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By Tara Westover

Book review, full book summary and synopsis for Educated by Tara Westover, a personal journey about a childhood in a survivalist home.


Educated is a memoir by Tara Westover, a woman who grows up as the youngest of seven in a rural Idaho Mormon community. She and her siblings were all born at home and are homeschooled, and her parents are deeply suspicious of the government. Her father fears the influence of the Illuminati, thought that Y2K would be the harbinger of the Second Coming, and believes public education standards are just brainwashing.

The story is told in three parts. Part One details her childhood. Westover describes her father's radicalization and the many serious (and often gruesome) injuries that her family members refuse to get medial treatment for.

In Part Two, Westover ventures to college at BYU. She describes the culture shock of being confused about what the Holocaust was or having to learn about slavery, and she struggles through her first romantic relationship. Finally in Part Three, Westover goes to Cambridge for her PhD, attempts to confront her family about their issues and brings us up to date with her life now.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of Educated
Quick Plot Summary

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.

For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.

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Book Review

Educated, by Tara Westover, was one of the bestselling books on 2018 and has continued to top the charts even now, despite being released over a year ago. I put it on my to-read list thanks to Bill Gate’s book blog, and Ellen Degeneres read it after Michelle Obama recommended it to her.

Point is, if you’re reading this book, at least you know you’re in good company.

(Update 8/2020: LaRee Westover — “Faye” in the book, the mother of Tara Westover, has written a book called “Educating” that’s partially a response to Educated. She’s crowdfunding it on Indiegogo. )

Educated opens with an episode from Westover’s childhood. She is six years old. As it was explained to her, a nearby family, the Weavers, has been under siege and shot at by the government for being “freedom fighters,” resulting in the deaths of the mom and a 14-year-old boy. (In reality, the Weavers were in a raid gone awry for possessing illegal weapons.) It’s a formative experience, marking the point where her father starts to transform into a radicalized survivalist, and Westover wonders in the book a few times what he would have been like if she’d known him before that.

Westover writes that “four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom.”

Author Tara Westover

Author Tara Westover

The Good Stuff

Educated is a fascinating book on multiple levels. As a personal journey for Westover, it’s triumphant and hopeful. Westover goes from receiving very little education to eventually getting her PhD at Cambridge.

As a story, it’s unique. Westover’s experiences make for a distinctive perspective, accented with colorful anecdotes.

And as a reader, it’s interesting to consider how her perspective is shaped by the usual fallacies of memory and perspective.

For example, as I was reading, I wondered if the event she describes in the first chapter was as dramatic as she believes, or if the drama of it was heightened by being told about it at a young age and slowly building a mythos out of it. How would she have viewed her father if no one had ever later described the scene to her?

Some Criticisms and Caveats

To be honest, Educated is not the type of book I would’ve selected if it weren’t for its overwhelming popularity. It’s highly personal and not a topic I’m particularly interested in. But the story was compelling enough that I found myself invested in it, even if it did drag in a few parts.

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that perhaps Westover wrote this book too soon. It seems like the story we’re reading is the one she’s constructed to make sense of everything that happened to her, but I imagine she still has a longer journey to really process it all and what it means.

Some parts of the book, especially when it comes to her own behavior seem too neat and tidy to be the whole story. When her father offers her a blessing, she responds “I love you. But I can’t. I’m sorry, Dad” and he just walks out of the room. Scenes like that feel more like a made-for-TV movie than the truth.

When the book concludes, things are essentially unresolved with her family. I would be surprised if that’s where their story ends, even if they made some big mistakes.

Educated vs. Hillbilly Elegy

There have been a number of comparisons of Educated with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but they’re fairly different books. Hillbilly Elegy is a much more political book that’s trying to explain the economic conditions impacting white working-class Appalachian communities. Meanwhile, though Westover’s memoir involves a family that is geographically rooted in Trumpland, her story isn’t meant to be representative of Trump voters or even of her Mormon community in Southern Idaho.

Westover’s father has more radical views than most in their religious community. He firmly believes women shouldn’t work, and he’s a survivalist, busy hoarding food and being paranoid about potential attacks from the government and whatnot. Westover discusses how he likely has an untreated personality disorder.

Read it or Skip It?

I enjoyed parts of Educated. It’s an inherently interesting story, and one that’s worth telling.

It’s not a book I would have normally chosen for myself if it weren’t for all the glowing endorsements, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. For me, it didn’t quite live up to the hype, but I do feel like I got something out of her story.

Have you read this book or would you consider reading it? See Educated on Amazon.

Tara Westover’s Family and Responses to Educated

(Update 8/2020: LaRee Westover — “Faye” in the book, the mother of Tara Westover, has written a book called “Educating” that’s partially a response to Educated. She’s crowdfunding it on Indiegogo. )

I went through a lot of the comments that her family has made publicly (on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads, etc.) about the book, and it seems Westover’s family members have been vocal about their disagreement (“lies”, according to them) with some of the parts of the book. However, throughout Educated, Westover often acknowledges the question marks in her memories, and it seems like they mostly take issue with the overall portrayal as opposed to disputing specific facts.

To be fair, it does seem like her family members are not quite the bumpkins she makes them out to be. At one point in the book, her mom has to force her dad’s hand in getting a phone line installed, for example. However, in reality they don’t seem as backwards — they run a business and are pretty active on Facebook and whatnot. Her mom comments frequently on the book.

Tara gives many of her family monikers in the book, but in actuality her parents are Val (“Gene“) and LaRee Westover (“Faye“). “Shawn” is the nickname for Travis. (Tyle, Richard and Luke Westover are referred to by their actual names in the book.) Her older sister Valaree (“Audrey“) and her mother run an essential oils business together. It has a Facebook, Instagram and even a YouTube channel. They even sell a book about essential oils. The family’s lawyer claims it has 30 employees, multiple facilities and relies on an automated assembly line (PDF version in case that link goes down).

On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that her brother — or at least someone claiming to be him — Tyler (real name) has come out with extensive comments that don’t seem to contradict the book. He noted some inaccuracies in her perceptions (PDF version), but seems to corroborate large parts of the story. Also, Richard (also his real name)’s profile on his university’s website (PDF version) corroborates the spotty education they received as kids: “Westover said he is probably the only ISU masters-level chemist who had to start with a beginning math course at ISU.”

In the comments of one of the articles linked above, Richard Westover has also responded to the book with the following:

“The relationship between my sister and my parents, like that of many poeple, is more complicated than either this article or the book can portray. Tara is doing the best she can with what she knows and I give her kudos as well for that. I think people reading either the book or the article should suspend judgement.

Having read both, and lived through it as well, I would not consider myself in possesion of the facts tsufficient to pass judgement to the extent many of the commenters seem to be willing to do. To you it is a book and it is cheap to rant about it. To me, it is my life and I’m still living it. Tara comes to my house to visit occasionally and I still call my parents every week.”

Important Note: While they seem to want to share their side of the story, its seems sad that many people have taken that as an invitation to harass her family. As a reminder, they’re private citizens responding to a story about themselves. John Oliver did a fantastic piece on public shaming. He discusses how it’s often a useful tool, but also how it can be abused. I hope no one reads this book and thinks that the main takeaway should be “I need to go harass these private citizens / people I don’t know RIGHT NOW.”

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Educated

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