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Imagine being brought up in isolation from the outside world. Your father is paranoid and your mother uses only herbal medicine to heal even the most horrific injuries.
This was the childhood experience of Tara Westover, the author of Educated. Raised by Mormon parents on a remote Idaho farm, she lived under her father’s rule until deciding on a bid for freedom through education.
This inspirational book tells the story of how Westover liberated herself through study. She even achieved a scholarship to the University of Cambridge. Meeting people with a very different perspective from her father allowed her to live a life beyond the constraints of her childhood.
Educated entered The New York Times bestseller list at No. 1 in 2018 and has been a finalist for several awards.
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About Tara Westover
Tara Westover is an American memoirist, essayist, and historian. She 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.
Westover also has a solid academic record. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She was also 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.
StoryShot 1: Tara Had 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 knew her life was different. She was the youngest of seven children, and her parents intended to raise their family in the Mormon religion. Additionally, the children were expected to help out on the family’s rural farm in Idaho.
Living as Survivalists
Tara enjoyed the freedom of playing in nature and running through the nearby hills. However, there was a reason the family lived on a rural farm. Tara’s father, Gene, had overwhelming paranoia. He believed the government’s primary aim was to brainwash society and lead them away from God. This led Gene to raise the family as survivalists. Survivalists over-prepare with the expectation that the worst is inevitable.
Tara and her siblings had to carry supplies with them at all times. Their parents advised them to run for the hills if the government’s police ever came for them. Tara’s supplies included herbal medicines, as her family considered traditional medicine evil. She also carried water purifiers, guns, knives, and long-lasting meals.
Tara’s grandmother did not hold the same beliefs as Tara’s parents. The young girl’s upbringing was so strict that her grandmother once encouraged her to run away with her to Arizona. Tara thought long and hard about this offer but eventually rejected it.
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 stay at home as caregivers. Gene did let Tara’s mother, Faye, work as a midwife. This was only because the role was an extension of her caregiving role as a woman. Faye disagreed with traditional medicine and took a holistic approach to medicine. Essentially, she was an herbalist.
StoryShot 2: There Was a Lack of Education at Home
Tara and her siblings had no school experience. They were brought up believing the school system was a propaganda machine for the government. Gene and Faye thought the public school system was a government ploy to lead children away from God. Gene forced his children to be homeschooled, but this term is used loosely to describe Tara’s education. Tara’s brother taught her to read at the age of four. But by the time she turned eight, there was minimal schooling at home for Tara. Faye left her children to learn by their own devices.
Tara and her siblings would use the public library to learn standard subjects like math, history, and science. However, they were given little guidance. The topics they studied were merely based on what they found interesting.
When Tara was 10 years old, her brother Tyler turned 18 and announced his plans to go to college. He took his studies seriously and 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 said schooling was corrupt and that reading and writing would never give his son the concrete skills to support a wife and family.
Importantly, Tyler’s announcement sparked curiosity in Tara that higher education was possible. She started to study by herself more rigorously. Focusing mainly on religion, she began to immerse herself in education.
StoryShot 3: There Was a 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, he ultimately decided she could recover in their basement. 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, which 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. Luke sustained burns that debilitated him for weeks. Eventually, Faye’s herbs helped him recover. Instead of learning from this experience, Tara’s father viewed his son’s recovery as an act of God and a result of Faye’s healing powers.
The car crash and Luke’s accident were not the only times when 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 slid off the road and crashed into a field. Again, none of them was wearing a seatbelt. Remarkably, all family members survived this second car crash. Tara lost consciousness during the accident and doesn’t remember how she got home. She does know she never went to the hospital.
StoryShot 4: Tara Learned Independence Through Work
Tara’s older siblings left home as soon as they had enough money to support themselves. As a result, Gene’s farming business began to crumble and he was forced to focus on developing a scrapyard business. As he needed 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 not intellectually stimulating enough. Subsequently, she decided to post pamphlets to promote herself as a babysitter. In no time, Tara was working from 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 such freedom before. She was gaining independence, and her job as a babysitter led to more opportunities around the community.
This independence was short-lived, though. Gene’s paranoid delusions stunted Tara’s education outside her family. He had convinced himself that the year 2000 would be the end of the world. 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 1 hit. This event challenged his beliefs but not enough to stop him from continuing to pursue them.
StoryShot 5: Tara Realized She Needed to Leave Home
One of Tara’s siblings, Shawn, grew particularly aggressive during his teenage years. Tara would frequently encounter him abusing his girlfriend. He would then turn this treatment onto Tara. Shawn would push her head into the toilet, strangle her, or call her names. This abuse made Tara’s life a living hell.
Shawn’s behavior became even more dangerous and erratic after suffering a traumatic brain injury at work. Tara was given the job of being Shawn’s carer. This was the last straw, and she decided she had to leave home.
She studied for her ACT and earned a good enough score to attend Brigham Young University. 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 Brigham Young University with her mother’s support and help.
StoryShot 6: Tara Experienced Culture Shock at College
Due to Tara’s strict, sheltered upbringing, she had a hard time adjusting to life away from home. She struggled to connect with her roommates as they were from a different world to her.
The first time Tara met Shannon, her roommate was wearing tight pink pants and a white top. Shannon also completely bared her shoulders. Shocked and appalled, Tara retreated to the privacy of her room.
