Tara Westover: 2018 National Book Festival

Tara Westover: 2018 National Book Festival


>>Colleen Shogan:
Good afternoon. My name is Colleen Shogan. I work at the Library
of Congress. Welcome to the 18th Annual
National Book Festival. A couple of housekeeping
items before we get started. Please silence your cell
phones if you haven’t already. And there will be time for a
Q&A at the end of the session so please be sure to
save your questions. I’m honored to be joined
onstage today by Tara Westover, the author of Educated. Tara grew up in rural Idaho. She’s a graduate of
Brigham Young University, and she also received
her PhD in history from Cambridge University
in the UK. And I think that’s all I’m
going to say about Tara and her biography for now
because I think we’re going to get into a lot of the details
in our conversation today. If you haven’t read Educated,
I highly recommend it. I picked it up at the beginning
of a trans-Atlantic flight from Europe back to Washington,
DC, and I didn’t put it down the entire flight. And that’s really the
marker of a terrific book. But I am not the only person who thinks Educated
is a terrific book because a few weeks ago
President Barack Obama issued a list of his top five books
that he read this summer and Tara’s book,
Educated, was on that list. [ Applause ] So how did you find
out about that? Did President Obama tweet you? Did he text you ahead of time? Or how did you find out?>>Tara Westover: I had been
told that he was reading it.>>Colleen Shogan: Mmhmm.>>Tara Westover: But I don’t
think I took that very — no, I’d been told that he’d
said he was going to read it.>>Colleen Shogan: OK.>>Tara Westover:
Which, I know what I’m like when I say I’m
going to read a book. And I thought, yeah,
sure you — [laughing].>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Tara Westover: So no,
I wasn’t expecting it. I went. I had a lunch
with a friend. It was very nice. And then I left and I did that
thing that we all do now as soon as we stop talking to someone and we’re alone —
we look at our phone. And I checked my email and
there was an email from my agent who said, “This has
just happened!” [Laughter] And yeah, it
was a lovely surprise. And then a couple of
days later I got a call. I was at my house and then my
phone rang and I answered it. And they said, “Do you think
you have time this afternoon for a call from President
Obama?” [Whispering] I was like
— [speaking again] yeah! [Laughter] I can fit that in with all the other former
presidents who are calling me. [Laughing] Maybe at 2:15. So he really generously
called me and was just really
thoughtful, kind. He has a lot of things
going on in his life. He did not have to do that. So I mean, that was pretty — I’ve had some weird
things happen in my life and that was pretty weird.>>Colleen Shogan: Yep.>>Tara Westover: You know? [Laughter] That was
right up there with some of the strangest things that
I never thought would happen.>>Colleen Shogan: So to start
us out, in your book I think one of the strengths of the book is
your really vivid descriptions of where you grew up. And the setting of your
book is so important because it sets the entire
framework for the story. So in your own words can
you talk to us a little bit about the place where
you grew up?>>Tara Westover: Yeah. I was raised the
youngest of seven children on this mountain in Idaho. And a lot of people know
we didn’t go to school. We didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t have a birth
certificate. We had these quite radical
aspects of our lives. I think some people think that that means it was a bleak
childhood and it really wasn’t. It was a pretty happy childhood. There were a lot of
beautiful things. We had horses. We had a junkyard. But I know that doesn’t sound
really great but it kind of was a lot of the time. I mean, if you ever want to
have a really good game of hide and seek or treasure hunting
or any kind of game at all, having your own junkyard
is pretty amazing. You know? We’d go to
my grandmother’s house and we’d play that lava
game where you pretend like everything is lava except
the pillows you put on the floor but do that with junk cars
that you can jump from. Like, it was great! So a lot of really wonderful
things about my childhood and then there were some kind
of difficult things about it. So not being able to go
to school was difficult. I never had any friends. I never went to another
kid’s house. I called them public school
kids and I never had any friends who were public school kids. I never went to their house. They never came to mine. And so there were these
kind of slightly darker, more difficult elements. And eventually I
would go to college. I would not really know what I
was doing or why I was doing it. But I would teach myself
enough algebra to pass the ACT and I would wind
up at a university and that would be a pretty
big shock [chuckling]. And then life would
change pretty dramatically. But my childhood itself — yeah, I think like a lot of people’s lives
it wasn’t one thing. It was mixed.>>Colleen Shogan: So your
book is about your own journey to become educated and
your educational journey. It’s also about your
relationship with your family. Can you talk a little bit
about your mother and father in particular and their
views on education?>>Tara Westover: My parents, I
think they were quite idealistic about education when my
older brothers were young. My father was kind of
paranoid about the government, about many different things. He thought the government had
been infiltrated by something like the Illuminati, this
nefarious organization that was corrupting everything. And he believed public
