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In Educated, Tara Westover recalls taking in her rural Idaho surroundings from a young age. She would breathe in the crisp air and run through the valleys and hills. She learned a lot from living on that farm. She did not have a birth certificate, medical records, or traditional education. However, she learned how to live.
Tara grew up with a paranoid father who was consistently preparing for the end of the world. Tara’s father also believed the government brainwashed its citizens. It is fair to say that Tara had far from a typical childhood. Besides being homeschooled, her mother also immersed Tara in herbal medicine. Therefore, Tara had never been to a hospital or a doctor.
Tara and her family were completely self-sufficient. Hence, they isolated themselves from reality. This isolation led to an inaccurate view of the world. However, Tara still wished to succeed in this world. Therefore, she struggled against her family’s intense and irrational views surrounding education and the government.
Going against her family’s wishes, she consistently struggled with pursuing education and appeasing her family. Ultimately, her education had to be put first. She chose education.
About Tara Westover
Tara Westover is an American memoirist, essayist, and historian. Educated became a New York Times bestseller and was a finalist for the La Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Tara overcame immense childhood adversity to excel academically and become highly influential. In 2019, she was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. Tara also has a solid academic record. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Plus, Tara was a visiting fellow at Harvard University in 2010. Subsequently, she returned to the University of Cambridge in 2014 to earn a doctorate in intellectual history.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”– Tara Westover
Part 1: An Unusual Childhood
Childhood looks different for everyone. For some, it’s a time of happiness and innocence as you play the day away. For others, it’s more complicated.
From a young age, Tara Westover knew that her life was different. She was the youngest of seven children, and her parents intended to raise their family steeped in the Mormon religion. Additionally, the children were expected to help out on the family’s rural farm.
Living as Survivalists
Tara enjoyed the carefree freedom of playing in nature and running through the hills of the nearby mountains. However, there was a reason the family lived on a rural farm. Tara’s father, Gene, had an overwhelming paranoia. Gene believed that the government’s primary aim was to brainwash society and stray them away from God. This led Gene to raise the family as survivalists. Survivalists over-prepare with the expectation that the worst is inevitable.
Therefore, Tara and her siblings had to carry supplies with them at all times. Additionally, the children were advised to run for the hills if the government’s police ever came for them. Tara’s supplies would include herbal medicines, as traditional medicine was considered evil by her family. Plus, she carried water purifiers, guns, knives, and long-lasting meals. This upbringing was so strict that Tara’s grandmother once encouraged Tara to run away with her to Arizona. Tara’s grandmother did not hold the same beliefs as Tara’s parents. Tara thought long and hard about this proposition but eventually rejected the offer.
As well as instilling fear in Tara and his other children, Gene also had extreme views on gender roles. Gene’s Mormon beliefs encouraged him to believe that women should remain in the home as caregivers. Gene did let Tara’s mother, Faye, work as a midwife. However, this was only because the role was an extension of her caregiving role as a woman. As Faye disagreed with traditional medicine, she took a holistic approach to medicine. Essentially, she was a herbalist.
Part 2: Lack of Education
Tara and her siblings had no experience of school. They were brought up believing that the school system was a propaganda machine for the government. Gene and Faye understood the public school system as a ploy by the government to lead children away from God. Therefore, Gene forced his children to be homeschooled. However, this term must be used loosely. Tara’s brother taught her to read at the age of four. However, by the time she turned eight, there was minimal schooling at home for Tara. In fact, Faye left her children to their own devices to learn.
Tara and her siblings would use the public library to learn standard subjects like math, history, and science. However, they were given little guidance. Therefore, the topics they covered were merely based on what they found interesting.
When Tara was ten years old, her brother Tyler turned 18 and announced his plans to go to college. He took his studying seriously, and he was ready to pursue higher education. Of course, this upset their father. Gene had expected Tyler would continue to help with work on the farm. Gene expressed that schooling was corrupt. He also argued that reading and writing would never give his son the concrete skills needed to support a wife and a family.
Importantly, Tyler’s announcement sparked a curiosity in Tara that higher education was a possibility. Hence, she started to study by herself more rigorously. Focusing mainly on studying religion, she began to immerse herself in education.
Part 3: Lack of Medical Attention and Care
Tara and her family had a car accident when her 17-year-old brother Tyler fell asleep at the wheel on a long road trip. Even though no one was wearing their seatbelt, they all miraculously survived.
