Tara Westover was raised by Mormon fundamentalist survivalists in the mountains of Idaho. She never went to school and was only home-schooled when she had time after work in the family’s rescue and herbalism business. In his memoirs educated, she recounts how, at age 16, she learned enough math and grammar to be accepted into Brigham Young University and later earned her doctorate at Cambridge University, at the expense of her relationship with her family. The following is an excerpt from the book.
The American story took place in an auditorium named after the Prophet Joseph Smith. I thought American history would be easy because dad told us about the founding fathers—I knew all about Washington, Jefferson, Madison. But the professor barely mentioned them, and instead talked about “philosophical foundations” and the writings of Cicero and Hume, names I had never heard of.
During the first lesson, we were told that the next lesson would start with a quiz on the readings. For two days I tried to wrestle with the meaning of the textbook’s dense passages, but terms like ‘civic humanism’ and ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ dotted the page like black holes, sucking every other word into them. . I answered the quiz and I failed all the questions.
This failure remained uneasy in my mind. It was the first indication of whether I would be fine, whether what I had in mind in terms of education was enough. After the quiz, the answer seemed clear: it was not enough. Realizing this, I might have been unhappy with my upbringing, but that was not the case. My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles that separated us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud and bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to all the truths, to all the doctrines he had given me. Doctors were sons of perdition. Homeschooling was a commandment from the Lord.
Failing a quiz did nothing to undermine my newfound devotion to an old creed, but a lecture on Western art did.
The classroom was bright when I arrived, the morning sun streaming warmly through a high wall of windows. I chose a seat next to a girl in a high-necked blouse. Her name was Vanessa. “We should stick together,” she said. “I think we’re the only freshmen in the whole class.”
The conference began when an old man with small eyes and a sharp nose closed the windows. He flicked a switch and a slide projector filled the room with white light. The image was that of a painting. The teacher talked about composition, brush strokes, history. Then he moved on to the next painting, then the next and the next.
Then the projector showed a particular image, that of a man wearing a faded hat and overcoat. Behind him stood a concrete wall. He was holding a small piece of paper close to his face but he wasn’t looking at it. He was looking at us. I opened the picture book I had bought for class so I could take a closer look. Something was written below the image in italics but I couldn’t figure it out. There was one of those black hole words, right in the middle, devouring the rest. I had seen other students asking questions, so I raised my hand.
The teacher called me and I read the sentence aloud. When I came to the word, I paused. “I don’t know that word,” I said. “What does it mean?”
There was a silence. Not a silence, not a stifling of noise, but an absolute, almost violent silence. No mixed papers, no scratched pencils.
The professor’s lips tightened. “Thank you for thathe said, then returned to his notes.
I barely moved for the rest of the conference. I stared at my shoes, wondering what had happened and why, every time I looked up there was always someone staring at me like I was a monster. Of course I was a freak, and I knew it, but I didn’t understand how they or they I knew it.
When the bell rang, Vanessa stuffed her notebook into her bag. Then she stopped and said, “You shouldn’t laugh at that. It’s not a joke.” She left before I could answer.
I stayed in my seat until everyone left, pretending that the zipper on my coat was stuck so I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. Then I went straight to the computer lab to look up the word “Holocaust.”
I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point I had read enough. I leaned back and looked at the ceiling. I guess I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning something horrible, or the shock of learning my own ignorance, I’m not sure. I remember having imagined for a moment, not the camps, nor the pits or the gas chambers, but my mother’s face. A wave of emotion washed over me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to scream at her, at my own mother, and it scared me.
I searched my memories. In some ways, the word “Holocaust” was not totally unheard of. Maybe Mommy taught me that when we were picking rose hips or dyeing hawthorns. I seemed to have a vague knowledge that Jews had been killed somewhere long ago. But I thought it was a small conflict, like the Boston massacre, which Dad talked about a lot, in which half a dozen people were martyred by a tyrannical government. To misunderstand it on this scale – five against six million – seemed impossible.
I caught up with Vanessa before the next class and apologized for the joke. I didn’t explain, because I couldn’t explain. I just said I was sorry and I wouldn’t do it again. To keep that promise, I didn’t raise my hand for the rest of the semester.
From the book educated by Tara Westover. Copyright © 2018 by Tara Westover. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
More Must-Try Stories from TIME