The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Educated by Tara Westover are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Educated by Tara Westover.
Tara Westover grows up with in an unconventional way (no birth certificates, no medical records, etc.). She and her siblings have been raised on a mountaintop in Idaho.
Her family lives in a Mormon community, and her father, Gene, is a survivalist. He believes in self-sufficiency. His dogma becomes entrenched after an incident where the neighbors were attacked by the government. Her mother, Faye, is the town’s midwife, a practice that is illegal in Idaho. Faye had a very normal upbringing, and Tara believes Faye married Gene as rebellion against it.
Tara and her sibling don't have proper schooling, medical care and the like. When Faye is in a serious accident during the move to Idaho, she doesn't receive medical treatment, and she has chronic headaches after that. Gene is against schooling, but Tara’s oldest brother Tyler ends up going to college anyway. Tara decides she needs to go, too.
Tara also recalls an incident where her brother Luke gets burned, though he family’s recollection of what happened is all different. It's one of many incidences where there's discrepancies among her family about what happened growing up. When Y2K approaches, Gene starts getting preoccupied with preparing for Y2K and is depressed when nothing happens.
Tara has a caring relationship with her brother Shawn in some ways, but Shawn also has a dangerousness to him, and he can be mean, controlling, physically and emotionally abusive and violent. Meanwhile, Tyler encourages Tara to go to college. Young Tara wants to change her life. She takes the ACT and is accepted into BYU. Her father is firmly against it and continues to be volatile and dangerous. Her mother and other family members discreetly try to encourage her.
At BYU, Tara settles into her new, strange life. She experiences culture shock as well as difficulties in school since she is far behind the other students going in. When Tara returns home for the summer, she starts hanging out with a boy from town, Charles, and starts to see her previous life as being a little backwards. Gene and Shawn think she’s become "uppity" and call her names. Tara gets a headache, Charles gives her an ibuprofen, and Tara is shocked to experience medicine that actually works (as opposed to the home remedies she's accustomed to).
She's also stressed from financial and academic pressures, and her friends have to help her with her personal hygiene. When Charles visits her home sees the hostile, abusive environment, he feels in over his head and breaks things off with her. The church Bishop at school is supportive of Tara and tries to help her with her. He encourages her to apply for a grant, which later comes through.
During an introductory psychology course, Tara realizes that Gene likely has bipolar disorder. She starts learns the truth of the event (Ruby Ridge incident) from child. It was a drug raid, but Gene had believed the government attacked that family for their beliefs. Meanwhile, at home, Gene gets into a bad accident, and the family cares for him for weeks. When he finally heals, it strengthens Faye and Gene's beliefs that traditional medical treatment is unnecessary.
Tara decides to study abroad at Cambridge. Her professor takes an interest in her and encourages to believe in herself. When she graduates, she decides to pursue a Master’s Degree at Cambridge. As Tara begins her PhD program and after more culture shock, Tara finally starts feeling like she’s fitting in at Cambridge. On the home front, she also attempts to confront her family about Shawn's behavior. Audrey and Tara discuss Shawn's abusive behavior, but it results in more violent and angry outbursts from Shawn. When nothing changes, Tara talks to her father who refuses to believe her, and Faye tries to convince Tara her memories are wrong. Shawn says he's cutting Tara out of his life, and soon Audrey recants and cuts Tara out as well.
Tara finally tells them goodbye and walks out. Tara’s work on her PhD suffers, but she’s able to get back on track when Tyler surprisingly supports her. Tara gets her PhD. In the final chapters, Tara goes home after a long absence, but has not reconciled with her parents.
The book ends with Tara reflecting on her fractured family. When Faye's mother passes away, Tara goes to the funeral, but sits apart from them. Shawn does not look at Tara during the service. As of the publication of the book many years later, the funeral is the last time Tara has seen her parents.
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This is a detailed summary of Educated by Tara Westover. For those short on time, each section begins with bolded text that summarizes that section.
The prologue introduces Tara Westover, her survivalist father and the unconventional way (no birth certificates, no medical records, etc.) she and her siblings have been raised on a mountaintop in Idaho.