education was a part of that. So he didn’t want us in the
schools because he was not — he didn’t want them
teaching us things that he didn’t agree with. So that was, I think, when my
parents first made the decision to homeschool their kids. I think they had a
fairly idealistic view that they would — at least
my mother, I think thought that she could provide a
better education at home. But that just kind of gave way,
fell by the wayside so that by the time that I came
along and my three older — the three that are
just older than me — there wasn’t a lot of
by way of education. There were — I mean, I was
definitely taught to read by one of my older brothers,
so I was literate. Reading was important
to my family. But it wasn’t — I
never took an exam. I never wrote an essay. I never remember anything
like a formal lecture which is why I could
arrive at BYU — and there’s serious questions
to how I got into BYU [laughing] because I wasn’t qualified. But you know, that’s how I
could arrive at a university when I was 17 and go
into a classroom and say, “what is this word: Holocaust?” I hadn’t heard it before. And I’d never heard of
the civil rights movement. There were so many
things I didn’t know. I thought Europe was a
country, not a continent. That was very confusing. And so I had this education
that was incredibly spotty because it had just never
been formal in any way. But I think my parents,
strangely enough, I don’t think it’s that they
completely didn’t value it. It just didn’t happen. And I think their
idea of education was such that it was entirely
kind of your responsibility and if you wanted to learn
something you should go learn it. But there were difficulties
with that. You know, not everyone can
teach themselves calculus. I don’t think I could do that. I sort of taught
myself trigonometry and it didn’t go great.>>Colleen Shogan: So instead of
following a homeschool program or going to a public
school or a private school, you worked with your father in
the scrapyard, in the junkyard. Can you talk a little
bit about that? And was that — did you
learn anything from that? Was it an unconventional
form of education?>>Tara Westover: People
always said in my family that one thing we know how to do
is we really know how to work. And we really do. We’re really good workers. And I think I did learn a
really good work ethic working with my dad. I think people judge
my dad really harshly. And I struggle with that because
I tried to write him the way that I see him and the
way that I think he is. We got injured a lot in my dad’s
junkyard, really horrifically, and it was completely
unnecessary. A few safety precautions,
basic ones [chuckles]. Nothing elaborate here. You know, harnesses. And people wouldn’t have
gotten hurt the way they did. And then of course because
he had these beliefs about doctors we didn’t
go to the hospital. And it’s hard for me
to convince people that this wasn’t malicious. You know, my dad loved his
kids but he put his kids in danger a lot and then once
they were hurt he didn’t give them medical attention. And that is hard for
people to square. It’s hard for me to square. It’s hard to square that circle. I’ve squared it for myself
by believing that I — my thing is that my dad
has a mental illness. I think he’s bipolar. For some reason he doesn’t
have that bone in his head that tells him when
something is dangerous. And so he would routinely ask
us to do things or tell us to do things that
were so dangerous. But the redeeming fact,
I suppose, is, you know, my dad never had us do
anything or put us in any danger that he wouldn’t
have put himself in. So it was not the case that
my father would, you know, if we were injured not take
us to a doctor but then if he was injured take
himself to a doctor. I mean, the worst
injury that happened in my father’s junkyard
happened to my father. He was standing next to a car. He was removing a fuel tank. Because he just doesn’t think
rationally about things, he decided not to drain the
fuel before he lit a torch and started to remove the tank. And you know, fuel is flammable. So the car exploded and
he was burned terribly, unbelievably bad. And it was months of
recovering and he nearly died. And of course, my parents
because of the beliefs that they have, they did not
take him to the hospital. They treated that at home. And the pain was unimaginable. But so I tell this story
because I think it shows for my father he was doing what
he thought the right thing was. You might disagree and it’s
hard for people to understand. For my father, I
think what love looked like for his children was not
taking them to the doctor, not taking my brother to the
doctor when he lit his leg on fire and it was
terribly burned, because he sincerely
believed it. So he wasn’t an unloving father. He didn’t put us through things
and then be kinder to himself. These were his beliefs. And so the story is it’s
a little more complicated than what do you do when
people treat you badly because they don’t
care about you. It’s more a story of what do
you do when you love someone and they love you and there is
just something disfunctional about it that is harmful to you? And that is a harder
situation to resolve. And I think it’s probably
one that most people face. I don’t know a lot of
people who their trouble with their parents is just
a completely evil parent that doesn’t care
for them at all. I’m sure there are
some parents like that. But I think it’s — you know,
a family is incredibly nuanced. And for me, writing
the book, that was one of the things I really wanted
to tease apart which is to say I love my father, I