However, the accident wasn’t without repercussions. Tara’s mother, Faye, suffered a severe brain injury and needed immediate medical attention. Although Gene considered taking her to the hospital, she ultimately decided she could recover in their basement. This was not the case. Faye ultimately experienced significant memory loss and persistent migraines. Even after these symptoms emerged, Gene refused to take her to the hospital. One of Tara’s brothers, Luke, had a similar experience. Luke was involved in an accident at the scrapyard that ended with one of his legs catching fire. Again, despite a clear need for medical help, Tara’s father would not agree to take Luke to the hospital. Subsequently, he sustained burns that debilitated him for weeks. Eventually, Faye’s herbs help him recover. However, instead of learning from this experience, Tara’s Dad viewed this experience as an act of God and Faye’s healing powers.
This car crash and Luke’s accident were not the only incidents described where the family failed to seek medical attention. In 2000, Gene took the family to visit his mother in Arizona and insisted on leaving despite an impending snowstorm. On the way home, the family’s car lost control and slid off the road. The family crashed into a field. Again, none of the family were wearing their seatbelts. Remarkably, all family members survived this second car crash. Tara lost consciousness during this accident and doesn’t remember how she got home. However, she knows she never went to the hospital.
Part 4: Tara Learns Independence
Tara’s older siblings left home as soon as they had enough money. On the back of this, Gene’s farming business began to crumble. To overcome this, he was forced to focus on developing a scrapyard business. Needing help from the remaining children, Tara worked in the junkyard. Her primary role was to separate materials to sell.
Tara hated this job. It was repetitive and was not intellectually stimulating enough for her. Subsequently, she decided to post pamphlets to promote herself as a babysitter. In no time, Tara was working 8 a.m. to noon as a babysitter. Earning her own money doing something outside the family business made her feel liberated. She had never felt this liberation before in her life. She was gaining independence, and her job as a babysitter led her to more opportunities around the community.
This independence was short-lived, though. Gene’s paranoid delusions stunted Tara’s education of the world outside her family. Gene had convinced himself that the year 2000 would be the end of the world. Therefore, in 1999 he began spending all his time preparing and stockpiling for an apocalypse. Of course, the world did not end. Tara recalls Gene looking like a broken man when January 1st hit. His beliefs had been challenged but not enough to stop him from continuing to pursue them.
Part 5: Tara Realizes She Needs to Leave Home
One of Tara’s siblings, Shawn, grew particularly aggressive during his teenage years. Tara would frequently encounter Shawn abusing his girlfriend. This treatment would then be turned onto Tara herself. Shawn would push her head into the toilet, strangle her, or call her a whore. This abuse made Tara’s life a living hell. However, Shawn’s behavior became even more dangerous and erratic after suffering a traumatic brain injury at work. Tara was then given the job of being Shawn’s carer. This was the last straw for Tara. She decided she had to leave her home. She studied for her ACT and earned a satisfactory score to attend BYU. Although her father continued to challenge Tara’s education, her mom became more supportive. At just 16 years old, Tara moved to Utah to attend BYU with her mother’s support and help.
Part 6: Tara’s Culture Shock
Due to Tara’s strict and sheltered upbringing, she had a hard time adjusting to life away. Particularly, she struggled to connect with her roommates. To her, these people were from a different world.
For instance, upon meeting Shannon, she was immediately greeted by a girl wearing tight pink pants and a white top. Shannon was also completely baring her shoulders. Shocked and appalled, Tara retreated to the privacy of her room. She got on well with her second roommate, Mary, but she struggled with other parts of her education. For example, Tara wrestled with the difficulty of her classes. She chose particularly challenging subjects and was not used to formal education: English, American history, music, religion, and Western civilization. She quickly realized how unprepared she was for college life.
A Learning Curve
With the bombardment of new academic terms and formal tests, she felt herself sinking. She would always worry about how she could catch up with her fellow students. She was so uneducated in history, specifically, that she had some distressing experiences in her class. For example, one day, she mustered up the courage to ask her professor about the meaning of a word she had never heard before. Silence filled the room, and the stares from her classmates quickly embarrassed her. The word she asked her professor to clarify was the Holocaust. On top of these pressures, she also had the financial pressure of living expenses. Tara knew she had to improve her grades significantly and gain a scholarship.
A classmate helped her by explaining she was supposed to read the text in the course-related book and not just look at the images. After this, her grades began to improve significantly. Tara finished the semester with all As, except for in Western civilization. Subsequently, she was able to obtain a scholarship for half of her tuition.
Part 7: Adapting to Life Outside Her Father’s Worldview
Some students view a break from semesters as an opportunity to relax. This was not the case for Tara. Instead, she had to spend this time working to earn enough money to continue funding her education.
Tara tried to earn money through a job at a local grocery store. However, she was forced to quit by her father. He threatened to kick her out if she didn’t help with the junkyard. Throughout the break, Tara began a relationship with Charles. Charles was a childhood crush. She was careful not to overexpose Charles to her life at home.
Her father and brothers continued to mock her in front of Charles. However, she managed to experiment more through her relationship. For example, Charles convinced her to take some ibuprofen after her mother’s usual remedies failed to relieve her tooth pain. This was the first time she had taken ibuprofen in her life.
