From isolated to educated
In front of the 1,500 attendees who showed up at the Granada Theatre to hear her speak Tuesday night, American writer Tara Westover both poked fun and marveled at the world. Someone who knows nothing about Ms. Westover would have thought her to be a comedian, with jokes that generated hearty laughs from her crowd. But Tuesday’s crowd at the UCSB Arts & Lectures event knew who exactly Ms. Westover was. Almost all of them has read her memoir “Educated.”
“Educated” chronicles Ms. Westover’s life as she grows up under a fundamentalist Mormon father who held fears about big government and the Illuminati. Her father’s fears isolated Ms. Westover from hospitals (her mother treated her brother’s third degree burn at home, for example) and public schools throughout her childhood. Ms. Westover did not even have a birth certificate until she was nine years old.
“My world was pretty much constructed for me by my family,” Ms. Westover told Tuesday’s crowd. She stated that to a degree, families make everybody’s worlds.
Ms. Westover’s world was working at a junkyard and living at an Idaho mountain called Buck’s Peak.
“I might have stayed on that mountain forever” if it wasn’t for her brother Tyler, said Ms. Westover.
Tyler played opera music for Tara, a singer herself. The singing that Tyler put on for Ms. Westover was so beautiful and captivating, according to her, that it made her realize “there might be something worth leaving the mountain for.”
And so she pored over books of grammar and mathematics. She said half jokingly and half seriously, “I taught myself algebra because I liked to sing.” Singing was the passion that motivated her to self teach topics that students typically attend a system of schools for. After studying and applying for schools, Ms. Westover found herself as a student of Brigham Young University at the age of 17.
Sheltered from history her whole life, Ms. Westover recalled the first time she learned about the Holocaust.
“One of my first lectures, I said, ‘What is that word? I don’t know what that word means,’” said Ms. Westover. “You can imagine, the other students, they didn’t hear it as a question. They very much heard it as a denial.”
Learning about the Holocaust, the world as she knew it was not the same for Ms. Westover.
“The world was shifting pretty dramatically. A world you live in where there hasn’t been a holocaust is very different from the world you live in where there has been a holocaust,” said Ms. Westover. “I lived the first 17 years of my life in a world where the Holocaust never happened. And then on a Thursday morning, it happened all at once.”
Learning about the Holocaust was not the only part of history that unraveled all at once for Ms. Westover. The civil rights movement was also new for Ms. Westover in university.
“I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never even heard of the term,” she said.
In Ms. Westover’s mind, Rosa Parks getting arrested for taking a seat on a bus played out in a way where the activist was arrested for actually removing the seat to take it.
“I thought that (the professor) was saying that she had stolen the seat,” said Ms. Westover, stirring up a wave of giggles. “It made no sense to me to think that there had been a time in the living memory of my mother, you know, in my own country where a citizen, an American, could be arrested for sitting down on a bus. It’s actually the kind of thing that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense…I’m a little tempted to defend my misunderstanding as making a fair bit more sense than what turned out to be the truth.”
The passion that Ms. Westover held for singing expanded to eventually include history, which she said made her aware that “something can look different, depending on your point of view.” And she urged the crowd, whose attendees ranged across ages, to think carefully before disregarding passions.
“You don’t know necessarily know where your passion will take you, but you know that having no passion will probably take you nowhere,” said Ms. Westover.
Ms. Westover ended her lecture by singing one of her favorite hymns, bringing to tears the same audience who has just been reeling with laughter moments before.