When Tara Westover first arrived at Cambridge University for a summer program as an undergraduate she was, she says, “terrified.” “I felt like a big fraud,” she recalls as we walk through Trinity College. Never could she have imagined that this place, where she did her M.Phil. and Ph.D., so far from where she grew up in Idaho, would feel like home. We slip out the college’s back gate and walk along the river toward King’s College, which is even more imposing than Trinity, its Gothic chapel rising up alongside the river like a mountain. Westover points out the clinic where she got her very first vaccinations, at age 22. “When I left, I had about four Band-Aids on each arm. And I felt totally fine!” she says with a slight eye roll at her old paranoias. She’d been raised to think of vaccinations—and educational establishments—as poison.

Westover, now 31, grew up on a secluded, rural mountain, the youngest of seven in a family that practiced a radical form of Mormonism. She was raised to revere off-the-grid survivalist principles by her father, and writes that she suffered horrific physical and emotional abuse. She didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen. While she taught herself enough to take the ACT and get accepted into Brigham Young University, once there, she had no idea how to read a textbook or take an exam. Even after she figured that out, there were still enormous gaps in her knowledge. In one class she raised her hand to ask the professor what an author meant by the term “the Holocaust.”

Westover has written about her evolution in a beautiful and propulsive new memoir, Educated. When the manuscript circulated in 2016, it was bought within 24 hours in the U.K. and sparked something of a book-world frenzy in the U.S. “Everybody wanted to publish this book,” says Westover’s editor at Random House, Hilary Redmon. It is being printed in 20 countries.

Despite its harrowing plot, Westover’s book is no misery memoir. Yes, there’s hardship, the depiction of which could be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. But the book is also an elegantly written story of a young girl finding herself by leaving America and going to Europe—closer in that sense to Henry James than James Frey. This would be impressive enough for any debut author, but the fact that this particular one didn’t attend school until college renders Westover’s achievement extraordinary. Westover says that she listened to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast and read David Sedaris and Mary Karr to develop a feel for nonfiction. But her voice is so sui generis it feels in debt to no one. “Tara always wrote in this completely fresh way,” says her Cambridge professor David Runciman. “Most of us mimic how other people write, but maybe because Tara didn’t grow up reading what we all did, there was an originality to it.” And despite the singularity of her childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?

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Westover now lives full-time in Cambridge, on the ground floor of a pretty brick house. When she finished her Ph.D. in history, she moved to London with her then-boyfriend, but settled in the university town again after that relationship ended. “I might just not be a big-city bug,” she says. Her front windows look out onto a picturesque green, like a painting of En-glish village life. She sees something else: “It reminds me of Idaho.”

Small, sparky, and eloquent, in a black polo-neck and slim-fitting jeans, Westover looks, talks, and lives like a typical Cambridge graduate: Her apartment is filled with books, and the teakettle is boiling when I arrive. But in her bathroom, she keeps her toothbrushes in a Cambridge University mug, something no born-and-bred English person would do (too touristy), and on her bookcase is a photo of nine people that looks like a TV still from Little House on the Prairie. “This is not how my family looked normally, all clean and scrubbed,” Westover clarifies. “We generally looked like urchins.”

Westover’s parents, whom she calls Gene and Faye in the book, met in their early 20s and moved to a mountain called Buck Peak. “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain,” Westover writes in Educated. “It calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

Westover describes Gene’s mental state deteriorating after the marriage. He went from being an eccentric 20-something who wore outlandish suits and sported a mustache to an anxious, fearful man in his 30s who refused to register his children’s births or send them to school. He told them that “the Feds” were coming, and Westover slept with a bag filled with clothes and a knife. By the time she was an adolescent, her father raged against the “Illuminati”—meaning any enemy of their way of life—and stockpiled food. Urged by her father, Westover’s mother, an herbalist, became a midwife—part of Gene’s project to make the family entirely self-reliant—and soon women “with swollen bellies began coming to the house and begging Mother to deliver their babies,” Westover writes.

She and her siblings were home-schooled, though this essentially meant that Westover was occasionally sent to the basement to read a book. Her father expected the children to work in the junkyard that he ran on their property, where they would scavenge for scrap metal. Westover recounts that safety measures were forbidden—Gene didn’t let her wear a hard hat—and that the children were severely injured, one by one. She describes a brother suffering a life-changing head injury and another incurring horrendous burns. “I remembered the otherworldly pitch of his scream as he ran to the house,” Westover writes of a man who severed a finger in the junkyard. But she never questioned her father or his distrust of the most basic medical care.

“All abuse is foremost an assault on the mind,” Westover says now. “When you abuse someone, you limit their perspective and you trap them in your view of them or your view of the world.” But as described in Educated, there was physical abuse as well—not just in the junkyard hazards but within the house. One morning, Westover writes, when she was sixteen, she woke up with her brother Shawn’s hands around her throat (not his real name); he dragged her down the hallway by a fistful of her hair, all because he saw her putting on lip gloss the night before. (Such attacks were, she says, common.) “There were now so many pink and yellow specks in my vision, it was as if I were inside a snow globe,” Westover writes. “That was good. It meant I was close to passing out. I was looking forward to it.”

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Westover escaped Idaho, making her way to Brigham Young University, where she caught the attention of a professor who encouraged her to apply to study abroad at Cambridge. She was accepted but had no passport—and the passport-office clerk laughed at her “delayed certificate of birth,” issued nine years after the day she was born. After graduating from BYU, she won a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship—similar to the Rhodes or Marshall scholarship—and ended up back in Cambridge.

According to Educated, when Westover finally found the courage to tell her parents they needed to intervene with her brother, they told their daughter that she was trying to destroy the family; her father offered to cleanse her of evil. She refused. Now, when I ask her how they could have ignored the attacks, she responds, “There’s probably misogyny to that, this sense that a woman shouldn’t destroy a man’s reputation.” She has not spoken to her father and several of her siblings since 2014, and only sees her mother occasionally.

Westover’s plans for the rest of the day include writing—she is tentatively planning her next book, though she doesn’t yet know what it will be about—maybe cycling to see friends, then going out at night. Mormonism now plays no role in her life, and she is single. “There is a certain panic, at least if you’re raised Mormon, to being single at 31,” she tells me. “But what they don’t tell you,” she adds, “is that it can also be kinda great.”

I ask her if she feels sad about the distance that separates her from her home. “It took me a long time to understand that you can feel many conflicting things,” she says. “You can cut someone out of your life and miss them every day but still be glad you don’t have to see them again. Missing people doesn’t mean that you made the wrong decision.”

In this story:
Sittings Editor: Anna Schiffel.
Hair and makeup: Erin Kristensen.
Produced by 10-4 Inc, London.