Tara then began to seek counseling from her local bishop. Her bishop encouraged Tara to apply for government aid for a dental operation. At this point, Tara still worried about mind control and the government’s power. However, she eventually followed the advice of her bishop and received $4,000 for a dental operation.
Now that Tara had experienced medical care and government help, she found a new outlook on life. She thought about the extreme paranoia her father experienced about the government attempting to control and brainwash them. Tara’s realization that her father’s paranoia had ruined both her and her siblings’ lives was unpleasant. However, before she could confront her father about her feelings, he experienced a terrible accident.
Part 8: New Opportunities
Gene experienced a terrible workplace accident. His face and hands were covered in severe burns, and his condition appeared grim. Risking his life, Gene stated he would rather die than go to the hospital. Therefore, Faye treated him with her homemade burn remedies. Throughout the night, they prepared to say goodbye to Gene. Miraculously, Gene survived, and six months later, he finally regained his ability to talk.
With this drama, Tara did not feel it was the right time to confront her father. Therefore, she continued to focus on her studies and began to develop an interest in history, politics, and world affairs. Noticing her motivation, Tara’s professor encouraged her to apply for a study abroad program. This program was based at the prestigious University of Cambridge. Tara had never heard of the University of Cambridge. Despite this, her outstanding grades meant she was accepted. Thus, she began her new life abroad.
Upon arriving at King’s College, Cambridge, the immaculate campus’ architecture and sophistication immediately left her in awe. Tara felt insecure and overwhelmed, but she managed to gain the attention of Professor Jonathan Steinberg. Steinberg was a renowned Holocaust expert who helped Tara throughout her time at Cambridge.
Examining every word of her papers, Steinberg had a keen eye for mistakes and encouraged perfection. Amazingly, when Tara submitted her final essay, Steinberg was hugely impressed by her work and persuaded her to attend graduate school. Steinberg helped her to secure admission and funding.
With Steinberg’s help, Tara secured admission at Cambridge’s Trinity College. She was only the third student from BYU to ever win a scholarship to a Cambridge course. This outstanding achievement resulted in many local papers and TV outlets featuring stories on Tara. She is now a local celebrity in Idaho.
Part 9: Balancing Grad School and Home Life
“I carried the books to my room and read through the night. I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft, but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.”– Tara Westover
Opening Up About Her Childhood
Tara developed close friends while studying at grad school. She and these friends traveled to Rome to learn about the vast history. Upon visiting Rome, the thought inspired her to study abroad there. However, her trip was derailed when her sister Audrey contacted her. Audrey relayed to Tara that she had been suffering abuse from Shawn. Audrey was most worried by the possibility that Shawn’s wife could become a victim. Additionally, Audrey planned to confront their father about his behavior. However, she needed the help of Tara and her mother.
This conversation was cathartic for Tara. She realized how important it was for her to talk to people about her difficult childhood. She started to open up about her experiences with her friends and teachers.
Tara continued to flourish in her studies. During her final year, she won a place to study for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Tara also started to study topics previously hidden from her by her father. For example, she took a keen interest in feminism. She learned how her father’s traditional views of women were oppressive and outdated.
While she was thriving at school, she was becoming increasingly distant from her family. Still, she returned home for Christmas. This Christmas would end up being violent.
Part 10: Coming to Terms
“I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.”– Tara Westover
Confronting Her Father
While at home on Christmas break, Tara and Audrey confronted their father about Shawn’s abuse. However, Gene refused to believe them. Tara turned to her mother for support, but she remained quiet.
These accusations angered Shawn. Worryingly, Shawn placed a bloody knife in Tara’s hands. Tara recognized that this was a deliberate threat from Shawn. Tara now knew that her parents would always protect their sons over their daughters.
Moving Back to America
Tara finished her Ph.D. at Cambridge and was then accepted onto a fellowship at Harvard University. While at Harvard, Tara’s parents came to visit her. She quickly realized her parents had ulterior motives. Gene told her she needed to accept their way of life or be regarded as a danger to the family. She found out that both Audrey and Shawn had accepted this blessing. Therefore, Tara was now the only member of the family that needed to be saved. Refusing to accept her father’s twisted view of reality, her parents left abruptly.
After finishing her studies, Tara moved to London and began a new life with her boyfriend, Drew. In the years following her move, Tara struggled to come to terms with her family’s status. She remained close to her siblings who had left her parents. However, she had lost any relationship with her siblings that continued to support her parents. She had accepted she was no longer the child her father had raised.
After all this time, Tara has finally been able to forgive her father. Additionally, she has forgiven herself for her estrangement with the family. This has given Tara peace. She has been transformed into a woman who knows her mind and is educated to think for herself.
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