135 pages 4 hours read

Tara Westover

Educated: A Memoir

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir, Educated, tells the story of her journey to obtain an education. Westover is the youngest of seven children who grew up in the mountains of southwest Idaho in a radical Mormon family in the late 1980s and 1990s. From an early age, Westover knew that her family was not like other families because hers did not send the children to school, did not visit doctors’ offices or hospitals, and was not issued birth certificates. Westover’s world was the mountain in Idaho where she grew up until Brigham Young University accepted her at 16 years old. Getting into college started her down a path to understanding of home, herself, and the world through her education.

By its nature, a memoir is a representation of the author’s impressions and memories of his or her past. As a memoir, Educated is written in the first person perspective, which means its told from Westover’s point of view. Consequently, the reader absorbs Westover’s memories and experiences as she describes them as an adult in the present. Although the exact date of certain events can be vague in Westover’s memoir, she tells the story of her life chronologically, starting with her memories from when she was 7 years old and tracing them up through the recent past, when she completed her PhD at the age of 27 and began her post-graduate education. Her memories span the years 1993 to 2014, approximately.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide contain instances and discussions of misogyny and physical, emotional, and domestic abuse. The source material contains racial slurs that are not reproduced in this guide.

Plot Summary

The memoir begins with Westover’s memories from her life as a child living with her family in the mountains of Idaho. The family members keep to themselves, spending little time in the nearby town or socializing with friends and neighbors. The only outsiders who come to the Westover house are there for work: to help Westover’s mother, Faye, with her midwifing duties or to work for Westover’s father, Gene, in his junkyard. As a child, Westover helps her mother with her domestic duties until she is old enough, at approximately 11, to work in the junkyard on her father’s crew. During this time, Westover tells stories of her father’s strange mood swings, which often led him to make poor decisions that put the rest of the family in danger. He was also often extremely paranoid and would require the entire family to prepare for the second coming of Christ, which is what Christians believe marks the beginning of the apocalypse.

After the apocalypse did not occur at the turn of the year 2000 like Gene preached that it would, 13-year-old Westover became increasingly interested in finding things to do off of the mountain. Westover gets a job, takes dance classes and piano lessons, and eventually gets involved in local theater productions—a hobby she keeps up until she leaves home for college. She meets other kids her age and, though she does not know how to relate to them because of her family’s unique lifestyle, she becomes interested in fitting in and learning more about “normal life.”

When Westover is 13, her older brother, Shawn, moves home to help her father out at work for a while, and Shawn starts emotionally and physically abusing her. His abuse is all about his power and control as a man; when Westover goes through puberty and begins wearing makeup and showing interest in boys, Shawn’s abusiveness gets even worse. Westover is in denial about the abuse, telling herself that it is her fault. Although both of Westover’s parents witness Shawn’s abusiveness, neither do anything about it. In fact, Gene’s lectures about the whorishness of the women in town and his authoritarian stance on male authority in his household makes Westover even more convinced that what she is experiencing is her own fault.

Westover’s life begins to change when she goes to college at Brigham Young University (BYU) at the age of 17. Although she has an extremely difficult time adjusting to the academic expectations of college and navigating the financial pressures of getting an education, she finds solidarity in new mentors along the way, and they help her apply for grants and even participate in a study abroad program in England. After she gets her bachelor’s degree at BYU, she goes on to pursue a master’s and PhD at Cambridge in England. Westover’s education has expanded her worldview, and she begins to reject her father’s way of seeing the world. This leads to conflict with her family. She finally stands up against Shawn’s abusiveness and calls him and her parents out for allowing his behavior to continue.

In contesting her family’s behavior, Westover becomes an outsider. Her parents do not support or trust someone whose worldview diverges from their own. This sends Westover into a downward spiral; losing her family equates with losing her identity and her home. She nearly fails her PhD and is deeply depressed, but she finds hope when her older brother, Tyler, chooses to support her. The memoir concludes with Westover finding the strength to finish her dissertation and, in the process, finding her way into a new understanding of home and family—one that is healthy for the new person she has become. In the end, Westover believes that education is what freed her to become who she was meant to be.