Tara Westover in Conversation with Min Jin Lee | PEN World Voices Festival

Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir, joined bestselling novelist Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires; Pachinko) to discuss their works at the launch of the PEN World Voices Festival.


Pen America FestivalTara Westover and Min Jin Lee"Memoirs are a memory fixed in time," stated best-selling author Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires; Pachinko) in conversation with Tara Westover, author of the acclaimed Educated: A Memoir (LJ Best Book 2018). The discussion at The New School on Monday, May 6, which launched the start of the PEN World Voices Festival, began with Westover describing her childhood as the youngest of seven children with parents who didn't believe in doctors or public education. Following the same threads as her memoir, the exchange continued with Westover explaining her writing as a means of coming to terms with estrangement, which she felt wasn't being talked about enough. As Westover notes in her book, education is transformation, metamorphosis, falsity, and betrayal—for her, "The story of my education and the story of my family were the same story.... Education is change, and real change always has cost." Lee affirmed that "education requires mortification of a prior self."

EducatedWestover's education began with aspiration; first aspiring to attend college because of a brother's influence and ultimately receiving a degree from Brigham Young University as well as an MPhil and PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. In her book, Westover divulged that her years at Brigham Young University were the first time she learned about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. She was drawn to study history because it allowed her to see the world from various viewpoints. However, she mentioned that she is still coming to terms with a childhood where she was intentionally isolated by her parents from the world.

Memory was a recurring topic of conversation as Westover cautiously detailed the abuse she experienced from her brother and her father, as well as her emotional experience coming to terms with distancing herself. "One of the hardest things about estrangement is not knowing the future," she observed. "It's a decision that you have to make every day." Yet she also emphasized that she still sought to write about her family with love. Lee replied, "If you hadn't written them with love, then the loss would be meaningless; otherwise we wouldn't care that you’re estranged from them." Learning about bipolar disorder and mental illness while in college helped Westover make sense of her childhood and better understand her dad's behavior. She reiterated that her family isn't representative of Mormon fundamentalism and that each of her siblings interpret memory in their own way. 

Free Food for MillionairesWhen asked why Educated is not a memoir of religious extremism, Westover confided that Mormonism is a character in the story rather than a focal point, since readers have a tendency to see people through ideology or clichés when reading about religious extremism. Her advice for aspiring memoir writers is that the story isn't enough—it's also important to pay attention to the writing. She clarified, "I don’t think that there's any age that you should write a memoir.... Any age that you write a memory or a story is going to change that story." Lee suggested that Westover's book is important and has been unfairly compared to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls; instead, she likens the book to Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo in showing an individual's determination to obtain an education. The event ended with Westover signing copies of Educated and Lee signing copies of Free Food for Millionaires for the attentive audience.

Author Image
Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing