Don Follis | On defying one's family to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge

Don Follis | On defying one's family to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge

After I finished Tara Westover's memoir "Educated" (Random House, New York, 2018), I saw the book made President Barack Obama's summer reading list, too. He wrote on his Facebook page on Aug. 19: "Tara Westover's 'Educated' is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind."

Westover is the youngest of seven children raised in a Mormon family in southern Idaho. While reading Westover's story, news came that Russell Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, wants church members to no longer use the name "Mormon" or even "LDS," both commonly used among church members.

Nelson said the idea for the change came to him directly from God.

"The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church, even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," he said.

In fact, the name was given to church founder Joseph Smith in 1838 as a specific direction from God. Nelson said this change will correct an error in how members refer to the church.

Whatever words you might use to describe Tara Westover's Mormon faith, her New York Times best-seller is spellbinding. Westover writes about her fierce family loyalty, her improbable educational journey and the grief she experienced when her father, mother and several of her siblings severed their ties.

For the Westover children, talks about faith usually came in the evening, when their father would assail them with one- to two-hour lectures, combining his thoughts from the Book of Mormon, Old Testament scriptures, strange views of history and his deep fear of the government coming to get them.

By day, Westover's father ran a junkyard — where all the children were expected to work — selling scrap metal. Her mother was an herbalist turned homegrown midwife. When Tara was barely a teenager, she assisted her mother with home births in rural southern Idaho, sometimes traveling in the winter in the dead of night on treacherous Idaho roads.

Being a survivalist family for the Westovers meant being anti-establishment, anti-medicine and anti-education. Tara had no medical records and had never seen a doctor until she was a student at Brigham Young University. Two of her brothers somehow made it to college, defying their father. One of them took Tara under his wing and encouraged her to study for the ACT test, which she did, though very much against her father's wishes.

Though supposedly home-schooled, Westover essentially was self-taught — reading, writing, math and science, with extremely limited resources. On her second attempt, she somehow scored a 28 on the ACT and was accepted at BYU, entering just before her 18th birthday. During her first semester, she raised her hand and asked her professor, who had mentioned the Holocaust, what the Holocaust was. Other students thought she was mocking the holocaust. Though embarrassed, she decided that day she would learn everything. In the next 10 years, she may have been one of the most determined students on planet earth.

At age 21, Westover graduated magna cum laude from BYU. Seeing her drive and talent, one of her professors convinced her to apply to the highly competitive Ph.D. program at Cambridge in England. She was not only accepted; her doctoral studies also included a yearlong fellowship at Harvard. One of her professors at Cambridge told her an early paper she wrote was one of the best he had read in 30 years of teaching there.

At age 27, 10 years after starting as a 17-year-old freshman at BYU in 2004, Westover was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University in England. Centering her research on what a person should do when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations — to friends, to society, to themselves — Westover choose four intellectual movements from the 19th century, including Mormonism, and examined how they had struggled with the question of family obligation. Her thesis is called: "The Family, Morality, and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890."

Though she lives in London, Westover has returned to her Idaho home several times over the years. Her father finally decided she is demon-possessed ("Taken by Lucifer"). He offered to anoint her with healing oil and give his blessing to return to the family if she would renounce her wicked ways and submit to the authority he felt he deserved.

She held firm and today remains separated from her parents and several of her siblings. Tara and two of her brothers have Ph.D.s, while four siblings remain in rural Idaho without even a high school diploma.

Only 32 years old, Westover now has a memoir that has spent 25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction. It has Obama's praise, and has garnered nearly 2,000 first-rate reviews on Amazon.

The girl whose parents didn't believe in schools is spending much of 2018 traveling in the U.S. and the U.K. lecturing about her implausible, fantastic education.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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