Tara Westover: 'Control is Not Education'

Tara Westover: 'Control is Not Education'

tara-dan_mcadams.jpgIn 2023, Westover was award the National Humanities Medal by President Biden.

Tara Westover felt nothing but fear the year before–and the year after–her memoir Educated was published. But despite the personal fallout, she has no regrets about her decision to tell her story.

“For a long time, I felt like writing it wasn’t allowed,” Westover said during the annual Loeschner Leadership Lecture at Northwestern University. “But asking a person to live with the secret of physical or emotional violence is just too much. We must have the ability to say, ‘this is what I remember happening to me.’”

Educated, which details Westover’s tumultuous upbringing in rural Idaho and her struggle to leave an abusive home and survivalist parents, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list in 2018 and remained on the list for two years. It also deeply divided her family; she's still estranged from her parents and some siblings. Her mother, meanwhile, has since self-published her own version of the family story, titling the book Educating.

But Educated, Westover said, is fundamentally about divergence. “It’s about me saying ‘I see the family this way’, and they think it’s this way,” she said. “Multiple perspectives must be allowed to exist because multiple people have to be allowed to exist. It’s the nature of people to remember things differently. You must be able to speak. But it’s complicated.”

During the main event at the Segal Visitor’s Center, Westover was introduced by School of Education and Social Policy undergraduate Amy Resnick and interviewed by Interim Dean Dan P. McAdams, who studies how people find meaning in their life stories. Beforehand, she fielded questions from a small group of School of Education and Social Policy students.

In both sessions, Westover addressed everything from how she learned about her father's mental illness to the importance of what she calls “the starter dream.” Below are edited highlights from her conversations:  

I wrote the book when there was too much dysfunction for me. I always knew it would represent a moment where I was really torn about that decision. What seemed good (about my life) and what seemed bad were close, but I was starting to feel like maybe it was too much bad. It was not an easy decision, but it was a clear one.

Every person in the world does some loving things, and some unloving. The people in your life who are comforting you or offering you safety can also be the ones who are dangerous. There’s nothing in our brains set up to deal with that. You cannot evaluate the relationship. Now I can see it.

I did feel like my dad cared about our safety, and yet, all of a sudden, he didn't. That was complicated by his own mental illness. I was sitting in a lecture and the teacher was explaining bipolar disorder. I wrote in my notes, ‘they’re talking about my dad.’ Suddenly I had this whole new way of understanding my dad’s paranoia and grandiosity. I thought, ‘well, this explains a lot.’

Education should be about getting access to ideas and perspectives so you can make up your own mind. I generally get suspicious when education becomes about controlling the flow of information. The fact that we weren't allowed to go to school seems less about protection and more about (my parents) not wanting us to get exposed to ideas that they disagreed with. That's more about control. And control is not education.tara-booksigning.jpg

Psychologists talk about the way our early relationships make these weird, vague imprints on us. And we just seek those patterns. I was amazed when I was 32 or 33, and I realized almost every person who was close to me had something in common with my dad, which was not a good thing. My next book looks at how you can leave a place, but still take those things with you, and import them into your life, even if you're in a different place physically.

(In college) I was suddenly living in a different world with different rules. I remember one of my roommates coming home crying, because somebody had been kind of mean to her in one of her classes. I’d never seen a person cry openly. In my family, you did not express emotion or vulnerability under any circumstances. To just see this person, coming home and kind of asking for comfort, I was like, what's going on here? I watched my friends have these close relationships that were open, and I wanted that for myself. It was a whole different way of living.

It is frustrating for people when they read my book, and I’m not where I should be. Sometimes I’m too angry, sometimes I’m too apologetic. They come up to me at book events and say ‘why did you keep going back?’ But there’s the concept of emergence --you can’t know everything right away. It’s a process.”

I’m very partial to the landscape of pine trees and limestone mountains. When things would get difficult in the house I’d go outside. Nature and the mountain itself were my imagined caretakers. The place feels vaguely parental to me in a way that my parents don’t. But there’s something very natural about being attached to wherever you grow up.

I’m a big believer in starter dreams that make you take a little bit of action. Music was the first thing I loved and cared about. I’d wake up at 6 a.m. to try to teach myself algebra because I wanted to sing. That’s the starter dream, the first glimmer that you like something and move towards it.

I think I wrote the book thinking, well, this will stand in for intimacy. I don't have to share the story, I’ve been honest about it, and now I don't ever have to tell anybody about it again. That’s just not how it works. Fundamentally, I think with every friendship, you get to a point where you can either bring your stuff to people or you can’t. The book doesn’t solve that. You either learn how to be close to people and trust them, and pick people who can be trusted. Or you don't.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 5/16/23