think he’s a good person, I think he loves me. I think he wants what he
thinks is best for me. And [laughs] they’re not
always the same thing as what I think is
best for myself. And how do we navigate that? And what if we can’t navigate it
and how do we accept the outcome of not being able
to navigate it?>>Colleen Shogan: For most
of your childhood you thought that you would follow in
your mother’s footsteps, that you would study
to become an herbalist. You might take over her
business as a midwife. But then at some point — you
changed your mind at some point. Can you tell us about how
you made that decision not to follow the path that
you thought you were going to follow?>>Tara Westover: I think it
was — you know, it’s funny. I was just flipping
through the book. I’m going to read a little bit.>>Colleen Shogan: Sure.>>Tara Westover: Because
it’s here and it’s open and it’s completely relevant. It’s what you just said. [ Laughter ]>>Colleen Shogan:
We did not plan it. [Laughing]>>Tara Westover: No, no
planning and no planning in my life [laughing]. So I’m just going to
do two paragraphs. Don’t worry. It won’t be long. Three. I’d come to
BYU to study music so that one day I could direct a
church choir but that semester, the fall of my junior
year, I didn’t enroll in a single music course. I could not have explained why
I dropped Advanced Music Theory in favor of Geography and
Comparative Politics or gave up Sight Singing to take
up History of the Jews. But when I’d seen those
courses in the catalog and read their titles aloud,
I had felt something infinite and I wanted a taste
of that infinity. For four months I attended
lectures on geography and history and politics. I learned about Margaret
Thatcher and the 38th parallel and the cultural revolution. I learned about parliamentary
politics and electoral systems
around the world. I learned about the Jewish
Diaspora and the strange history at the Protocols of
the Elders of Zion. By the end of the semester the
world felt big and it was hard to imagine returning to
the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the
room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind
of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire
to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics
and world affairs was not and yet they called to me. I don’t know as though there’s a
straightforward answer to that. I think I’d been raised
with a very strong idea of what my life was
supposed to look like. And there were a number
of alternative paths that you could take that
all followed very closely to that path. So you could go to
college and study music so that you could
be a piano teacher because that was complementary
to being a wife and a homemaker and that was very much
what I was raised to be. And there wasn’t really
a lot of other avenues. There were a couple of
things you could do as well that might be commensurate
with that. And I had a big struggle at BYU
because I was drawn to things that by my own definition of
myself and my own definition of what it meant to be
female didn’t add up. I did not understand why
I as a woman was drawn to what I thought of as unwomanly things
but I definitely was. And it took me a couple of years
of kind of wrestling with that. And I think I was at
Cambridge, really, before I started reading
a bit of feminist text. I was in no way ready
for anything that most feminists would
call feminism [laughing], but I stumbled on this
passage in John Stuart Mill. And I’ve read a lot of
feminist stuff since then. And this is still the
most powerful thing that has resonated
with me, personally. It’s a line that he says. He says, “of the
nature of women, nothing final can be known.” And his argument is all
the social pressure. Women have been cajoled and
pushed and defined to themselves and changed in so
many different ways. And now we have no idea
what they’re capable of. We just don’t know. We don’t know what they are because we’ve been
deforming them for so long. And that was, you know,
that whole absence of knowledge was
so appealing to me. I mean, of the nature of women
nothing final can be known. Because to me what that felt
like was, whatever I’m drawn to, whatever I want to
be, I am a woman. So that must be OK. And I don’t need to find
external definitions of what I should be
like, what I should love, what I should want to do. I can just discard all
of that and I can say, definitionally you can’t say
that women don’t like politics, that women don’t like history
because I am one and I do. So that was incredibly
— that, just, absence, to take all of what we think
we know and throw it away and make your decisions based on
what you think is right for you. It was really wonderful for
me and it had nothing to do with not wanting family
and not wanting children or rejecting that way of life. It just had to do with accepting
other parts of who I was.>>Colleen Shogan: When you were
at BYU it was very difficult for you when you started. But even in your first semester that you were there you
still got very good grades. You were very successful. How did you do that? Do you look back at that moment
in time and are you in sort of awe of what you were able
to do and the transition and the changes that
you overcame? How were you successful after
going from no formal education to a very competitive school?>>Tara Westover:
[Sighs] I suffered a lot of that first semester
[laughing]. It was kind of awful, actually. I remember that. It was not a happy time. There was a lot of — I would
say my first two years at BYU where I was learning out
of fear because I had to have a scholarship. At BYU to get a scholarship —
