News

‘Educated’ author Westover talks in Spokane about her survivalist childhood, meaning of learning

Tara Westover, left, talks with moderator Donna Wares about learning to write, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley, right, introduces author Tara Westover, left, and moderator Donna Wares, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover, left, and moderator Donna Wares wait in front of a slideshow, Thursday, May 17, 2018, before the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The balcony seats are filled to see author Tara Westover, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh, center, has a front row seat, Thursday, May 17, 2018, for the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover has a podcast conversation with Senior Editor Donna Wares and Assistant Managing Editor for Digital Sean Stoops about her memoir,"Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, before a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover signs her book “Educated” for Francie Radecki during the VIP event at the Terra Blanca Wire Bar before a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Tara Westover's memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, await pick up by VIP' ticket holders during a Northwest Book Club pre-event held at the Terra Blanca Wine Bar Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Colby Tinsley and his father Jessie perform Jazz music during the Northwest Passages VIP event at Terra Blanca Wine Bar with author Tara Westover Thursday evening. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Janis Weishaar looks at her autographed copy of author Tara Westover's memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
With a glass of wine in hand, a VIP ticket holder waits in line to have her copy of author Tara Westover's memoir, "Educated," autographed during a pre-Northwest Passages Book Club event held Thursday at the Terra Blanca Wine Bar. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
At Terra Blanca Wine Bar, VIP ticket holders enjoy a glass of wine as they wait to have their copy of author Tara Westover's memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, before a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
People line up along Lincoln Street waiting to attend the Northwest Passages Book Club with Tara Westover, May 17, 2018, in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
People line up out the door to see author Tara Westover, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
“Educated” by author Tara Westover are for sale,Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Patrons arrive to hear Tara Westover, Thursday, May 17, 2018, for the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Patrons head in to see Tara Westover, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The line of people to see Tara Westover stretched out the door and down Lincoln Street, Thursday, May 17, 2018, before the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
People check in to hear author Tara Westover, Thursday, May 17, 2018, before the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover left, and moderator Donna Wares discuss Ruby Ridge, Thursday, May 17, 2018, during the Northwest Passages Book Club in the Bing Crosby Theater. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ticket holders line up outside the Bing Theater before hearing author Tara Westover talk about her memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ticket holders line up outside the Bing Theater before hearing author Tara Westover talk about her memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover has a conversation with Senior Editor Donna Wares about her memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover has a conversation with Senior Editor Donna Wares about her memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Author Tara Westover has a conversation with Senior Editor Donna Wares about her memoir, "Educated," which chronicles life growing up off the grid in Idaho, during a Northwest Book Club event held at the Bing Theater Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In her quest for a formal education, Tara Westover taught herself algebra. It helped the daughter of survivalist parents, who’d never attended school, gain admission to Brigham Young University, and eventually Harvard and Cambridge.

But an education isn’t all about book learning, the best-selling author told a crowd of about 700 at the Bing Crosby Theater on Thursday night.

“What an education is is the individual’s pursuit of understanding,” Westover said. “I think an education is about making a person, not making a living. That’s a side effect.”

Westover’s best-selling book, “Educated,” which describes her childhood growing up in a family in southeastern Idaho, dominated by a fearful, authoritarian father.

Listen to Donna Wares talk with Tara Westover about growing up in a survivalist family in Idaho.

Listen to “Northwest Passages Book Club: Tara Westover” on Spreaker.

Her father was a junkyard owner, who believed that armed government agents would someday surround the family’s mountain property in a Ruby Ridge-style standoff. Her mother was an unlicensed midwife and herbalist.

There was no formal schooling for Westover, the youngest of seven children, no modern medical treatment and, for many years, not even a birth certificate. But there was a survival pack, intended to help her survival an Armageddon.

Westover’s memoir describes how she broke away from her close-knit, but troubled family, to attend Brigham Young University as a 17-year-old, and eventually earn a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge. It was a difficult journey for a girl who was told that learning to read was good enough.

Westover’s Spokane appearance was hosted by Northwest Passages Book Club, which is a program of The Spokesman-Review. The monthly forums feature literature of the West, including works by Spokane-area authors and nationally acclaimed writers.

Westover’s memoir is “a beautifully written and poignant coming of age story set right here in our region,” said Donna Wares, the newspaper’s senior editor for community engagement. “It’s the story of someone who wasn’t given an education and sought it out on her own.”

Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh read the book’s opening prologue, which described the mountain where Westover grew up, and the school bus that rumbled by every morning without stopping. It was one of the things that defined her family, Westover said: They didn’t go to school.

Much of the book talks about Westover’s pursuit of formal education. But being in a classroom by itself isn’t an education, she told the near-capacity crowd.

She credited “the people I met, the conversations I had, the books I read, and sometimes the classrooms” for her education.

Terri Barros, a human resources director from Spokane, asked Westover what she would do if President Donald Trump appointed her to replace U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Westover said students should have more choice on what they want to learn and what passions to pursue.

Despite her difficult childhood, her parents helped shape her education, Westover said. “They had this idea you could teach yourself things – maybe even better than someone else could teach you,” she said. “There is no substitute for wanting to learn.”

Westover’s words resonated with Lucy Clifford, a fourth-grade teacher at the Ramsey Magnet School of Science in Coeur d’Alene.

“I was overwhelmed by Tara’s story of hiding and crouching behind the sofa to read the encyclopedia and teaching herself,” Clifford said. “How do you cultivate that feeling in a child of, ‘I want to learn’?”

Leigh Hancock, a sixth-grade teacher at Lincoln Heights Elementary School, said she sometimes forgets to appreciate how every child’s experience is unique.

“We have kind of gotten away from what an individual brings,” she said. “Everybody can get a diploma, but what (Tara) went through, no piece of paper is ever going to show that.”

Westover also talked about religion, her estrangement from her family, and her motivation to write the book.

Though her family was Mormon, it wasn’t the cause of her family’s dysfunction, she said.

“My dad was extreme in his life. … I feel he was bipolar,” she said. The extremeness “manifested itself through religion. I never felt it was Mormonism or the church.”

She eventually broke ties with her parents and some of her siblings. Few people talk about those kind of ruptures in relationships, she said. It made her experience more isolating.

“Now I know that a lot of people experience it,” she said. By writing about her difficult break with her family, Westover said she hopes that others with similar experiences won’t feel so alone.

Even after she recognized her family’s dysfunction, Westover kept going back for visits.

Difficult relationships are not all one thing, Westover said. “It’s hard to walk away from the good.”

“There was a lot of beauty in my childhood,” she said. “It took me a long time to realize it wasn’t completely normal.”

Reporter Will Campbell contributed to this report.