Educated by Tara Westover is a 2018 memoir about the author's path from growing up on an isolationist Mormon compound in Idaho to becoming a Cambridge-educated academic.
- The Westover family lives a remote, rugged, orthodox-Mormon existence in Buck’s Peak, Idaho.
- Tara's brother Shawn returns home and takes an interest in Tara, but he often behaves in physically and emotionally abusive ways.
- At her brother Tyler’s encouragement, Tara enrolls at Brigham Young University, and her worldview expands greatly.
- As Tara pursues her doctorate at Cambridge, her tensions with her family reach a breaking point.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300
When the memoir begins, Tara is seven years old. Her family lives on an isolationist compound in Buck’s Peak, Idaho, where they operate under her father Gene’s strict interpretation of the Mormon doctrine. He forbids his children from attending school or engaging with modern medicine and allows them to be homeschooled only to the extent that it does not affect their daily labor. Gene is deeply paranoid about the outside world, the government, and the coming apocalypse, and he focuses his family’s energy on preparations for a future economic collapse. As part of their ongoing goal of self-sufficiency, the family preserves food, recycles scrap metal, and Tara’s mother, Faye, begins to train as a midwife.
Tara’s family life is raucous and chaotic, but she finds rare moments of peace with her older brother Tyler. In contrast to the chaos of the rest of the family, Tyler is thoughtful, patient, and organized, and he diligently teaches himself from any borrowed texts he can find. It's Tyler who introduces Tara to music for the first time, sparking her lifelong love of singing. Tyler offers Tara a rare glimpse of the world outside Buck's Peak. When Tyler announces that he plans to leave the family compound to attend college at Brigham Young University, Gene is livid and Tara is heartbroken. “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,” Gene tells her. Still, Tara begins to tentatively explore Tyler's educational materials in his absence. Eventually, she, too, begins to wonder about school.
With Tyler gone, the younger Westover children are given an increased role in Gene's scrap yard. Tara attempts to wear gloves and a hard hat in order to protect herself from the roughness of the work, but Gene takes them away, reasoning that they will only slow her down. As she spends more time in the yard, it becomes clear that her father's single-mindedness comes at the expense of the family's safety. Tara sustains several injuries in the course of her work, and her brother Luke eventually fares even worse. When he comes down from working on the mountain with one leg almost entirely burned, Tara—still just ten—is the only one available to treat the wound. Barring any formal first-aid training, she fills a garbage bin with water and puts his leg inside.
Though Luke does slowly recover from his injuries, Tara begins to see the danger inherent in working for her father and decides to seek work outside the house. Through one of her babysitting jobs, Tara meets her first piano teacher and, later, a voice coach. One Sunday, with her coach's encouragement, Tara is asked to sing a hymn in front of the congregation. Her performance is well received, and the Westover family is inundated with requests for Tara to perform. For the very first time, Gene is visibly proud of his daughter and encourages her to pursue her talents.
When the family suffers a serious car accident, Tara's older brother Shawn comes home to help keep the business running. Tara doesn't know him well; she remembers only that his relationship with Gene was so volatile that he left home in his teens and that he’s been in some trouble since. Shawn quickly takes a liking to Tara, and they begin to spend time together. At first, she’s grateful for the company. Shawn helps her break her first horse and takes her along on a few long-haul trucking trips. In time, their relationship becomes more complicated. Shawn becomes increasingly controlling and abusive toward Tara, offering just enough repentance and kindness between outbursts to keep her sympathetic to him.
When Tyler comes home for a visit and witnesses Shawn’s behavior toward Tara for the first time, he encourages her to leave the family home for good. She's skeptical, but he insists. "The longer you stay," he says, "the less likely you will ever leave." He tells her that Brigham Young takes homeschoolers, as long as they can pass the ACT.
Shortly after Tara begins studying for the test, Shawn sustains a serious head injury during a construction project. Tara avoids him in the hospital, but Faye insists that Tara is the only one who can keep his temper under control. Tara begins to believe Faye might be right, and she resigns herself to managing her brother's recovery. During this period, Tara's ACT results arrive. She's astonished to discover that she's passed, and with Tyler's help, she applies to Brigham Young. When she's admitted for the upcoming winter term, a proud Faye helps her prepare.
