Tara Westover's unlikely journey from isolation to Cambridge education

Off-the-grid childhood to Cambridge

The new memoir, "Educated," traces the unlikely path of a girl growing up entirely off the grid in Idaho to a woman earning her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Author Tara Westover writes that as a child, "We have no medical records because we were born at home, we have no school records because we've never set foot in a classroom. At this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist."  Her isolated childhood was a product of  her survivalist father's distrust of all forms of government.

Westover joined "CBS This Morning" to discuss her transition into society and the difficulty of reconciling what your family wants for you and what you want for yourself.

"There was a lot of skepticism and fear of the federal government and that possibly because of the way we were living that they may come and force us to go to school," she said.


The book recalls some of her family's injuries from working in their junkyard including her being impaled and her brother's leg catching on fire. Even her father's injury, which she says was the most serious, was only treated by her mother's own home remedies.

"I mean, he was standing next to a car when it exploded and he was really badly burned. I think it proves – it wasn't that they didn't care about us. It's just the way his mind worked, the beliefs that he had," she said.  

A particularly difficult part of Westover's childhood, she says, was her parents' refusal to believe that her older brother was abusive to her.

"When I confronted my parents with that, they decided to try and convince me that I was insane and I couldn't trust my own memories and ultimately that would lead to is estrangement from my family. At first that was their choice, they ostracized me for speaking up against my brother and then eventually, it took me a lot of years, but then that was also my choice," she said.

In a statement to CBS News, a lawyer for Westover's parents said: "Tara was a loved daughter who was educated by her parents such that at age 16 she received a scholarship from BYU, a school that is not easy to get into. Like her two brothers that got PhDs, homeschooling was a sufficient foundation for their education."

"One of the reasons I wrote the book is because of the gaslighting I experienced from my parents. Their continual denial of things that were happening, like with my brother," she said. "I think the tragedy here isn't that bad people do bad things. I think the tragedy is what good people do to keep secrets."

It was another older brother who inspired her to try to go to college despite any formal education.

"He'd educated himself. He had bought the books and just taught it himself and he told me that I should try to go to college. So I bought an ACT study guide and I tried to teach myself enough math and grammar," she said.

While she was able to get into Brigham Young University, the transition wasn't smooth.

"It was really difficult. I mean, I arrived and I didn't know what the Holocaust was," she said.

In writing her memoir, Westover grappled with the obligations of family and the limits to those obligations.

"I felt like I needed to come to terms with the decision I'd made to let go of my family," she said. "What do you do when you want to be loyal to your family but you feel that loyalty to them is in conflict somehow with loyalty to yourself."