She got on well with her second roommate, Mary, but struggled with other aspects of her education. For example, Tara wrestled with the difficulty of her classes. She had chosen particularly challenging subjects—English, American history, music, religion, and Western civilization. She was also not used to formal education. 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 class.
One day she mustered up the courage to ask her professor the meaning of a term she had never heard before. Silence filled the room, and the stares from her classmates embarrassed her. The term she had 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 that 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 almost straight A’s, allowing her to obtain a scholarship for half her tuition.
StoryShot 7: Tara Slowly Adapted to Life Outside Her Father’s Worldview
Some students view a break from semesters as an opportunity to relax. That was not the case for Tara. She had to spend this time working to earn enough 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. During the break, Tara began a relationship with Charles, her childhood crush. She was careful not to overexpose Charles to her life at home, even though her father and brothers mocked her in front of him.
Tara began to experiment more through her relationship. For example, Charles convinced her to take some ibuprofen when her mother’s usual remedies failed to relieve her tooth pain. This was the first time she had taken ibuprofen in her life.
Tara sought counseling from her local bishop. Her bishop encouraged her to apply for government aid for a dental operation. Tara was still worried about mind control and the government’s power, but followed her bishop’s advice and received $4,000 for a dental operation.
Now that Tara had experienced medical care and government help, she developed a new outlook on life. She thought about her father’s extreme paranoia that the government was 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, he experienced a terrible accident.
StoryShot 8: University Brought New Opportunities
Gene’s awful workplace accident resulted in his face and hands being severely burned, and his condition appeared grim. Risking his life, Gene stated he would rather die than go to the hospital. Faye treated him with her homemade burn remedies. Throughout the night, they prepared to say goodbye to Gene. Miraculously, he survived, and six months later, he regained his ability to talk.
Tara did not feel it was the right time to confront her father. She continued to focus on her studies and developed an interest in history, politics, and world affairs. Tara’s professor encouraged her to apply for a study-abroad program, based at the prestigious University of Cambridge in the UK. Tara had never heard of the University of Cambridge. Despite this, her outstanding grades meant she was accepted, and she began a new life abroad.
Upon arriving at King’s College, Cambridge, the immaculate architecture and sophistication left her in awe. Tara felt insecure and overwhelmed but gain the attention of Professor Jonathan Steinberg. Steinberg was a renowned Holocaust expert who helped Tara throughout her time at Cambridge.
Steinberg had a keen eye for mistakes and encouraged perfection. When Tara submitted her final essay, Steinberg was impressed by her work and persuaded her to attend graduate school.
With Steinberg’s help, Tara secured admission to Cambridge’s Trinity College. She was the third student from Brigham Young University to win a Cambridge course scholarship. This outstanding achievement resulted in many local papers and TV outlets featuring stories on Tara. She is now a local celebrity in Idaho.
StoryShot 9: Tara Had to Balance Grad School and Home Life
Tara developed close friends while studying at grad school. Despite this, she was always aware of how different her upbringing had been to that of her fellow students.
Opening Up About Her Childhood
Tara traveled with friends to Rome to learn about its vast history and was inspired to study there. However, her trip was derailed when her sister Audrey contacted her. Audrey revealed she had been suffering abuse from Shawn. Audrey was most worried that Shawn’s wife could become a victim. Audrey planned to confront their father about his son’s behavior but needed the help of Tara and her mother.
The 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 to her friends and teachers about her experiences.
Tara continued to flourish in her studies. During her final year, she won a place to study for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. She also started to study topics that her father had previously hidden from her. For example, she took a keen interest in feminism. She learned how her father’s traditional views of women were oppressive and outdated.
StoryShot 10: Tara Finally Came to Terms With Her Upbringing
While she was thriving at school, she became increasingly distant from her family, only returning home for Christmas. This particular Christmas would end up being violent.
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, who placed a bloody knife in Tara’s hands. Tara recognized this as a deliberate threat from her brother. She now knew her parents would always protect their sons over their daughters.
Moving Back to America
Tara finished her Ph.D. at Cambridge and was accepted onto a fellowship at Harvard University. While she was at Harvard, Tara’s parents visited 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 Audrey and Shawn agreed with this. Tara was now the only member of the family that needed to be “saved.” She refused to accept her father’s twisted view of reality, and 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 estrangement from many members of her family. She remained close to her siblings who had left her parents. Unfortunately, she had lost any relationship with those siblings who 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 forgiven her father. She has also forgiven herself for her estrangement from the family. This has given her peace. She has been transformed into a woman who knows her mind and is educated to think for herself.
Final Summary and Review of Educated
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. Tara 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 preparing for the end of the world and believed the government brainwashed its citizens. Tara’s childhood was far from typical. She was homeschooled, although her parents mostly left her to learn by herself, and her mother immersed her in herbal medicine. Therefore, Tara had never been to a hospital or doctor.
Tara’s family were completely self-sufficient, isolating themselves from reality. This isolation led to an inaccurate view of the world. Tara still wished to succeed in the outside world. She struggled against her family’s extreme and irrational views on education and the government.
Going against her family’s wishes, she wrestled with the conflict between pursuing education and appeasing her family. Ultimately, she chose education.
What kind of upbringing did you have, and how did it affect your education and adult life? Comment below or tag us on social media!
We rate Educated 4.6/5.
How would you rate Tara Westover’s book based on this summary?
This piece was first published in March 2021. It was revised and updated in Sep 2023.
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