“Educated” Book Review by Tara Westover: Summary, Themes and Analysis

In this Educated book review, I will focus on some of the major events Tara Westover talks about and how they shaped her journey to being a Cambridge PhD graduate. The article will also discuss how her writing was perceived after publication. “Educated” is a memoir by Tara Westover. Born in September 1986, the book is about her life experience in Idaho where she grew up with her survivalist parents.

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A Short Summary of Educated by Tara Westover

Her parents did not believe in public education. They also hated conventional medicine. That means Tara Westover never went to school and whenever she needed medical help, the hospital was not always the place to go.

The book is titled “Educated” and makes the impression of a lesser known woman without formal education went against all odds to get her PhD from Cambridge University.

One might assume that Tara Westover was homeschooled during her childhood. Unfortunately, what is noticeable is that she never received any education all until she joined college.

All through, she spent most of her time at home offering a helping hand to her mother in making herbalist memories. At the same time, she would help her father in his junkyard. This junkyard was the main source of income for the family. She began working there with her father when she was just 10 years.

At home, Tara Westover had no access to any books to read. The only publications she used to see were the Book of Mormon and other publications by the church. She could see letters and one children’s science book.

Her older brother focused on independent studies so that he could get good SAT scores. He then falsely presented himself to the Brigham Young University as a homeschooled student while in actuality, he studied on his own.

Tara Westover’s brother was good enough to extend some help to her sister. She studied on her own too with the guidance of his brother. Soon, she was starting to grasp the world around her. She could deconstruct what she thought she knew. Most of these things she knew, she had been told by her father.

Growing up, Tara Westover was never exposed anybody else’s ideas. Everything she knew was his father’s explanations. His philosophy was strongly held by fundamental Mormonism. He was known for serving a heavy dose of paranoia.

Tara Westover had never even heard about life-changing global events such as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement until she stepped into college. That means everything was a steep learning curve for her. She still took control of her education and used it as a transformational tool that got her from one spot to another.

More Than Education

Tara Westover’s book covers a lot more that how education transformed her life. She thinks that her parents’ attempt to discredit her story of having received no education in childhood appears to be a way for them to cover up some of the serious claims she is making.

She had a brother named Shawn (pseudo) who was a master manipulator. He physically abused her many times growing up. In fact, Ms. Westover says that multiple times, he could grab her by the hair and put her head in the toilet.

It does not end with the physically assault. Shawn called her a whore. At one moment, he almost broke her wrist. Multiple times, he even threatened to kill her. Shawn was not just cruel to her. He was harsh to his brothers, other sisters, and even the women he dated. He also loved to test his control over these innocent young people by seeking to dominate or have control over them.

After a violent incident had occurred, Shawn would try to convince her that all he was trying to do was to play a game. He would suggest that Tara Westover had misunderstood his intentions or she had provoked him. These could be seen as Shawn trying to re-write Ms. Westover’s own memories.

When she confronted her parents over Shawn’s behavior, they would also deny. Instead, they would claim that everything must have been a misunderstanding. Even worse, they would sometimes state that her brother had been cleansed of his sins and it was her turn to forgive him. Indeed, this gas-lighting worked for a long time. It made her begin to question her own memories and reality.

As time went by, she thought she was going crazy as her brother and parents focused on brainwashing her. She could not comprehend why the family was determined to make her seem like the problem.

At some point in her story, it seemed like she would have preferred the version of events her parents told. This would have led to easy navigation of life moments and the family would have remained peaceful. Fortunately, she had her journals clearly stated to contradict what her parents were saying.

Deep down in her mind, she thought everything wasn’t right and her parents were not telling the truth. She eventually found people in her life who not only believed her but they had also experienced or even witnessed similar events. They could testify to the veracity.

Forgiveness by Tara Westover

The good news is that Tara Westover has managed to forgive her family for many things they did. However, this denial of the horrible abuse she experienced and the extensive gas-lighting is what she can’t move past.

Throughout the memoir, Tara Westover tries to explain why she took so long to confront her family regarding the abuse.

Since her childhood was definitely harsh, she grew up as one individual who denied her feelings. In many circumstances, she would chastise herself for expressing vulnerabilities of any kind. This was not only an emotional protection. She was stepping up to the constant threat to her physical safety.

With multiple car crashes, serious head injuries, and even fires, the resulting risks were life-threatening. Despite all these, they nearly always never went to the doctor. Their treatment was based on herbalist medicine their mother provided. Even by just reading the book, one can feel the near constant threat to physical safety and that arouses a certain feeling of sympathy for what Tara Westover went through.