Tara finds campus life to be a difficult adjustment. She's never lived with anybody outside her family, never attended classes, and never needed to fit in among "gentiles"—her father's word for Mormons who don't adhere to the same rigid fundamentalism as the Westovers. In time, she acclimates to her studies and begins to do well. When she takes her first psychology course in her second year, she learns something unexpected: the symptoms of bipolar disorder align perfectly with her father's history of erratic behavior.
While Tara is living on campus, Gene suffers a near-fatal accident on the mountain and is badly burned. He makes a miraculous recovery and is galvanized by the experience. He interprets his survival as a testament to his faith, and his religious devotion intensifies.
Tara is offered a spot in a study abroad program at Cambridge. She is assigned to study under the supportive Professor Steinberg, who is impressed with her work. He encourages her to apply to Cambridge for graduate school and tells her about the prestigious Gates Scholarship. Despite her skepticism, she applies and receives it.
Tara returns home to Buck's Peak after her first term of graduate school, and another incident with Shawn puts her at odds with her family yet again. Upon returning to Cambridge, she receives an email from her sister, Audrey, acknowledging, for the first time, the extent of what Shawn has put them through. An exchange with Faye, too, brings Tara hope. The family will find a way to get Shawn help before someone else gets hurt, Faye promises.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Faye's promise to find help for Shawn was disingenuous. When Tara returns again to Buck's Peak and attempts to tell her father what her brother is capable of, she's met with ire from Gene, apathy from Faye, and a threat from Shawn. She flees, but the threats continue from a distance, stopping only when Shawn decides to cut Tara out of his life for good. Eventually, Tyler steps in to confront Gene. He, too, goes unheard.
After Tara finishes her doctorate, she returns to Idaho one more time. She's not ready to see her father, but she does reach out to Faye. Faye, in turn, refuses to see her without Gene, issuing an ultimatum: if Tara ever wants to see her mother again, she'll have to see Gene as well. When Faye's mother dies, Tara does see them one last time—at the funeral, where they do not speak.
As the memoir draws to a close, Tara reflects on her altered relationship with her family and her struggle to find a sense of self apart from them. Pinpointing the exact moment she began to act in her own interests, separate from her compliant former self, she concludes:
The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2098
Author: Tara Westover (b. 1986)
Publisher: Random House (New York). 352 pp.
Type of work: Memoir
Locales: Idaho; Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; University of Cambridge, England; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tara Westover’s coming-of-age-story chronicles her struggle to break away from the emotional and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of some members of her survivalist family and redefine herself through the pursuit of higher education.
Tara Westover, the author
Gene, her father
Faye, her mother
Shawn, her abusive older brother
Audrey, her sister, whom Shawn also abused
Early on in her memoir Educated, Tara Westover relates how her father’s account of the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, in which federal law enforcement laid siege to the northern Idaho property of Randy Weaver and his family, was etched into her memory. Weaver, an antigovernment survivalist who lived a spartan life off the grid, failed to show up to a court date on gun charges, and US marshals attempted to arrest him. However, the operation was botched and resulted in the deaths of a marshal and Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son; a long standoff ensued in which Weaver’s wife was also killed. The incident became a national scandal and drew attention to the survivalist lifestyle. But for other survivalists—such as Westover’s family—it was a cautionary tale that only furthered distrust in federal authorities.
Westover’s father impressed on his children that they would likely face a government invasion much like the Weavers did. His extreme views shaped the lives of his wife and seven children in ways that scarred them emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes physically. Yet Educated shows how a wholly different outcome is possible thanks to the power of learning. This disturbing yet triumphant memoir presents a harrowing story of growing up in a toxic environment of domination, abuse, and ignorance—and finally escaping to chart a new course in the wider world. The book is a window into the decidedly non-mainstream survivalist way of life, as well as a personal story of success through hard work, dedication, and the benefits of an open mind.Courtesy of Random House
Westover writes in a relatively standard memoir format, generally progressing from her early life to the present. Along the way she establishes the background that led her family to the survivalist lifestyle. Her parents, Gene and Faye (both pseudonyms, as Westover uses for all those family members with whom she eventually became estranged), held nonconformist ideas born from an extreme interpretation of their Mormon religion and from resentment of what they viewed as “socialist” influences in mainstream American society. Her mother came from a middle-class family who lived in the valley near Buck’s Peak in Idaho’s Rocky Mountains. Her father came from a farm family with a history of violence. According to Westover, Faye rebelled from her own family by marrying Gene, and the couple began a hardscrabble life on his family’s property at the foot of Buck’s Peak. They had seven children, of which Westover was the youngest.
