted her.
Sara Weaver, who lost her brother and witnessed her mother being shot in the Ruby Ridge incident, made a different choice. Although she also distanced herself from her father’s radical beliefs, Sara kept her faith as she made peace with her past. “It’s not easy to be a Christian,” she said, 22 years after the tragedy.
“Forgiveness is a continuous choice, a continuous process. I continue to forgive the people who showed up at our gate with tanks, weapons, and ammunition, I continue to forgive those who pulled the trigger, those who gave the orders.” But, like Tara, Sara also says that “forgiveness does not mean that what they did was okay, because if we forget those mistakes, they can be repeated.”
When we relate to our own experiences in which forgiveness could bring healing, it is good to keep in mind that things are most likely nuanced. And, until we discover in our own lives what it means to forgive, it is good for us to recognize what it does not mean to forgive. It is a first step, that of getting rid of some of the untruths that we have naturally learned from various sources, and which, unverified, could turn even our primordial relationship with God into a toxic one.