On an isolated mountain in Idaho, a little girl was growing up, dreaming of escape, tortured by the limits on her life. Her family were radical Mormons who believed the Day of Abomination was coming. They stored food, guns and gasoline to ensure their survival. The parents refused to send their children to school. The father, Gene Westover, believed teachers would brainwash them.
He feared the government would force the family's seven children to enrol in the local school, but in fact no government knew they existed. Several offspring had no birth certificates or medical records. They were born at home and never saw a doctor or nurse.
One of the children, Tara Westover, has written Educated: A Memoir, a detailed and touching -- sometimes harrowing -- account of her life in a barren, deprived environment. She loved her parents and yearned to fit in with the family. Still, she was curious about the larger world. She was conflicted about her lack of education. She never embraced the reasons she was left behind when the school bus passed her house.
All this was less than 30 years ago, but it sounds like a story from the 19th century. Tara was instructed from birth to believe her father's every word about the world and God. He didn't believe in insurance or safety rules because God would always protect them -- an assumption that led to frequent and sometimes calamitous accidents.
He kept the family going by running a junkyard along with his sons and doing minor construction jobs for local farmers. His wife was a midwife and herbalist, a concoctor of healing remedies. She used the plants growing around them. Gene called plants "God's pharmacy." He didn't buy drugs from ordinary pharmacies.
He despised and feared the Illuminati, an ancient secret society allegedly allied with Satan. People who sinned, he thought, were unknowing Illuminati followers. He had no time for most books. The Bible and the Mormon prophets were enough for him and his children.
On one occasion Gene gathered the whole family to tell them of the dangers they all faced. "There's a family not far from here," he told them. "They're freedom fighters. They wouldn't let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them."
As he told it, the Feds surrounded the family's cabin, kept them locked in there for weeks, and "when a hungry child snuck out to go hunting, the Feds shot him dead."
"They're still in the cabin," Gene said. "I don't know how much food they got. Might be they'll starve before the Feds give up." He cried as he spoke, tears dripping in a steady stream. Tara remembered his last words, "Next time, it could be us."
She was abused and humiliated by one of her brothers, and felt her mother should have protected her from him. She decided to escape by education. A paper she wrote at age 17 got her accepted at Brigham Young University, where her talent for scholarship was discovered. She won a scholarship to Cambridge University and acquired a PhD in history. She lives in London.
Tara admits she was appallingly ignorant when she started to become a student. She didn't know the difference between North and South Korea and she had never heard of Napoleon. When she got to college and heard the word Holocaust in a lecture, she had to raise her hand and ask what it meant. The teacher and other students thought her question malicious. So she stopped asking questions.
In the long process of escape, she acquired an independent sense of self, an ability to choose what she wants to be. She's out of touch with her parents and she still feels slightly guilty about that, but she knows it's the alternative to being under their control. "You could call this selfhood many things," she says at her book's end. "Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education."