Gene, the unquestioned patriarch of his family, owned a small construction company and a junkyard. He drove the family’s survivalism, believing the apocalypse was imminent and that the Illuminati, a supposed secret cadre of powerful elites, were conspiring to take over the world. News such as the Ruby Ridge incident only fueled his religious fundamentalism and paranoia. He stocked an underground bunker with guns and food, and instructed his children to prepare to resist federal authorities. Courtesy of Random House
Gene also insisted that Faye become a midwife. At first she was timid about practicing her new profession. Yet as she grew more skilled, she was much in demand. Home births were popular in their rural community, and few bothered about legalities such as birth certificates. In fact, Westover and several of her siblings went years without such a document. Later in Faye’s career, she branched out into homeopathic medicine, finding success with homemade herbal remedies and essential oils. Her formulations were guided by “muscle testing” and other pseudoscientific techniques.
Because Gene was suspicious of public education, Westover and her siblings were ostensibly homeschooled. However, any efforts at standard education ended at learning to read. Instead the girls’ education consisted of assisting their mother at home births and helping her produce healing tinctures. The boys entered the construction and junkyard businesses with their father. If the boys could not assist Gene for any reason, then Westover and her sister, Audrey, were expected to step in.
Junkyard work was hazardous and dirty. Westover describes several serious accidents, some of which could have been fatal. For example, as her father and brother Luke were preparing cars for the crusher, Luke unintentionally soaked his jeans with gasoline. Later, when he was using a cutting torch, a spark hit his pants and flames engulfed his leg. In another instance, Gene was attempting to cut a tank from a vehicle but neglected to remove the fuel. A spark from the torch he was using ignited the gasoline and severely burned his face, torso, and fingers. Westover describes his injuries in such explicit detail that one can almost smell his charred flesh, which Faye nursed back to health.
Westover is not excused from the backbreaking work because of her sex. On one occasion she expresses her fears of getting injured to her father, which he dismisses by saying that God and his angels will watch over her. Soon afterward, she topples off a loader with an iron spike impaled in her leg. For most of these injuries, no one in the family seeks medical help, as they distrust doctors and lack medical insurance.
The dangers of the junkyard are challenging enough, but the physical, verbal, and psychological abuse Westover endures at the hands of her older brother Shawn is far more damaging. When she was a child, he tolerated and sometimes protected her, and she viewed him as her hero. Yet around the time she enters puberty, his behavior toward her changes. When she engages in normal teenage behavior like wearing lip gloss, he calls her a “slut” and worse. One night, as their mother watches silently, he physically attacks Westover. Another time, he drags her to the bathroom and holds her head under water in the toilet. This shocking abuse continues for a decade. It is disturbing reading, made even more so by the fact that other family members ignore Shawn’s behavior.
One distinctive characteristic of Westover’s writing is that it sometimes serves as a commentary on the reliability of our memories. By definition, writing a memoir is a subjective exercise where material is filtered through emotional and temporal lenses that in turn color memory. Westover acknowledges that other family members may recall things differently than she does. This is evident in the way Westover and her brothers remember details of Luke’s junkyard accident, for example. As she reflects on the incident she questions whether she has gotten the story right, admitting to being unsure of certain parts in the chain of events. Many of her uncertainties involve the role played by her father, whom she cannot interview due to their estrangement. When Westover asks her brothers Richard and Luke to share their recollections with her, their memories of the details vary from hers and from one another’s. Could the unique relationship each has with their father cause them to recall events differently? These questions are not necessarily solved, but raising them adds to the honesty and complexity of the narrative.