The book opens with Tara at age seven. It explains that her family is different from others. They live on a mountaintop in Idaho. Tara and her siblings don’t go to school. 4 out of 7 of their siblings don’t have birth certificates, medical or school records. Legally, Tara does not exist. Tara’s father is a survivalist, busy stockpiles supplies in preparation for the “World of Men” to fail.
Chapter 1 – 3 (Tara’s Parents)
These chapters introduce some basics about Tara’s family Tara’s parents. They live in a Mormon community, and her father, Gene, is asurvivalist. He believes in self-sufficiency. His dogma becomes entrenched after an incident where the neighbors were attacked by the government. Her mother, Faye, is the town’s midwife, a practice that is illegal in Idaho. Faye had a very normal upbringing, and Tara believes Faye married Gene as rebellion against it.
The Westovers live in a small Mormon community in the mountains of Idaho. Tara is the youngest of 7 kids. The live close to their Grandparents from their dad’s side (Grandma/grandpa-down-the-hill).
Tara describes an event that happened when she was six. As it was explained to her, a nearby family, the Weavers, has been under seige and shot at by the government for being “freedom fighters.” Tara views this as a tuning point for when her father (“Gene”) becomes increasingly paranoid about the government. He becomes a survivalist — he worried about the Illuminati’s influence, stockpiles food (and later gold/silver) and weapons, and wants to live as “off the grid” as possible.
At one point, Gene interprets a bible verse to mean they shouldn’t eat dairy products and bans milk from the house. Tara ends up going to Grandma-down-the-hill’s house for milk and cereal in the morning instead. Her grandparents offer to take her to Arizona with them to live a more normal life and go to school, but she can’t get herself to leave her family.
Tara and a number of her siblings do not have birth certificates because they were born at home. (Though, Tara’s mother (“Faye”) eventually gets them for all the kids so they can get drivers licenses.) Faye also becomes the midwife for their community (a practice that is not legal in their state). Faye’s mom was considered the “wrong” sort growing up, and wanted Faye to live a very prim and proper life so she could be accepted in society. and Tara believes she married Gene (the exact opposite of that) as a form of rebellion.
Chapters 4 – 6 (Tara’s Family’s Views)
These chapters discuss Tara and her sibling’s lack of schooling, medical care and the like. When Faye is in a serious accident during the move to Idaho, they don’t get medical treatment for her and she has chronic headaches after that. Gene is against schooling, but Tara’s oldest brother Tyler ends up going to college anyway. Tara decides she needs to go, too. Tara also recalls a incident where her brother Luke is burned, though he family’s recollection of what happened is all different.
The Westovers prefer not to get medical treatment; Faye is a herbalist and has her own way of treating ailments. She also uses other alternative medicine treatments like testing chakras and massaging pressure points. Faye also uses “muscle work” — testing her body’s natural response to things, to get answers to questions. When they were much younger, they lived in Arizona, but Gene decided to move the family to Idaho. In the process, there’s a car accident and Tyler (brother) is driving. Her mom is injured but refuses medical treatment and gets chronic headaches after that.
The kids are homeschooled, but apart from learning how to read, it’s not a priority. Gene believes it’s mostly brainwashing. Still, Tara’s second oldest brother, Tyler, ends up wanting to go to college and leaves. Gene wants him to stay and work in the scrapyard with the rest of them, but he refuses. Tara and her brothers Luke and Richard work in the junkyard without gloves or helmets, resulting in numerous injuries over the years. When Tara gets a piece of metal stuck in her leg, her mother treats it with flowers, and it cements Tara’s decision to go to school like her brother.
When Tara is ten, there is an incident where Tara’s brother, Luke, accidentally starts a fire and his leg is burned. Now, 18 years later, Tara tries to reconstruct that memory, but finds that her family has different recollections of who put out the fire or who tended to Luke and whatnot.
Chapters 8 – 10 (Tara’s Early life and Y2K)
These chapters deal with young Tara’s desire to change her life, her interests and her hobbies. She starts babysitting and sings, though around this time Gene starts getting preoccupied with preparing for Y2K and is depressed when nothing happens. Shawn also returns home.