I had to have a 3.9 or above. [Laughs] Which is
basically, I think, most semesters I could
get four A’s and one A-. If I got two A-‘s
that was risky. And this is insane. And I knew I had to have it
because I couldn’t come back. Without that money, there
was no way I was coming back. And so it was just terror. I just learned — I did
the homework obsessively. I did every extra credit thing. I did everything I could. When I took a math class, which
was a bad idea [laughing], I just killed myself
for that class. And I failed many of the exams. And then I made a deal with the
professor that if I got 100%, missed nothing on the final, that he would forget all the
other horrifying tests I’d taken and he would just
score that one. And so just all I did for a month was just
study for that exam. And I don’t mean
all I did, like, I studied an hour or two a day. I mean, that’s all I did. And you know, that’s
one of the things for me — getting a grant. I’d finally applied for FAFSA. It took this lovely Mormon
bishop, like kind of equivalent of a pastor, who spent
weeks trying to convince me that it wasn’t evil to
accept government money and I was very resistant
to that. [Laughing] But eventually I
filled out this application. A check came for $4,000. And I think that was the moment
I stopped learning out of fear and started learning
because I wanted to and I was interested
in the material. And that was when the shift
really started to take hold of being able to follow
what felt compelling to me and what I wanted to learn
and what I wanted to do. That little amount of money
made such a difference to me. It’s difficult to even
compare the way that I studied and the way that I attended
school and what school meant to me before that
money and after that money are completely
different.>>Colleen Shogan: I think, for
me, the most disturbing part of your book and your story
stems from your relationship with your brother Shawn, who was
certainly emotionally abusive and at times physical
abusive towards you. As your education progressed,
how did that inform you to help you understand that
that relationship was a disfunctional one?>>Tara Westover: Yeah, I
called the book Educated. And I think it’s about education
but it’s not about degrees and it’s not about certificates
and it’s not about the job that you can get if you
have the right degree and the right certificate. I think it’s about the ways that education makes you a
different person and for me that took a lot of
different shapes. One of the shapes it took
was that I became someone that was able to have
different ideas in my head than the people around me. And I’d never been
that person before. I had grown up in an isolated
intellectual environment where my father gave us the
ideas that he wanted us to have because he believed that
was the right thing for us, but that’s essentially
what he did. And so his version of history,
his version of everything, that’s what we learned. And that bled over in some ways. I was quite used to people
telling me what had happened. So my brother Shawn,
he would be violent. He would be not — yeah, I
was going to say aggressive but just flat out violent. And almost immediately after that would happen
he would convince me that it hadn’t happened
or that it had been a game or that it had been this
kind of fun experience. I mean, there were
times that he would — I mean, there’s one example
where he grabbed me by my hair and he hauled me
down the hallway and he shoved my
head in the toilet. And a friend of mine
witnessed it. I was 17 so I actually
had a friend. And later he said to me, Shawn
said to me, “it’s just a game” and “I thought we
were having fun” and “if something was wrong you
really should have told me.” And I went to my friend,
Charles, who’d seen it and tried to convince him that it was this
game and he wasn’t having it. And at some point
in my time at BYU, and it wasn’t too long
later, that began to shift. And I began to have my own ideas
about what was happening to me. And I think it was the
same shift with my father. My father — there was
a time when I was at BYU that my father came and he
was giving me this lecture about Jewish, basically about
these conspiracy theories that run wild sometimes. He thought Jewish people were
going to start World War III so they could consolidate
their power and he had some pretty
horrifying ideas about that. And I recognized some of
the things he was saying because I’d taken that
course in Jewish history. And I knew he was
quoting from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He didn’t. He would have been
horrified to think that he was quoting something
that Hitler had liked. You know. But I knew
the history of the text. I knew that it had been
discredited as a forgery. I didn’t know how
he got hold of it, but I knew what it
was and he didn’t. It was the first time
that I think I’d been able to hear my father speak with
such confidence and authority in this voice that I’d trusted
more than any other voice. And I was able to think
to myself, “interesting that you think that but I
don’t, I don’t think that.” And it was the same switch
that happened with my brother. Something changed where
he would say to me — there was a difficult
incident in a parking lot where he essentially assaulted
me and he cracked my wrist. I think he probably broke it. And it took months to heal. But within a few minutes of it
or within a few hours he tried to convince me that
it had been a game, that we were having a good time,
that he hadn’t had any idea that anything was wrong. And that was the first night that even though he told me
that, what I wrote in my journal that night was I wrote my