Tara received a delayed birth certificate when she was about 7 years old. The bigger problem is that nobody could remember exactly when she was born. Her father had an ideology that everything must fit into.

Nonetheless, she began the book by stating categorically that “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it, there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not.” It is understandable why she would say this because some people would have a narrow view of religious people.

After joining BYU, she encounters several male friends who still think that it is a bad idea for women to be ambitious. When she joins Cambridge, she gets to learn about academic feminism for the first time. While at both BYU and Cambridge she came across people who were quite encouraging and far much accepting to her vulnerability.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of Educated when she goes home to face the abuse. She had tried to accept her parents’ version of events and focused on forgiving his brother. But her transformation due to education is so huge that she is incapable of slipping back into the submissive little girl she used to be. She was no longer willing to surrender to the false version of events just to keep her family’s peace. The way she writes shows that these transformations did not occur within an instant. They happened after very many years.  

Overall, this summary of Educated has probably not covered everything detailed in the memoir. In one of the chapter’s Tara’s father is described as a survivalist and they were basically preparing for the apocalypse. Even the relationship between their mom and dad is quite complicated and a lot harder to understand from the book alone. There is so much detail left in the pages, so, it would be great reading the book yourself.

Character List

Tara Westover

She is the protagonist. Her narration of the memoir gives the book its life. She grapples with a strict upbringing isolated from the rest of the world. From the book, we see as a very hardworking and brave young girl, both mentally and physically despite her abusive and manipulative family.

Gene Westover

Gene is Tara’s father and the patriarch in the protagonist’s household. As a devout religious man who believes in being sent on a mission by God, Gene sees the federal government as a threat. Being a controlling man, he tries to dominate every aspect of his family’s life. There are character traits that point out Gene’s personality to be due to bipolar disorder. This mental illness is at the core of his paranoid delusions.

Faye Westover

She is Tara’s mother and the wife to Gene. She was raised in a family that has social conformity and rebelled by getting married to Gene at a young age. She becomes a healer capable of using her intuition to magically ‘diagnose’ medical problems and use herbal medicine to remedy those illnesses. Her loyalty is to her husband and Mormonism but she occasionally could support Tara.

Shawn Westover

He is the crazy Tara’s brother who is known for violent ranges. He had suffered a major head trauma that changed his personality. Tara is forced to deal with his relentless abuses. Shawn is also violent towards his wife Emily. In addition, he is a skilled liar and manipulator.

Other characters

Tyler Westover, Luke Westover, Tony, Westover, and Richard Westover, her brothers.

Audrey Westover, Tara’s only sister.

Charles, Tara’s friend

The Bishop, a leader in a Mormon congregation in Utah

Professor Kerry, a history professor at Brigham Young University

Professor Steinberg, a professor of history at Cambridge University

Robin, one of the roommates Tara had in college

Emily, Shawn’s wife

Erin, Shawn’s ex-girlfriend

Reviews: What Readers Say About “Educated”

Tara’s memoir has received a lot of attention. Even some of the world’s popular individuals have applauded her courage to overcome the challenges she faced since childhood.

It is the quality of her writing and the weight of her message that has made her win numerous awards. Some of these awards include:

  • Goodreads Choice Award for Autobiography
  • The American Library Association’s Alex Award
  • Being names as U.S. Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association
  • Amazon Audible’s Best Memoir of the Year
  • Won Evans Handcart Award and many other recognitions

So, let’s look at what readers think about Tara’s memoir after its initial release.

Bill Gates

The World’s richest person thinks Educated much better that one might hear. In his own words published at Gates Notes, he said:

“I thought I was pretty good at teaching myself—until I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Her ability to learn on her own blows mine right out of the water. I was thrilled to sit down with her recently to talk about the book.”

Mr. Gates thinks that Tara’s experience is an extreme version of something each and every one goes through with our parents. He expresses his happiness with the path that Tara Westover has taken in her life.

Alec MacGillis

Educated was selected as one of the New York Times’ top 10 Best Books of 2018. While writing for the New York Times, Alec MacGillis says that:

“Westover has somehow managed not only to capture her unsurpassably exceptional upbringing, but to make her current situation seem not so exceptional at all, and resonant for many others.”

Others like Patricia Barry were not very positive with their reviews.

Analysis of “Educated”

This memoir is an indication that a woman’s strength and her determination to become rebellious against traditional restrictions introduced during her upbringing is possible. We can see from the book how Tara broke out of her restricted and isolated world to expand her knowledge of the world around her.

