Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Author of best-selling memoir ‘Educated’ comes to terms with Mormon childhood

Tara Westover, author of “Educated.” Photo by Paul Stuart.

 

Tara Westover is no longer Mormon, but in her memoir Educated she tries to be as fair to the religion as she can, noting that the book is not primarily about Mormonism.

“I put that note in because my father is not representative of the Mormon church,” she told RNS in a telephone interview. “I didn’t want people to read the book and find more fuel in it for their own burning prejudices, or incorrect caricatures of Mormons as not going to school or to the doctor.”

Her own family didn’t take children to school or to the doctor, but that was far from typical in her southern Idaho childhood. As she recounts in Educated, her father stockpiled food in preparation for the end of days, which he believed was just around the corner. Westover and some of her six siblings had no birth certificates, didn’t get vaccinations, and for a long while didn’t have a phone.

She began leaving that world behind when she enrolled in Brigham Young University, where she discovered more about what life—and Mormonism—were like outside the confines of her family. At BYU, when Westover was struggling to pay her medical bills and thought she would have to drop out of school, her LDS bishop offered to help her apply for a student grant.

When she refused that, mindful of her father’s many warnings about the dangers of accepting help from the government, the bishop suggested using the ward’s discretionary funds to help her out. She refused that as well, because she didn’t want to draw on other people’s tithing money.

At that, the bishop threw up his hands and wrote her a check for $1500 from his own pocket. She refused that check but did eventually accept the grant.

His generosity struck her. “I encountered beautiful kindness and self-sacrifice from Mormons,” she says. But she also found narrow-mindedness and even cruelty, as from a brother who was both physically and emotionally abusive, and parents who defended him and then accused her of lying about the abuse.

The whole spectrum of human behavior, she says, can be found in most religions.

That government grant enabled her to stay at BYU, where she graduated in 2008. She then went to England to earn a PhD in history from Cambridge University, and has added to that success with Educated, which was published in February and has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list.

Along the way, she left Mormonism, and now describes herself as agnostic. “There was a stage in my life where questions about Mormonism felt consuming and immediate, but it’s been a long time since I felt that way,” she says. “There are questions that I have about the meaning of life, but they don’t tend to be theological the way that they used to be.”

Her journey out of the LDS Church had a lot to do with gender and the religion’s prescribed roles for women, she explains. “It was both about how women are supposed to behave in this life, but also the afterlife. The Mormon belief in plural marriage in the afterlife didn’t feel quite right to me.”

One thing she still keeps from her Mormon upbringing is a healthy respect for food storage. Though she’s not stockpiling supplies for the end times, “it makes sense” to have some food laid by in case of emergencies. “I don’t think it’s crazy to have a few weeks’ supply, in case of a natural disaster.”

Westover is estranged from many of her family members, and has not discussed the book with that part of her family from which she is estranged. Before Educated was published, she did show the book to three of her brothers, including her brother Tyler, to whom the book is dedicated. He was in conversation with her as she was writing it, but has started his own blog where he disputes some of her interpretations of events.

She is philosophical about this. “I think people have different perspectives, and that’s fine,” she says. “For one thing, he is about eight or nine years older than I am, and also male. So his whole experience is going to be quite different than mine.”

She plans to continue writing, and will be moving from England to New York City soon to write more on various themes related to Educated. The process of sorting through her childhood for the memoir was cathartic, and helped her remember positive things as well as traumatic ones.

“I went through a period after I lost my parents where I was angry, and so a lot of my good memories turned to rot,” she says. “So in writing the book I was able to reclaim some of those beautiful things, like canning peaches with my mother.”

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

5 Comments

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  • “Canning peaches” with a mother is real. Most denominational doctrine isn’t.

  • sigh… another plug for this book in a blog about Mormonism. It’s only the third time in the last month this has occurred now.

    So she left the church, as she has ‘grown beyond it’, big deal.

    The New Zealand prime minister also left the church as she had grown beyond it and now, all she has to show for it are bad policies that are no more than leftist virtue signalling.

  • Strange article. The book is not primarily about Mormonism we are told. And her experience as a child is clearly not typical of Mormonism. And she is not theological. The quotes from her are about how she felt and her feelings, rather than knowledge, but the book is about being “educated,” which should be a little less about feelings, I feel.
    Other than the book hitting the right grumble-tone about the Mormon Faith for this column there is a pretty good relevancy objection to be raised about this article for a site called “Religion News” Service. Religion? Not so much this time. “Narrow-mindedness” is the term used in the article for those she disagrees with. However, this is just another person who can’t understand why God does not stay up on 21st Century gender philosophy like they think He should on this little marble of insignificance we call earth. The doctrine of an ancient God who is not from this century or culture (and who Mormons believe has created millions of earths) can hardly be expected to “feel quite right” when measured by popular or current western norms. To expect God and Mormonism to conform to modern Cambridge PC culture is narrow-mindedness.
    Try to sell the book however you like, but it is not religion news. Same old tune.

  • Well, yes, narrow-mindedness–like when people choose to elevate belief in magic and supernaturalism over facts and evidence?

    Were I found to be defending not only the existence of a supernatural being for which there is no real evidence of existence, and then further implying that I know how this supernatural being thinks/operates, I certainly wouldn’t be condescending about it.

  • I am almost finished reading this book. I am deeply enjoying how she survived such a crazy childhood. The mentality of her father-preparing for the end times, government hating, gun stockpiling sadly, is neither novel nor new. I live in Northern California and daily I hear talk of secession and government hatred. Her father’s religious extremism is very common in many parts of the US.

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