version of the events which was that it had been terrifying,
that I’d been screaming at him to stop, that he really hurt me, that I had no idea
why he was doing that but I had definitely asked
him, I had told him not to. And then I wrote his
version which was that it had been this
fun, nice, little game. And I didn’t know which
one was right, like, would not have that moment. And within a couple of days
I was prioritizing his, if I’m honest with you. It wasn’t a complete progression
but it was the first time, I think, that my brother
attempted to pose his point of view, he attempted
to dominate me in this very specific
way, and at the end of that process there were
still two minds present. There were two distinct
minds present who had had two different
experiences and I hadn’t just yielded
my interpretation of things or my experience
of things to his. He had one idea of what
happened and that was fine but I knew what I’d experienced. And I think education, it
has to be more than something that you undertake to get a
degree to get a better job. I think at its absolute best
it needs to be the acquisition of the skills that allow
you to live a fuller live, that allow you to
participate in a meaningful way in the making of your own mind. And I think a part of
that is just going to have to be learning and
getting the opportunity to assess a wide variety of
information and a wide variety of different perspectives and
decide what you actually think. And that’s how you develop that
skill, that really crucial skill to have people in your life that
you respect, that you admire, that you trust, that
are important to you, but you don’t necessarily have to just think whatever
they think, that you can have
your own thoughts and your own perspectives
and it can be true of conspiracy theories
about, you know, somewhat anti-Semitic
conspiracy theories [laughing], or it can be the
truth of your own life and what’s happening to you. But I think that kind
of independence of mind, that’s what education
should be about. And it should change the way
that you live and interact with people, I think, if
it’s a real education.>>Colleen Shogan: As the
story progresses — oh, yeah. [ Applause ] As your story progresses, your educational
achievements are building up. They proliferate. And your relationship with your
family — most of your family, not your entire family, most
of your family — deteriorates. So it becomes an
inverse relationship. So when did you realize
that these two things that were clearly
very important to you, these two things
weren’t going to march in concert with each other? And how did you deal with that?>>Tara Westover: I think
there’s different kinds of realization. There’s the realization
that makes you, that you’re actually aware. Then there’s the realization
that makes you repress. [Laughing] And I think
there were a lot of years that I was aware of it in a way
that made me not deal with it at all and just pretend
like it wasn’t happening. For my family, change was
always going to be hard and one of the ways — I said education
should make you a different person and it made me
a different person. It made me the kind of person
who wasn’t necessarily going to tolerate the behavior from
my brother that I had been. And that was never going to
go down well in my family. It took me a long
time to realize that. It took me a long time to
realize that there was nothing in the way that I
approached my parents. There’s nothing in the
way that I said it. There’s nothing in
the way that I behaved that made them not accept that. They were just never going to and it was always
going to be an issue. It’s so easy in those situations
to blame yourself and think, oh, if I’d said it in
a different way. No. I don’t think that
was ever going to happen. And so there was going
to be a point, I suppose, where that was going
to come to a head. And I don’t know when
exactly I accepted it. I think probably I
accepted it several years after it was true, actually. I think there was a lot
of magical thinking there. There was a lot of thinking, I
can say this, I can fix this. There was a lot of me
thinking I can change people and of course you can’t. You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself
and that’s hard enough. And so I think it
took me a long time. I confronted my parents
about my brother. They immediately told
him what I’d said. He disowned me. Then my parents developed
this really lovely idea that I was possessed which
was the way they tried to explain why I’d said
what I said about him. And after a couple
of years of that, I became estranged from them. And that was my choice. But even then I still
thought I could fix it. And fundamentally it was
because I wanted to believe that I could change them. I could make them into people
that I could have in my life. And I couldn’t. And so then I had a
lot of guilt for a lot of years about that decision. I made a decision to
walk away from them and then you feel
like a bad person. You feel like a bad kid. You feel like — are
there any reasons that a child can walk away
from their own parents? And for me for a long time I
thought no, no, there are not. There are no reasons
that make that OK. And those were some
of my angriest years because I didn’t
feel like I deserved to have made that decision. So I was constantly relitigating
in my mind every awful thing that they had done,
everything I resented them for because I was
trying to justify myself. And it took me a lot
of years to realize, if I could just accept the
decision on my own terms, that I did it for myself — it was nothing to
do with my father. It wasn’t about whether