From the book, readers are constantly reminded of Tara’s thirst for knowledge and how it eventually transformed her entire life. It took her both physical and psychological journey to complete the self-discovery process and become the woman she is today.

Who is Tara Westover’s Father?

In the Memoir, Tara gives a broad account of her family life through pseudonyms. In reality, her father is called Val Westover. His pseudonym is “Gene.”Her mother’s real name is LaRee Westover and is given the pseudo “Faye.”

Her siblings includedTony, Shawn, Tyler, Luke, Audrey, and Richard. They were seven children in the family and Tara was the youngest.

Val Westover was always paranoid about anything concerning the Federal government. As the youngest of the seven children, she never received a birth certificate. One of the reasons is that if the government knew the children existed and they were not attending school, they would come and take the kids away. Those children lived in that constant fear as well.

She has tried to live in her own head why she made some decisions and constantly reassure herself that it was the decision she made.

Family’s Response to the Memoir

Her parents Val and LaRee have tried to discredit her story through a family lawyer. They claim that if Tara managed to go to college and obtain her PhD in one of the most prestigious universities, then her homeschooling must have been quite impeccable.

The parents claim that some of Tara’s claims are false and that should discredit her memoir. However, for those who have read the memoir, it is clear that Tara does not any outrageous claims her parents mention.

In fact, Tara comments about how she proceeded in verification of her story in many sections of her memoir.  For instance, she would compare her memories against her own journals. When things weren’t the same, she would turn to other people who were there and witnessed her journey.

Even when there were conflicts in her story, she includes all that information to make the reader aware by giving multiple versions of what might have occurred. This is important for a memoir, especially for Tara since she had been made to not trust her personal judgment or version of reality for many years.

Themes in the Memoir

There are many themes to derive from the book Educated. I will discuss three main ones in the following section.

1. Theme of Knowledge

Throughout the book, Tara indicates how knowledge plays a critical role in her journey to freedom and authentic life. When she first heard her brother Tyler Westover talk about studying, she intuitively knew that gaining more knowledge is definitely a way to living richer and fulfilling life.

As a result, Tara works very hard despite the obstacles to acquire knowledge that eventually helps her understand the world. She even learns about bipolar disorder, which opens her eyes about bipolar disorder. With every step towards more knowledge, Tara realizes she becomes self-confident and gains a new sense of self-worth. She can find new communities that openly accept her and give a boost to her wellbeing.

2. Mental health

The other prominent theme in the memoir is the theme of instability of memory. Instability of memory frequently made Tara to question her life’s reality and that made her lack self-confidence. Even as she writes about the events that happened in her life, she constantly mentions in the memoir that she is unable to tell some of the experiences accurately. This problem is worsened by different family members who she talk to and end up giving her different accounts of events.

The author is always uncertain about the accuracy of her memory because of the gas-lighting she experienced in childhood. Her family constantly called her a liar or labelled her as confused whenever she complained about an abuse. The resulting self-doubt is even more devastating to her self-confidence.

3. Identity Conflict

Several characters including the narrator of the Memoir Tara suffer from identity conflicts. That forces them to make difficult decisions. Tara, for instance, had to choose between remaining as a Mormon and obedient daughter or a curious person who asks questions about the world around her.

At the same time, her two brothers Tyler and Richard also study and undergo the same identity conflict. Tyler is torn between standing up for his Sister and staying as an obedient son. He understands that without loyalty to his parents, he might get kicked out of the family.

Some Important Quotes in the Book

After that night, there was never a question of whether I would go or stay. It was as if we were living in the future, and I was already gone.

The quote above is lifted from the 16th chapter of Educated. This comes after Tara had disobeyed her father and took Shawn to the hospital for treatment after he sustained major injuries during a motorcycle accident.

The accident Tara describes in the quote marks the onset of a new life where she acts independently regardless of what her family thinks. Although she has not started attending school at that moment, it is clear that she is defying her father. This quote also shows the role of the retrospective narration in the memoir.

Dad could be wrong, and the great historians Carlyle and Macaulay and Trevelyn could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in. In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.

Lifted from Chapter 28, this quote comes when the writer first announces her intention to study historiography. Part of the reasons for this decision is because she always suspected life to be more complex that the tiny reality her father presented them with.

Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.

In the 30th Chapter, this quote is encountered after Tara had joined college. She had read about John Stuart Mill saying that nothing definitive can be known about the nature of women. She had grown up being presented with an idea that women must not express their ambition and that they should obey men. However, from observing her mother, she can tell that women can be strong, smart and capable thinkers. Unlike her mother, she only refused to be ashamed because the more she learned, the more she found space for self-definition and personal identity.

Final Remarks

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