At eleven, Tara starts babysitting and packing boxes, hoping to get away from the scrapyard. Tara also starts taking dance lessons which she loves, though Faye tells Tara not to tell her father. When they finally tell him, he’s furious and finds the costumes obscene. Instead, they push her towards singing, which Gene is much happier about, and she gets cast in the town’s production of Annie. Her mother gets her the dress she needs, and Gene attends every performance. Tara continues to participate in town plays.
Around this time, though, Gene’s survivalist tendencies are also ramping up as Y2K approaches, and the whole family is busy canning fruit in preparation. He also buries a thousand-gallon tank of gasoline. When it finally arrives, nothing happens and he slips into a state of depression afterwards. The family takes a trip to Arizona to cheer him up, and on the way back the car skids off the road. Tara’s neck is stiff and she has migraines after that. Shawn, Tara’s brother, returns home after a long absence and fixes her neck, though in a very rough manner.
Chapters 11 – 14 (Shawn Westover)
These chapters are about Shawn and Tara’s relationship with him. They have a caring relationship in some ways, but Shawn also has a dangerousness to him, and he can be mean, controlling, physically and emotionally abusive and violent. Meanwhile, Tyler encourages Tara to go to college.
Tara is 14 now, soon to turn 15. Tara is happy to spend time with Shawn and help him to train a new horse, and he helps rescue her when her horse gets out of control. At the same time, she notices he can be a bit of a jerk to the boys in town. Shawn takes over a long-haul driving gig for their oldest brother Tony for two weeks and takes Tara along. They play games, and he teaches her to fight. When Tara signs up for a play, Shawn joins as well. There, Tara notices how Shawn can be mean and demeaning to Sadie, a girl who likes him.
Tara’s sister Audrey gets married. After 9/11, Gene believes the end of days is near, but again nothing happens.
When Tara playfully dumps a glass of water on Shawn’s head one night, he responds by forcefully dragging her by the hair into the bathroom and threatening to dunk her head into the toilet until she apologizes. When Tara wears lip gloss for the first time, Shawn calls her a whore.
Shawn dumps Sadie, and Sadie starts dating Charles (who Tara is friendly with). At this point, Shawn becomes very irate. One morning, Tara wakes up to him choking her, throwing her onto the floor and calling her a “whore” and “slut” for being friendly with Charles. He’s stopped by Tyler who has come home to visit. Shawn later remorsefully gives her a pearl necklace and even helps her install a bolt on her door.
In October, Shawn, Luke and Audrey’s husband Benjamin are working with Gene when there’s a forklift accident. Shawn has a serious injury and a brain bleed, followed by him having a scuffle with Gene after Gene tells him to get back to work. As a result, Shawn has a serious enough reaction that someone finally calls 911 — something that the Westovers have never done. After the injury, Shawn is weak, disoriented, but also nastier and has blind rages. At the time, Tara tells herself that this is because of the accident, but now she thinks perhaps he was always this way.
Meanwhile, Tyler encourages Tara to take the ACT and go to college, and Tara starts studying math in her free time. Tyler helps to tutor her, too.
Chapters 15 – 16 (Applying for College)
These chapters are about the lead-up to Tara leaving for college. She takes the ACT and applies to BYU. Her father is firmly against it and continues to be volatile and dangerous. Her mother and other family members discreetly try to encourage her.
Gene is staunchly against Tara’s desire to go “whore after man’s knowledge” by pursing a college education. When Tara tells her mother she has changed her mind, she is surprised to see that her mother is disappointed and encourages her to reconsider, but stops talking when she hears Gene coming. When Tara’s ACT scores come back, Tara’s mother is happy for her, but Gene tells Tara she should move out. Her mother at first agrees with Gene but relents when Tara reminds her that she’s only 16.
One day Gene brings home a dangerous and poorly made machine for cutting iron. Luke gets injured from operating it, and as Gene is trying to get Tara to do it instead, Shawn intervenes. Shawn and Gene fight about whether Tara should do it, and Shawn says he’s going to help Tara with it if she has to to it. Shawn and Gene continue to get into scuffles nearly every day, and Shawn encourages Tara to go to college.
