“The extremity of Westover’s upbringing emerges gradually through her telling, which only makes the telling more alluring and harrowing.”
-The New York Times Book Review
An unusual childhood
Childhood looks different for everyone; for some, it’s a time of happiness and innocence as you play the days 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. She also grew up on a rural farm in Idaho, and the children were expected to help on the farm whenever necessary.
Many people grow up this way and Tara enjoyed the carefree freedom 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 a paranoia beyond the norm believing the government was out to brainwash society and stray them away from God. The paranoia her father experienced was so extreme that he believed his family should always be prepared, even making the children carry supplies with them at all times. If the feds ever came for them they were instructed to take off into the hills and be able to survive until the feds left the area.
So Tara carried supplies like herbal medicine, water purifiers, guns, knives and military MREs or meals ready to eat on a regular basis. Wanting more for Tara, her grandmother once encouraged Tara to run away with her to Arizona.
Coming from a strict Mormon background Gene was adamant about teaching her a woman’s place was in the home and rearing children. Tara thought about the opportunity briefly, but when the time came Tara couldn’t do it and she stayed with her family in Idaho.
Gene surprisingly allowed Tara’s mother, Faye, to work as a midwife. With minimal medical experience, Faye took a holistic approach to medicine and became a skilled herbalist and the only midwife for a hundred miles. Gene supported his life’s roles since he believed hospitals and doctors were a government ploy for brainwashing and corruption.
In fact, because Tara was born at home she didn’t have a birth certificate at all. To the state of Idaho Tara didn’t exist until the age of nine. Not only did she not have a birth certificate, but she had also never set foot in a school.
Lack of Education
Schooling is an important part of growing up but for Tara and her siblings, school hardly existed. Believing that the public school system was just a ploy by the government to lead children away from God, Gene forced his children to become homeschooled. However, the term is used loosely. While Tara’s brother taught her to read at the age of four, by the time she turned eight there was very little schooling in the home; leaving the children to their own devices to learn.
Their education was incredibly rigorous as her parents failed to teach her basic hygiene skills. At least every once in a while, they would drop the kids off at the public library to spend the day reading but when it came to subjects like math, history, and science, Tara learned by skimming the pages of a few textbooks with little guidance.
When Tara was 10 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 since he needed him to help work on the farm. Gene expressed that schooling was just the corruption, reading and writing would never give him the real skills he needed to support a wife and a family.
However, Tyler’s announcement of college sparked a curiosity in Tara that higher education was a possibility and she began to study by herself more rigorously. Focusing mainly on religion, she began to immerse herself in education.
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.
Faye, however, suffered a serious brain injury and needed medical attention right away. Gene toyed with the idea of taking her to the hospital but ultimately decided she would be OK resting in the basement. After Faye recovered, she was never the same and experienced memory loss and persistent headaches. Still, she didn’t need medical attention according to Gene.
The accident didn’t become the only accident 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. Of course on their way home their car slid off the road and crashed into a field.
Again no one was wearing their seatbelts and they again miraculously survived. Tara lost consciousness during that accident and doesn’t remember how she got home, but she knew she never went to the hospital.
Tara learns independence
Since Tara’s older siblings had left home as soon as they had enough money, Gene farming business began to crumble and he was forced to focus on his scrapyard business. Needing help from the remaining children, Tara worked in the junkyard separating various materials to sell.
She hated it; So she decided to post flyers to promote herself as a babysitter. In no time, Tara was working 8 a.m. to noon as a babysitter and she felt more liberated than ever. While she wasn’t making a lot of money, she was gaining independence and her job as a babysitter led her to more opportunities around the community.
She asked her parents if she could go dancing class and surprisingly they agreed but during the Christmas, Tara was not allowed to continue dancing; while Tara was crushed that she could no longer dance, she and her mother decided to sign Tara up for something that gene couldn’t refuse: voice lessons.
Tara was gaining independence, and she was finally learning about life outside of her father’s paranoid delusions. However, during this time, her father’s delusions were exacerbated by the impending end of the world.
It was 1999 and Gene was certain that by 2000 would lead to the days of abomination and he began to spend all of his time preparing and stockpiling for the inevitable apocalypse.