he deserved it. It was just because I needed it. And once I made it about what I
deserved, about valuing myself, and not about being angry
with someone else, you know, things got a lot more peaceful
and I no longer feel that need to just constantly
relitigate everything that I dislike about my parents. I try to keep it in my mind
because I don’t want to go back and get in that situation again. But then I can also be
someone who has good memories about my family and
I can be someone who has beautiful memories. And that’s important, I think. I lived my life for a
couple of years as someone who had no good memories. Everything in my life had
just turned to rot and range and anger because I was
so mad at my parents for what had happened. And it’s been a much nicer stage
of life to get to the point where I value my past. And there was that time
where I couldn’t value it because it was painful
to lose it. And I thought, well, I just
have to say that it was all crap and it was all terrible and
there’s nothing good there and so I don’t care that I’ve
lost them because they were bad. And that was kind of painful because then I didn’t
have any good memories. And it was a long process to get
to the point where I can say, “there was value there;
the love was real; there were really wonderful
things about them; and I’ve lost that and that was a
decision and I stand by that decision
for my own sake.” But I don’t have to devalue what
I had just because I’ve lost it. And then I can be someone who
had a beautiful childhood. I can also be someone who
had a difficult childhood.>>Colleen Shogan: Last
question before we turn it over for questions
from the audience. So, can you catch
us up on your life since you published the memoir? What do you have planned next? Are you writing another book? What’s next for you
professionally?>>Tara Westover: I am trying
to put together a documentary about rural education. Rural kids tend to struggle
a bit more transitioning from high school
to the next stage. Whether that’s trade
school or university, they tend to struggle a bit
more, I think especially because of the economic crisis. You know, small towns are sort
of shrinking for the first time in the United States
history and I think a lot because of big agriculture. Family farms are dying. So there’s a struggle that’s
going on there that I saw when I was growing up
that I’ve continued to see as I go back there that I
kind of want to explore.>>Colleen Shogan: OK, terrific. I’m sure there’s
a lot of questions from our audience for Tara. If you have them, please,
there’s a number of microphones.>>Hi. I was curious. You address it at the end of
your book but I was wondering since the book has, you know,
gotten such rave reviews and become such a success,
what your relationship is now with any members of your
family, with your family, or what they think of it.>>Tara Westover: I would say
with some I’ve gotten closer to them and with
some it’s been rocky. And I wouldn’t have predicted
who those people would be. There were people that I thought
they were reading the book before I even agreed to publish
it, they were happy with it, and then it’s been a
real struggle with them that it’s become — you know, we
didn’t think this would happen. This isn’t necessarily
what we signed up for. You know, me even. This is — it’s great but it’s
different than what I imagined. And then there are
family members — I have aunts and cousins that
have been incredibly supportive that I wasn’t expecting that
kind of support from them. And so I feel like I’ve gained a
lot of family from the process. But you know, it’s a difficult
thing, this kind of story. There’s no way around
it, I think. If you’re going to tell
stories about your life, it might be difficult
for people. And it was difficult for
me, in a way, the decisions that I made to write the book. And it’s a process. So I would say in general
pretty much the book — people have responded the way
that you would expect in a way but there have been
some surprises.>>Hi. I was wondering if
you had strong feelings about keeping your experiences
from being replicated in other families,
about homeschooling and your lack of education.>>Tara Westover: Yeah, the homeschooling one is a
really difficult question because I think some people do
a fantastic job homeschooling. My brother Tyler
homeschools his children and I’ve never seen
better adjusted, educated kids [laughs]. I’ve just never seen it. But I think that it’s
a difficult question. It’s hard to regulate because
you can’t compare one family of kids. You know, you can’t rank them. What do you rank them against? Do you rank them
against the local school? And what if they
have disabilities? And I don’t have a
policy solution for that. But I would try to give parents
a bit of advice, I guess, which is I would say
think about why you want to homeschool your kids. If the reason you want to
homeschool your kids is because you want to keep them
from getting access to points of view that you disagree with,
I would say that’s probably less about education and
probably more about control. And but if you want
to educate your kids because you really believe
you can give them access to more points of view and more
ideas and more ways of thinking about the world,
I’ve seen that work.>>Hi. I loved your book. The whole time I was reading it, I wanted to know what was
the moment or decision where you decided, “I
should share this story” because obviously
it’s very personal. There could be repercussions. I come from a very
similar background to you and that’s kind of a
question I deal with. What is the good of sharing it but also how it can be