One night, Shawn gets into a serious car accident, which Tara comes across on her way home. There’s blood pouring from a large hole in his head. Her father tells her to bring Shawn home to be treated, but Tara drives to the hospital instead. When it turns out to be not that serious, Tara feels ashamed.
Tara retakes the ACT and her new scores are good enough to get into BYU, and she gets accepted.
Chapters 17 – 18 (Starting Off at BYU)
These chapters are about Tara’s settling into her new, strange life. She experiences culture shock as well as difficulties in school since she is far behind the other students going in.
Faye drops Tara off at BYU, and Tara soon meets her roommates, Shannon and Mary. Tara’s is shocked by Shannon’s clothing and by Mary choosing to go grocery shopping on the Sabbath. As Tara hangs out with them, she worries about becoming a “gentile” (someone who’s not truly religious) like them. Tara also finds that her hygienic standards (only showering once a week, not washing her hands, etc.) are below theirs.
When classes start, she’s confronted by things all the other kids seem to know, but she is unfamiliar with. She doesn’t know what “essay form” is and other kids think she’s making a tasteless joke when she asks what the “Holocaust” is. She’s also struggling to keep up in school, has trouble with basics like spelling and fails her first exam. Tara calls home to talk to someone to console herself and Gene picks up. To Tara’s surprise, instead of berating her, her dad encourages her and tells her it’ll be okay.
Tara’s friend Vanessa helps her to study for her next exam, and Tara reveals she didn’t realize all the answers would be in the textbook. Tara gets a B on that exam.
Chapters 19 – 20 (Visiting Home)
This section is about Tara returning home for the summer. She starts hanging out with a boy from town, Charles, and starts to see her previous life as being a little backwards.
After the semester concludes, Tara goes home to Buck’s Peak. Gene insists that she work at the scrapyard while she is there. Charles asks Tara out on a date, and she agrees and buys new clothes for it. They start hanging out every day. Meanwhile, Gene and Shawn think she’s become “uppity” and want to drag her back down. They seem to want to team up by calling her names. When they call her a “n***er”, Tara starts to recognize how ignorant her family is.
Chapters 19 – 22 (Assimilation and Struggles)
Tara returns to school in the fall. She continues to assimilate into her new life. She’s also stressed from academic pressures, though she manages to get by though. Charles sees the hostile, abusive environment in her home and feels in over his head and breaks things off with her.
The day before she returns to school, Tara gets a headache, Charles gives her an ibuprofen, and Tara is shocked to experience medicine that actually works. Back on campus, Tara has new roommates and one of them, Robin, helps to teach her to assimilate, including improving Tara’s hygiene.
Stress from trying to learn algebra gives Tara ulcers since she’s stressed about keeping her scholarship, and finally Charles tells Tara to go talk to her professor, a thought that had never occurred to her. Her professor tells her anyone who gets an A on the final will get an A in the class. Tara manages to get a perfect score on the exam.
Over Thanksgiving, Shawn hassles Tara for inviting Charles. Charles sees Shawn’s violent and abusive behavior towards Tara and afterwards tells her this stuff to much for him. When they meet up one last time, he tells her that she needs to save herself. Later, Tara and Shawn are at a store, and Tara thinks Charles may be in there. Tara looks unkempt and wants to avoid him. However, Shawn wants to force her out of the car and yanks her out, spraining her wrist, and dragging her inside. Shawn later apologizes, pretending it was all in fun, but Tara recognizes that he was trying to humiliate her.
At Christmas, Tara’s surprised to find out Gene is encouraging Richard to go to college.
Chapters 23 (Financial Stresses)
This chapter is about the support the church Bishop at school gives to Tara and also about her financial stresses.
At school, Tara rejects any man who asks her out, and eventually the Bishop asks her what’s wrong. Tara ends up meeting with him regularly to deal with her feelings of shame and immodesty when it comes to men. When Tara needs dental work but can’t afford to fix it (she can barely afford her rent), the bishop encourages her to apply for a federal grant. However, Tara refuses due to her distrust of the government. He also offers her church funds, but she declines saying it’s “sacred.” He finally writes her a personal check. She’s tempted but refuses.