Warning everyone that electricity and telephone lines would cease to function, gene even bought a cable TV subscription just to witness a tall crumble as soon as January first hit.
Of course, nothing happened Tara recalls the disappointment in his features was so childlike for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this.
Tara realizes she needs to leave home
If you can dig deep back into the recesses of your memory, you might remember what it was like to attend high school. Hormones raging only focusing on impressing your crush, experimenting with new looks to see what suits you. It’s both an exciting and frightening time in a person’s life.
It was during this time the Tara developed her first crush, Charles. Tara remembers it was shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when she began experimenting with makeup to impress Charles. But Charles’s attention wasn’t on Tara. He instead set his sights on Sadie, Tara’s brother’s girlfriend.
Westover began to see Shawn abuse his girlfriend. He soon turned that treatment onto Westover, pushing her head into the toilet, strangling her, and calling her a whore. After Shawn suffered a traumatic brain injury on a job site, he became even more violent, and Westover was charged with being his caregiver.
She decided that she needed to leave the junkyard and her brother’s erratic moods and she studied for her ACT, earning a high enough score to attend BYU.
At just 16 years old, Tara moved to Utah to attend BYU with the support and help of her mother.
Tara’s Culture Shock
If you’ve ever moved into a college dorm room you remember the excitement of finally living on your own. However, with Tara’s strict sheltered upbringing she had a hard time coping with the differences of her roommates.
For instance, upon meeting Shannon she was immediately greeted by a girl wearing tight pink pants and a white top, completely baring her shoulders.
Shocked and appalled, Tara retreated to the privacy of her room. She enjoyed her second roommate Mary but of course, culture shock became the least of Tara’s worries, once she realized the difficulty of her classes having enrolled in English, American history, music, religion, and Western civilization, she quickly realized how unprepared she was for college forces.
With the bombardment of new terms she felt herself sinking, how can she possibly catch up? She felt so far behind but one day she finally mustered up the courage to ask her professor the meaning of a word she had never heard before. Silence filled the room and the stares from her classmates quickly embarrassed her. The words she asked her professor to clarify the Holocaust. While her grades were far from decent, she realized she could not afford to attend school and living expenses without a scholarship so she set out to improve her grades.
After a classmate helped her by telling her that she was supposed to read the textbook and not just look at the images, her grades began to improve. Finishing the semester with all A’s except in Western civilization, she was able to obtain a scholarship for half of her tuition.
Adapting to life outside her father’s worldview
While a break between semesters might mean freedom for many young students, for Tara it meant working to earn money to continue funding her education.
Taking a job at a local grocery store, she was eventually forced to quit after her father threatened to kick her out if she didn’t help with the junkyard. Throughout the break Tara began a relationship with Charles; however, she carefully refused to let Charles inside her life at home. Recently Gene and Shawn were ganging up on teasing Tara for becoming uppity since studying away at college and Shawn relentlessly haunted her in front of Charles. But she stayed firm in her beliefs and began to experiment out of the confines of her father’s worldview.
At the start of the new semester, for the first time in her life, Charles convinced her to take some ibuprofen after her mother’s usual remedies failed to relieve the pain. Surprisingly she felt relief after just 20 minutes.
Tara then began to seek counseling from her local bishop. Encouraging her to seek government aid, Tara refused to believe that receiving aid would be equivalent to mind control. However, she eventually followed the advice of her bishop and received $4,000 more than enough to cover the $1,400 dental operation.
Now that Tara had experienced medical care and government help, she found a new outlook on life and began to devote more time to her studies.
She thought about the extreme paranoia her father experienced about the government trying to control and brainwash them.
Coming to this realization, Tara became angry at her father for subjecting her and her siblings to his fantastical paranoia and sheltering them from the world. However, before she could confront her father about her feelings, he experienced a terrible accident.
Suffering from a terrible workplace accident, Gene’s face and hands were covered in severe burns and his condition looked grim. Risking his life Gene stated he would rather die than go to the hospital, so Faye treated him with her homemade burn remedies. Throughout the night they prepared to say goodbye, but miraculously Gene survived and six months later he finally regained his ability to talk.