misunderstood or have, you know, blowback to the people you love
or even are estranged from? So I’m just really
interested in why you decided to write it and share it.>>Tara Westover: Yeah. I think the typical way
to approach the book is to write a proposal or a
couple chapters and sell that. You find a publisher with that. I couldn’t do that and the
reason I couldn’t do that is because I had no idea if
I would ever want the book to be published. And writing a couple chapters or writing an outline,
I had no idea. I just didn’t know if
it was something that — I felt like I had to
be fully convinced that it would be a useful thing
[laughing] before I would want to put it out there. And I couldn’t do that until
I’d written the whole thing. I had to write every word of it. And there were parts of it
that were hard for me to write about that I didn’t want
people to know about. And in a way I needed the
rest of the story arc for me to have the conviction. I think it was worth
those things that I didn’t really
want to write. And I would never have — you know, that scene
in the parking lot that I described is not
something I’m thrilled that people know about me. That’s not fun. But there are other things that
— you know, there are other. There’s the end of that chapter. And there’s the realization
of what it meant that is important to me. And I can’t have one
without the other. And I had to write the
whole book and I had to say, on the whole, is this
something I want out there? But any individual chapter, I guarantee you the
answer would have been no. No, no, no, no.>>Well, thank you
for writing it. [Laughter]>>Colleen Shogan: As we watch
you coming of age in the book, a theme that emerges is
the difficulty surrounding romantic relationships. And as the book edges towards
conclusion it’s indicated that you formed a healthier
relationship with a man. But that’s kept pretty quiet. And I was curious about
the choice not to talk more about the emergence of that
relationship in the book and that portion of
your coming of age.>>Tara Westover: Yeah, I
thought about writing more about that and in the
end I decided I just — the book has so many
things going on in it and so many themes. And I wanted to provide
something that was useful to people who struggle
with that because I did. At BYU, you know, I’d had this
experience with my brother. He had a nickname for me
that was — it was “whore.” That’s not a nice name to
call a 16-year-old girl. That had really entered into
my self-definition in a way that would, combined with a
lot of religious sexual guilt, really make relationships
difficult for me when I was at BYU. And so I wrote about that
in the best terms I knew how because I wanted people to
see, to feel what that was like and to hopefully feel what it’s
like to let that go and to see where their own feelings
come from. I didn’t write — you know, a
lot of people do write memoirs about their kind of
sexual coming of age and their lives like that. And I didn’t feel like
I had a lot to add. I felt like the other
psychological things that I explore in the book — the letting go of certain
definitions that people have of you, the letting
into your life of people who aren’t the stereotype
that you were taught. You know, I think so
many of us form views about what people are like. Maybe we form a view
— and I did this — of what men are like
based on the men that we’ve had in our lives. And then we go out and we
find people in our lives who are those men [laughing] and it then confirms
the idea we have. Well, men are like this and then
we’re attracted to those people and so we surround
ourselves with them. And then it becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy. And I was lucky in that Drew
wasn’t like that and the men that I dated at BYU
weren’t like that. And slowly, by allowing
people into my life, they allowed my ideas to change. And I wanted to show
it that way. I didn’t particularly feel
the need to explore it in any other detailed way. I just wanted the idea to be
this is the idea I had of myself and this is how it affected my
ability to connect with people. And this is the way that
that slowly was let go of.>>Thank you. Hi. So, a fellow rural Idahoan.>>Tara Westover: Welcome.>>I was wondering. You were talking about
your future project with the transition
from rural education. And I was wondering, based on your own experience you talk
about, you know, going to BYU, going to Cambridge, Harvard,
talking to President Obama, all these things that there
really isn’t this model and you might feel like,
whoa, this is happening to me. What kind of advice
or how did you deal with jumping these hurdles that just keep getting
higher and higher?>>Tara Westover: I don’t know! [laughing] [ Laughter ] I kind of feel like — I feel a
bit like my life is a video game at the moment and things
keep happening that I feel like will feel real eventually. But right now, you know,
it’s fun but it’s kind of like I’m dreaming that
these things are happening. And there’s a weird feeling that it doesn’t really matter
what I do because it’s a dream. [Laughing] And one of these
days I’m going to wake up and realize, oh, no, that
all actually happened. But no. I think change —
I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life where things have
changed dramatically for me and I suddenly had to
function in a new world. And I had that at BYU. And I had that at Cambridge. And I kind of thought that I
was done with the catapult leaps and just arriving somewhere that
I had no idea how to function. And then this happened. And it truly is one of the weirdest things that’s