The vagaries of memory again come into play when Westover attempts to expose Shawn’s abuse to her parents. When she and Audrey are adults, Audrey confesses to Westover that Shawn had physically abused her as well. The sisters agree to tell their parents, but Audrey backs out. Westover confronts them on her own, which opens a Pandora’s box of recriminations, denials, and deadly threats from Shawn. Their parents steadfastly deny that Shawn could have done the things Westover accuses him of—in spite of the fact that Faye had witnessed his cruelty firsthand. Their denial becomes the basis for their embrace of a less sinister, more acceptable memory of Shawn’s behavior.
Although Westover’s memories are deeply entangled with her family’s during the first section of the book, her recollections gradually become her own as she struggles to follow in her brother Tyler’s footsteps and attend Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. College seems like an unattainable dream for a young woman who lacks a high school diploma and has little knowledge of the world. She studies the few books she has access to—mainly the Bible and texts on Mormon religion and history—but still faces an uphill battle to prepare for higher education. Eventually, however, she teaches herself algebra and trigonometry so she can pass the math portion of the ACT college entrance test. Her drive to learn is an “obscenity” to her father, but she learns that it is possible to defy him. She discovers in herself what she later identifies as a crucial skill: “the patience to read the things I could not yet understand.”
Accepted to BYU, Westover arrives on campus and discovers overwhelming intellectual and social barriers. Although her roommates at the generally conservative school are Mormons, by her family’s standards their way of dressing is highly immodest. For their part, her roommates are hard pressed to understand a young woman who, at least at first, sees no reason to wash her hands after using the toilet. Westover also finds herself at a loss in the classroom. For example, she has to raise a hand to ask what the Holocaust was, to the disbelief of her professor and fellow students. However, the great rush of new information also sheds a light on parts of her home life. When she studies the civil rights movement, she understands for the first time a racial slur Shawn had used to demean her. In a psychology class, a professor’s description of the symptoms of bipolar disorder makes her wonder about her father’s mental health.
Westover’s adjustment to college life is difficult, and she often finds herself in a perpetual tug-of-war between her new life and her family’s extreme values. Her developing sense of independence and self-worth is often derailed when she goes home for summers and is confronted by Gene and Shawn for what they perceive as her “uppity” attitude. But with each successful step in academia—her graduation from BYU with honors, a Gates Scholarship that leads to a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, a fellowship at Harvard University, and her return to Cambridge to earn a doctorate—she puts some distance between her oppressive upbringing and her new reality.
Westover’s success comes at a cost, however. She and her two brothers who also earn college degrees grow increasingly different from their parents and siblings who remain uneducated. The divide between the two groups is starkly illustrated when Westover returns to Idaho for her grandmother’s funeral. For Westover, the confrontation over Shawn’s abusiveness leads to full estrangement from several of her family members.
The real-life family conflict behind Educated led to some controversy upon its publication. Indeed, Westover’s parents reportedly hired an attorney to rebut her portrait of them in the book, though no direct legal action was immediately taken. Nevertheless, Educated was met with impressive critical attention for a debut work and garnered much acclaim. Reviewers praised both the revealing, gripping nature of the underlying story and Westover’s compelling writing style. The book was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and selected on recommended reading lists by many outlets. It also met with commercial success, reaching number one on the New York Times Best Seller list.
- Review of Educated, by Tara Westover. Kirkus Reviews, 12 Nov. 2017, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/tara-westover/educated. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.
- Review of Educated, by Tara Westover. Publishers Weekly, Feb. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-399-59050-4. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.
- Hong, Terry. Review of Educated, by Tara Westover. Library Journal, 15 June 2018, p. 47. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=129963457&site=eds-live. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.
- Hulbert, Ann. “Educated Is a Brutal, One-of-a-Kind Memoir.” Review of Educated, by Tara Westover. The Atlantic, Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/tara-westover-educated-a-memoir/550919. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.
- Schwartz, Alexandra. Review of Educated, by Tara Westover. The New Yorker, 18 June 2018, www.newyorker.com/recommends/read/educated-by-tara-westover. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.