Tara manages to get by the next few months, but eventually decides to apply for the grant. She has to break in to her parents’ house in order to get their tax returns in order to qualify. She soon gets a check for four thousand dollars.
Chapters 24 – 27 (Gene Westover)
These chapters are about Tara’s relationship with her father and an injury he gets. She realizes that he likely has bipolar disorder and starts to understand the truth of the event that happened when she was a child. He gets into a bad accident, and the family cares for him for weeks. When he heals, it strengthens Faye and Gene’s beliefs that traditional medical treatment is unnecessary.
When Tara takes an introductory psychology course, it dawns on her that Gene probably has bipolar disorder. She also learns about the Ruby Ridge incident which involved someone who was bipolar, and Tara realizes it was the incident from her childhood where Gene said the neighbors were attacked by the government. She learns that the incident was a white supremacist raid gone wrong and that it had been followed up with settlements, official inquiries and oversight. The next time Tara goes home, she yells at him now that she’s found out the truth and stops visiting or answering his calls.
Tara soon starts dating a boy named Nick from church. When she gets strep throat, he insists she go to a doctor.
One day, Audrey calls to say that Gene has been in a bad accident involving an explosion and a fire. Her family is convinced he is going to die, but he still refuses to go to a hospital or even take pain medication. The Westovers all tend to his burns for weeks. As he recovers, Tara has a chance to talk to him as he asks her questions about her life. After Gene is improved (though still disfigured), Faye’s essential oil business employees seem to now be in awe of their dogma — the see how Gene managed to recover from a very serious injury with just salves and tinctures.
Shawn gets engaged to a girl named Emily and gets married. Tara breaks up with Nick, unable to confide in him about her family. Tara drops her music major and decides to study history and politics. A professor suggests a study abroad program at Cambridge and helps Tara get accepted. Emily has a difficult pregnancy, though they aren’t giving her special treatment for it. When she gives birth too early, Faye takes the baby, Peter, to a hospital and he survives but they warn that he will always be weak.
Chapters 28 – 29 (Study Abroad at Cambridge)
These chapters are about Tara studying abroad at Cambridge, where her professor takes an interest in her and encourages to believe in herself. She also graduates and decides to pursue a Master’s Degree at Cambridge.
In Cambridge, Tara is in awe of the campus. Her supervisor, Professor Steinberg, takes a special interest in her and describes her as one of the best students he’s had. He encourages her to get her Master’s degree. He reminds her of the story of Pygmalion and the importance of believing in herself. Steinberg encourages her to apply for the Gates scholarship at Cambridge, which she wins. Tara is interviewed about it, but does not acknowledge her homeschooling. Her dad chastises her for not acknowledging that she was home-schooled.
At home, the essential oils business is booming. Tara also begins to question the way Mormonism views women and the practice of polygamy. Tara graduates and her parents send her off.
Chapters 30 – 34 (Confronting Shawn)
These chapters are about Tara beginning her PhD program and her attempts to confront her family about Shawn’s behavior. After more culture shock, Tara finally starts feeling like she’s fitting in at Cambridge. On the home front, Audrey and Tara discuss Shawn’s abusive behavior. It results in more violent and angry outbursts from Shawn. When nothing changes, Tara talks to her father who refuses to believe her, and Faye tries to convince Tara her memories are wrong. Shawn says he’s cutting Tara out of his life, and soon Audrey recants and cuts Tara out as well.
When Tara starts her graduate program, she again feels out of place. When she tells her mother, her mother offers to adjust her chakra from afar to help. Tara gets vaccinated and gradually makes friends at school. She drinks coffee for the first time. She starts learning about feminism, a topic that was taboo at BYU. Tara goes on a trip to Rome with friends. She drinks wine for the first time. Eventually, she starts feeling like she’s fitting in. She starts dating her friend Drew.
Faye’s essential oils business is making a lot of money. Richard, who is finishing a chemistry degree, is living a more mainstream life with his wife Kami. One night, Emily comes in crying, saying that Shawn physically attacked her and threw her out. Gene gives a stern lecture to Shawn, but that’s all.
