Best-selling author speaks at Fairfield U. forum about living off the grid and being 'Educated'

FAIRFIELD — Tara Westover thinks all families are cults. But not necessarily in a bad way.

Westover is the author of the best-selling 2018 memoir, “Educated,” which details her journey from her childhood in rural Idaho with survivalist parents who eschewed formal education to earning a PhD in history from Trinity College in Cambridge. Given the popularity of her book and her uncommon upbringing, Westover has met a lot of people who have a lot of personal questions.

“I get asked this really awkward question,” she said. “I get asked if I think my family was a cult. And I like to say that I think every family is sort of a cult.”

Westover spoke Tuesday via a livestream as part of Fairfield University’s Open VISIONS Forum/Bank of America Women in Leadership series.

She took questions remotely from a virtual panel that included Dalila Borges, senior vice president, national operations performance executive at Bank of America; Philip Eliasoph, Fairfield U. professor of art history and visual culture, and the Rev. Gerry Blasczcak, S.J., Fairfield U. vice president for mission and ministry.

One of the first questions was from Borges, who asked why Westover thought her book resonated with so many people. It was that question that prompted the response about cults, which Westover quickly clarified.

She said, when people are young, their families shape their lives, and they don’t know much of the world outside of what their families have shown them. Then, in most cases, they grow up and carve out their own identities.

“We have to try to find a way to be a coherent person, even as the world around us shifts,” Westover said.

For Westover, figuring out how to be a coherent person was difficult, particularly since her family — led by her domineering father — lived almost completely off the grid. Not only did the children not attend school, but family members didn’t go to doctors or hospitals and avoided government services in general. Westover said she didn’t have a birth certificate until she was 9 years old.

Though she was raised Mormon, Westover said, most of the other children in her majority Mormon town went to school and lived lives that were nothing like hers.

“I don’t really blame Mormonism for the radical way I was raised,” she said.

She went along with her family’s lifestyle for most of her life, but it was a love of music and singing that made her want to pursue an education, against her father’s wishes. Westover taught herself math so she could take college entrance exams, and ended up going first to Brigham Young University, and then to Cambridge.

Today she is a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, the public policy school of Harvard University.

In introducing Westover, Eliasoph pointed out that this is Fairfield University’s 50th year of being coeducational.

“Having Dr. Westover with us is certainly a highlight of this celebratory year,” Eliasoph said.

For Westover, getting an education opened many doors, but it’s also strained relations with her family members, about half of whom she no longer sees. Still, she knows going to school was crucial for her growth as a person.

“I started to have the knowledge and opportunities I needed to take more control of my life,” she said. “My education was pretty critical in helping me make meaningful choices.”