Despite this, Tara continued to focus on her studies and began to develop an interest in history, politics and world affairs. Noticing her motivation, her professor encouraged Tara to apply for a study abroad program at the prestigious school of Cambridge; A school she had never even heard of before, but she got accepted and thus began her new life abroad.
Upon arriving at King’s College, the immaculate campus architecture and sophistication immediately awed her. Tara felt insecure and overwhelmed, but she managed to gain the attention of Professor Jonathan Steinberg 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 turned in her final essay Steinberg was impressed by her work and persuaded her to attend graduate school. Not only would Steinberg helped her secure admission, but he would also help secure funding either at Cambridge or Harvard.
With Steinberg’s help, Tara secured admission at Cambridge’s Trinity College and became the third student from BYU to ever win the Cambridge scholarship. Such praise resulted in many local papers and TV outlets running stories on Tara, who is now a local celebrity in Idaho.
Balancing grad school and home life
Now Tara felt more out of place than ever, but she began to immerse herself in her studies. She eventually developed a small circle of friends and traveled to Rome to learn about the vast history.
Initially overwhelmed, Tara recognized the opportunity to learn in the city but her trip was derailed when her sister Audrey sent her a disturbing email. Audrey relayed to Tara that she had been suffering abuse from Shawn and she didn’t want Shawn’s wife to become a victim. As well she planned to confront their father about his behavior but she needed the help of Tara and her mother. During their conversation, Faye eventually apologized to Tara for failing to protect her from her brother’s abuse.
Now Tara realized the pain of hiding her past and began to open up about her experiences with her friends and teachers.
Meanwhile, Tara noticed the family business was booming; her parents were now rich. Of course, her father declined a three million dollar deal and the success of his wife led to resentment. Gene was forced to come to terms that the roles of husband and wife were straying from his traditional beliefs and arguments ensued.
As her family life became increasingly unstable, Tara continued to flourish in her studies eventually winning a place to study for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. She began to open herself up to new ideas that were once forbidden and hidden from her like feminism, where she learned that her father’s traditional ideas of a woman’s role were oppressive.
While she was thriving at school, she was becoming increasingly distant from her family. Still, she returned home for Christmas where violence ensued.
Coming to terms
While at home on Christmas break, Tara and Audrey confronted their father about Shawn’s abuse, but he refused to believe them consistently asking for proof. Tara turned to her mother for support, but like always she stayed quiet.
To make matters worse, Shawn placed a bloody knife in Tara’s hands indicating a threat that seemed clear. While they came to peace briefly, Tara knew the pain wasn’t over and realized that Gene and Faye would help their sons over protecting their daughters every time.
Tara was forced to come to this realization upon returning to Cambridge when Shawn’s threats to harm Tara became relentless.
She continued to confront Gene about Shawn’s behavior, but she was told that she was becoming a dangerous influence on the family during this time.
Tara accepted a fellowship at Harvard University where her parents came to visit her, she quickly realized her parent’s ulterior motives, as Gene told her she needed to accept their way of life or be seen as a danger to the family.
She found out that both Audrey and Shawn had accepted this blessing, so Tara was now the final member of the family that needed to be saved. Refusing to accept her father’s twisted view of reality, her parents left abruptly. Throughout the years that followed Tara focused on her Ph.D. The topic, the family and morality, including Mormonism as an intellectual movement.
She earned her Ph.D., 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 the status of her family. Removing the contact from her parents, she also recognized a rift between her siblings, herself Richard and Tyler moved on and had their own careers while Audrey, Shawn, Luke, and Tony continued to depend on their parents. The two groups failed to get along whenever they were together. While she remained close to Richard, Tyler, and Tony, Tara had come to terms with her relationship with her family.
She had accepted that she is not the child her father raised, but he is the father who raised her, and her new self emerged the night Shawn physically assaulted her when she was just 16 years old. Her upbringing became an education.
she has finally been able to forgive her father and herself for their estrangement, which has given her peace. The best thing that has happened for her healing is that she no longer identifies with the teenage girl that was physically and emotionally abused; instead, she has been transformed into a woman who knows her own mind and is educated to think for herself.