One day, Tara gets an e-mail from her sister Audrey about wanting to confront Shawn about his behavior. Tara agrees. Audrey loops Faye in as well, and Faye finally acknowledges his behavior and tells Tara that she’s sorry she didn’t protect her. Soon, Faye tells Tara that she talked to Gene and that Shawn is getting help. However, when Tara goes home to visit, Audrey says that nothing has changed.
The next time Tara goes to visit, Shawn suddenly confronts her about talking to Audrey. He rants about Audrey, saying that he would “put a bullet in [Audrey’s] head” except that it’d be a waste of a bullet. When Tara tells Gene, he demands proof and refuses to believe Tara. Then, Shawn shows up at their house with a bloody knife while Gene lectures Tara. Finally, Shawn hugs Tara and apologizes.
The next day, Tara finds out that the bloody knife was from Shawn killing their dog with his son watching. Tara also realizes that Faye lied when she said that Shawn was getting help.
Chapters 35 – 38 (The Aftermath)
In the aftermath of trying to force her parents to recognize Shawn’s behavior, Shawn threatens Tara, and then cuts her out of his life. Audrey soon follows suit. Her parents continue is gaslight her. Tara finally tells them goodbye and walks out. Tara’s work on her PhD suffers, but she’s able to get back on track when Tyler surprisingly supports her. Tara gets her PhD.
Back at school, Tara soon gets a threatening call from Shawn and messages saying he’s going to hire people to kill her. Again, Faye and Gene don’t believe her. When Shawn tells Tara he’s cutting her out of his life, Gene says that it’s justified. Faye tries to convince her that her memories are incorrect. Tara soon gets an e-mail from Audrey saying that Audrey is going to forgive Shawn and cut off Tara from her life. It’s clear Audrey has been forced to choose between the family and Tara.
Tara starts feeling distrustful of her own memories. Tara calls Erin, an ex-girlfriend of Shawn’s, to get her take, and Erin confirms that Shawn was violent and abusive. When Tara goes to Harvard for a fellowship, her parents come to visit. They discuss how to “reconvert” her, with Gene taking them to a temple and lecturing Tara for two hours. Tara realizes if she simply accepts their version of events, she can have her family back but she can’t do it. They leave, with Gene telling Tara her room is filled with an evil presence.
After their visit, she is distracted and doing poorly on her PhD program, so she goes home to try to resolve things. On the computer at home, she’s shocked to see an e-mail exchange between her mother and Erin where they both agree that Tara is delusional. Tara decides to leave and says she’s going for a drive. Before she walks out, Gene tells her “I love you, you know that?”, and Tara’s last words to her father are, “I do. That has never been the issue.” Tara soon follows up with a long e-mail to her parents saying that she needs to cut them off for a while to figure things out. Tara’s work for her degree continues to suffer.
Tyler calls and is supportive of Tara. But by the fall, he lets her know that he hasn’t been able to convince their parents of Shawn’s issues. They’ve threatened to disown him over it. Tara assumes Tyler will end up choosing them, just as Audrey did, but is surprised when he and his wife decide to support her instead. Tyler’s support helps Tara to clear her head and refocus on her PhD. She changes her dissertation topic to the “nature of family and familial obligation.” That September, Tara is awarded her degree, becoming Dr. Westover. She’s also living with Drew and is happy.
Chapters 39 – 40 (Conclusion)
In the final chapters, Tara goes home after a long absence, but has not reconciled with her parents. Tara reflects on her fractured family.
When Tara finally visits home, Faye’s parents tell her that her family is now renown in the valley due to the essential oils business they’ve built. Tara drives over to look at the house, which now has been expanded many times.
Tara visits her Aunt Angie (Faye’s sister) who has also been ostracized from the family for seeking unemployment, since Gene does not trust the government. She also sees Tyler and Stephanie who are family outcasts as well. Richard has recently written to apologize for not supporting Tara.
Tara wants to see her mother but isn’t ready to see her father. However, Faye refuses to see Tara without Gene. When Faye’s mother passes away, Tara goes to the funeral, but sits apart from them. Shawn does not look at Tara during the service. Audrey chastises Tara for being unwilling to see Gene. As of the publication of the book many years later, the funeral is the last time Tara has seen her parents.