ever happened to me [laughing]. And I don’t have a strategy. I kind of — my strategy is
find things that make you feel like yourself and stay
grounded and wait to catch up. You know, your brain
will eventually catch up. And until then, try
to remain calm. [Laughter] And that’s
what I’m doing right now. I am trying to remain calm.>>Thank you.>>Next question.>>In your book you go a lot into how you learned the
good side of education. Through college you started
learning more about the world. But that can be taken
both ways in terms of people can become more like
your brother and your father through experiences they have
almost through bad education. What is your opinion on that?>>Tara Westover: I think
sometimes it’s bad education. Sometimes it’s — you know, I speculate that my
father was bipolar and I don’t think he got what
he needed to deal with that. And then, of course,
because he passes that on, my brother Shawn was raised
in a stressful environment. He had injuries, a number
of head injuries that he got from working for my dad
that were never treated or mostly not treated. So I think, I don’t know
as though I would say if they got access to
the kind of education that would have changed them. And maybe they wouldn’t
have changed. But I think — I guess I do
see it that way of I don’t feel like they had the
opportunities that they needed. And I feel like I did. And so I try not to
judge them so harshly because they didn’t get
the chances that I got. And maybe they would have
made different decisions and maybe there are reasons
for that and you can go in that circle forever. But I just feel like, I don’t
know why they do the things that they do. I try not to be too judgmental. But I also try to
have a clear line of what I’ll tolerate
for myself. So I won’t necessarily put
myself in that situation again, even though I try not
to be so judgmental of why they are the
way they are.>>Alright. Thank you.>>Hi. You just mentioned
coming to kind of understand your father
is potentially bipolar. Throughout the book,
especially in the second half, you kind of describe
a lot of experiences that are also consistent in
yourself with PTSD and CTPSD. And I was wondering if you
could talk a bit about, if you are willing, how you
became aware of the kind of lasting impact that some of
the things you went through had and the process of recovery.>>Tara Westover: Yeah. I think the whole concept of mental health is
wildly under-discussed. It took me a really
long time to recognize that I had symptoms of PTSD. I think I had written
the book before that was apparent
to me, actually. I think I probably had someone
say it to me and I thought, oh yeah, that’s quite obvious. [Laughing] Thank you. Yeah. No, I think I’ve always
— I resisted therapy violently for a really long time
and now I love it. And I don’t — people
say you have to have somebody really good
and I think that’s fine. I find it valuable to have
anything, any excuse to sit down and deal with the things that
otherwise you just repress and don’t think about. I think it’s for me
a very good thing. Maybe other people think
it’s better to repress it but I think it’s —
you take the health of your physical body seriously. So why not take the
health of your mind? Like, why allow things
that happened to you when you were a kid to determine
your life for 40 years? Why do that? Just take it seriously
and sort it out and liberate yourself from that.>>Thank you.>>Colleen Shogan: Time
for one more question.>>OK. Hi. So something that was
hard for me to read about in your book was how your
family manipulated religion or religious language
in their relationships. So I was wondering have you
been able to find your own faith in God or spirituality?>>Tara Westover: Yeah. I put a note at the
beginning of the book that says it’s not a book about
Mormonism and the reason I did that is because I didn’t
want people to use this story to caricaturize unkindly
people of faith in general. My experience is people can be
very kind and very empathetic or they can be very cold
and very self-serving. And I haven’t really noticed that religion is the
determining factor for that. For my own beliefs,
you know, I was raised in a very extreme
religion and when I went to mainstream Mormon faith,
I kind of converted to that for a while and that didn’t
sit perfectly with me either, mostly because of gender issues. And now I think for me the idea of faith has just had
to bend a little bit. It’s just had to change. And there’s a really — what I think of as one of
the key chapters of the book which I’ve titled
after Hebrews 11:1 — or it might be Hebrews 1:11. And one of them is about a
dog, so it’s not that one. [ Laughter ] But the one is that faith
is the substance of things, the essence of things not seen. And I think for anyone
who’s had a difficult life, who’s had to say goodbye to
important people in their life, who’s trying to do those kind of
difficult psychological things, I’m going to redefine
what I think romantic relationships are. I’m going to redefine what I
think family relationships are. A lot of times you have
to believe in a world that is not seen, that you
haven’t experienced yet. And that is true of
education and it’s true of many other things
where if you’re reaching for something better
and different than what you have, it is faith. That’s what it is. It’s faith in something
that you haven’t seen yet but you choose to believe in it.>>Colleen Shogan: Tara
will be signing copies of her book downstairs
later this afternoon. Please join me in thanking Tara
Westover for joining us today. [ Applause ]

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