‘I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World’.
There are many things I love about being a singer-songwriter – notably the rush of creativity when a new song comes, or the buzz after a concert that goes particularly well. But it also means that you meet some fascinating people.
I first met Tara Westover at our local music club in CB2, Cambridge, some five years ago, when she was completing her PhD at the university – shortly after, I now realise, one of the most difficult periods of her life. She rather unwisely offered to sing harmonies on some of my songs, an offer I could hardly refuse as she has one of the finest voices I have had the privilege to work with. We have since played many gigs together, and she has collaborated on my last two albums.
In quiet times during rehearsals, or on the way to or from concerts, she would tell me many tales from her astonishing and highly unusual childhood – growing up in a Mormon community in Idaho, in a survivalist family dominated by a charismatic but flawed father who spent his time – when not placing the family in mortal danger in his scrapyard – preparing for the end of the world.
But this could hardly prepare me for reading her remarkable memoir, Educated, published on February 20th by Hutchinson (in the UK – Random House in the US). The first part of the book describes Tara’s childhood and adolescence in the family home nestled under the mountain they called the Princess. To describe the family as ‘survivalist’ is somewhat misleading, as how Tara and her siblings survived their childhood is itself a miracle , confronted as they were by a succession of car crashes and workplace accidents, a refusal to counter any healthcare or medication beyond mother’s herbal remedies, a violent brother and non-existent ‘home schooling’.
There is one particularly stark moment when Tara finds her brother lying on the road side following a motorbike crash. He has suffered his third major head wound (the first two have left him a changed person), but when she phones her father he tells her to bring him home so that their mother can administer a few herbs. It’s an odd world where teenage rebellion takes the form of driving your brother to hospital.
It would be easy to conclude that Tara paints a bleak picture of her family. In fact she remains remarkably honest throughout. She is still able to talk of her love for her parents, to capture the wild beauty of her childhood home, and to paint a portrait of her father that is tremendously human, where his humour, his enthusiasm and his pride in Tara’s singing shine through his probably bi-polar delusions and paranoia. In the end she likens him to Don Quixote, a ‘zealous knight’ tilting at windmills, to whose warnings of doom ‘no one listened. They went about their lives in the summer sun.’
The second and third parts of the book describe the process through which Tara found her way into education, sought to come to terms with the wider world, and eventually gained a doctorate from Cambridge University. It’s a journey of both remarkable achievement but also some personal cost. At each step along the way she has faced a regular ‘twitch upon the thread’, as Waugh put it, from her home and family.
We all bear the scars of growing up, and spend much of our adult lives coming to terms with them. Educated is often a tough read, and it was painful to hear a good friend describe with such honesty how she responded to her brother’s abuse, her parents’ rejection, or the resulting family schism. It is also very moving indeed.
But above all, it’s a tremendous read and Tara has a real talent as a story teller – I found it very hard to put down. Here is a link to Tara’s website. You can order Educated from Heffers/Blackwells or, if you must, from Amazon.
Here are Tara and I performing Thessalonika at Cambridge Folk Club:
The photo of Tara was taken by Paul Stuart.