Arts December 19, 2018

On Shifting Ground

Tara Westover on learning and leaving an Idaho mountain

“I had a mountain.” Author Tara Westover offered this simple statement near the beginning of her talk at The Community Library in Ketchum on Sept. 15. Her head tilted to one side; her blonde hair shifted over her shoulders; and she laughed at her newness to delivering a lecture. (It was only the third straight-up lecture she had ever given.) But there was an enchanting power to her reference to that mountain. It echoed through her lecture as it echoes through her acclaimed memoir, “Educated,” which has topped best-seller lists since it was released in early 2018.

Over the previous months and in dozens of interviews with the likes of Jeffrey Brown on PBS News Hour, Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, and Gayle King on CBS This Morning, that mountain has become a kind of mantra for Westover. As she has responded to the many questions about her childhood in a survivalist family in remote Idaho, and even as she has recounted the violence of her father’s junkyard, of her brother Shawn’s abuse, and of her mother’s reticent responses, Westover has repeated, with devotion, “I had a mountain.”

In that simple sentence, she stakes a claim to a particular place, to a personal history, and to an identity shaped by loss as well as liberation. It is a claim made in the past tense, and it frames her story of her education as an elegy as well as a triumph.

The mountain sits in southeast Idaho, carpeted with sagebrush, pine, and wild wheat. It is part of a big landscape that few people know. It is where Westover’s memoir begins: Buck’s Peak, a “dark form swelling out of the earth and rising into a flawless spire.” It is, she told the audience in Ketchum, the only place she has ever felt that she belonged—and from which she is now estranged.

Westover’s deep sense of place at Buck’s Peak situates her memoir in a tradition of literature of the American West that is characterized by a profound relationship with the natural environment. The physical landscape influences the story in a way that is more akin to character than to setting. It is not an uncommon theme for Westerners, and for Western literature, that the vast landscape fills one’s spirit and haunts one’s dreams and also becomes untenable.

This is the psychological drama of Westover’s memoir: The landscape that she loves, in which she played freely and happily as a girl, is integrated with a cultural landscape that denies her other versions of her self. The place that shapes her is also one that threatens to erase her.

Indeed, she is erased, in many ways, from the start: She does not have a birth certificate until she is 9; she does not attend school; the government does not know that she exists. Her father is prepared to battle federal authorities if, as he fears and predicts, they come storming to his family’s door, in a replay of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in northern Idaho. Westover’s family subscribes to extreme interpretations of Mormon religious tenets: Her father claims direct revelations from God that dictate all aspects of their lives, from their diet to gender roles to preparations for the apocalypse. Her life is shaped by boundaries more severe than the mountain’s geography.

It is when Westover is entering adolescence and her older brother plays a CD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for her that she has an epiphany: There is a world out there with more to know and more beauty to encounter. The music leads to questions, and the questions lead her beyond the mountain.

Westover’s memoir details a remarkable journey of persistent self-education that gets her to college and a doctorate degree at Cambridge without ever having set foot in a K-12 classroom. But Westover does not describe this journey as pure jubilation. Rather, her memoir thwarts the conventional storyline that we expect from memoir and from the mythology of the American West.

Westover’s journey takes her east, not west, to find the open intellectual space that will allow her to create herself on her own terms—not her father’s, not her brother’s. Education, for her, offers a different kind of expansiveness from the geography of her youth; it is a terrain that can hold contradictions, a terrain that can sustain different points of view and multiple ways of knowing, simultaneously.

Westover reckons directly with the friction between the powerful mythology of her family and the complex world that education opens to her. When she speaks publicly, she answers questions openly, but she seems less inclined to exploit the strangeness of her childhood and more eager to philosophize about education.

Ultimately, Westover espouses education not for the answers that it may offer, but for how it may make the world less certain, and the self more flexible. On the mountain, in her father’s house, the world was constructed for her in strict terms that threatened to make her invisible, not only to the outside world, but also to herself.

“I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me,” Westover writes near the end of “Educated.” “It was only as I grew older that I wondered if how I had started is how I would end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.”

It is a lonely landscape that she describes, and her memoir aches with her conflicted relationship with it. Perhaps this is what makes her book feel so much like the American West. The individual stands in stark relief.

When she spoke to 400 people in Ketchum, including dozens of local high school students, she urged, “Define yourself. Never accept someone else’s definition of yourself.”

The mountain offers a solid landmark, one she continues to invoke. But it is the shifting terrain of the wider world that allows her to invoke herself.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.