Book Review – EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by TARA WESTOVER – A Sensitive Story of a Journey From Isolation to a PhD

Today, at 32, Tara Westover lives in London, England, has a PhD in history from Cambridge University and has been a visiting fellow at Harvard University. But, she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 and had never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement. She grew up without a birth certificate and had never been to a doctor.

Westover is the seventh and youngest child of fundamentalist Mormon survivalists in rural Idaho. Her father (who she gives the pseudonym Gene in the book) wanted to keep the family off the grid and out of the grips of the “Illuminati” who he thinks controlls the government, the schools and the medical establishment.

U.S. cover

He stockpiled food, fuel and guns for the approaching End of Days. “I [grew] up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood,” Westover writes in her harrowing new memoir Educated.

Her mother (Faye in the book) was an herbalist who later got into homeopathic healing with “energy work” and essential oils. The family kitchen was crowded with jars of potions made from lobelia, blue vervain, skullcap, cohosh and other herbs to treat everything from cramps to cancer. Faye was also an unlicensed midwife.

Westover’s parent’s believed that Faye’s healing powers were a gift from God and that those who “whored after” doctors and pills were infidels. They also thought that school would only brainwash their children and chose to keep them home instead.

UK and Canada cover

Her parents claimed that they were homeschooling the children but Westover doesn’t remember any actual lessons. Instead, she and her siblings were put to work, first helping Faye mix her potions and salves and later working in Gene’s scrapyard where accidents were common due to Gene’s impatience and disregard for safety measures.

Fingers were lost and limbs gashed; one of Tara’s brothers fell on his head from a 12 foot height onto a pile of rebar; another brother had his leg horribly burned and Gene himself was burned all over his body leaving his face and hands permanently disfigured.

On top of this there were car accidents, truck accidents, a motorcycle accident. All with no doctors or hospitals, just Faye’s elixirs and ointments. Tara was also physically assaulted for years by a violent older brother.

Westover tells this part of the story with grace and without judgement. Her childhood was without doubt unusual, but to her it was the only reality she knew. The community the Westovers lived in was Mormon and conservative and to Tara her father’s extreme views were merely a more devout extension of the Church’s teaching, rather than a radical theology of his own. She internalized his worldview and didn’t doubt his righteousness.

She also writes lovingly about the rural landscape of her childhood growing up on the slopes of Buck Peak. Her love of nature and respect for its power contributed to her sense of self-assurance and ability to persevere.

Buck Peak

She assumed that her fate was to be married in her teens and to settle down to a life just like her parents’, as some of her siblings had done. But her brother Tyler, who had managed to get accepted to Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution in Provo, Utah, encouraged her to study for the entrance exam.

She was accepted and began university at 17 without knowing how to take a test, write an essay or even what a textbook was for. (Previously the only books she had read were The Bible and The Book of Mormon.) She was also scandalized by her fellow Mormon classmates’ lack of modesty and consumption of Diet Coke, which she thought was forbidden by the Church.

The last third of the book retells her painful move away from her family and their world as she makes her way as an academic. Her parents believe her to be possessed by Satan or insane and when she tries to get them to accept her brother’s abuse of her and her sister they call her a liar.


Westover’s parents (whose real names I quickly discovered on the Internet are Val and LaRee Westover) have disputed her version of events through a statement by their lawyer, but don’t offer any alternatives. The Westovers are also no longer poor. They own a company called Butterfly Express Essential Oils, with 30 employees and $4 million dollars in annual revenue. LaRee has also written four books on essential oils and I found her series of holistic healing videos on YouTube.

Westover’s story is still completely believable. In the book she alludes to her parents’ change in fortunes, and does mention that two of her brothers also went on to university and earned PhDs. In their lawyer’s statement her parents claim that three PhDs out of seven children vindicates their childrearing methods, but I can’t help thinking that, like Westover, her brothers’ success came despite rather than because of their upbringing.

Educated is a sensitive, beautifully written book that is full of heartbreak at Westover’s rupture with her parents. It is also honest and in many ways a meditation on memories and how different people can remember the same event in conflicting ways.

In the end, Westover holds to what she believes to be true and accepts the person her past has made her into without shame. It is sometimes a difficult read, but it is also full of joy and humour and above all humanity.

Educated by Tara Westover, Random House Penguin (US)
Hutchinson (UK) HarperCollins (Canada) 352pp

9 Replies to “Book Review – EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by TARA WESTOVER – A Sensitive Story of a Journey From Isolation to a PhD”

    1. Thanks. Judgment is more predominant, but judgement is also accepted by most dictionaries it seems. I’mean not a great speller and rely a lot on Spell Check, which accepted judgement. So, it’seems a big tent I guesse.


  1. I agree with your take on the book and the sadly paranoid views of her parents. Her mother, ironically a spiritual healer, did irreparable damage to most of her children by allowing her husband and one child to bully other family members emotionally and physically, including herself. This was definitely a story of a family’s very conditional views of love and acceptance and their attempts to stifle the desire to explore the world beyond Mormonism. Just proves once again that extremism of any kind produces a warped sense of reality that wounds rather than protects. Being raised by zealots is not something any sane person would wish on a child. So happy that at least three managed to get an education in spite of their parents’ ignorant claims that their style of “homeschooling” was effective. Really? What about the other four who have no education to speak of and have done very little with their lives except work for their parents? A frustrating but very interesting peek at a very dysfunctional family and the hard road to save oneself from their insanity.


  2. I eagerly looked forward to reading this book by Tara Westover, expecting it to be a ‘Coming of Age’ story in an isolated and rural area. I was quite disappointed when it turned out to be little more than a hateful expose of her family. Tara has a Ph.D., however her education lacks wisdom and maturity. A ‘learned’ person does not advance in life on the backs of others. If Tara had unresolved issues, there were other routes to take that would not have involved public shaming. If she had been abused by family members, she could have gone through the courts. I speak with some knowledge of rural beginnings, earning a Phd, and childhood trauma. However, I did not resort to a public shaming of my family. I do hope that,at some point, this woman recognizes her actions as not those of a learned person, but rather those of one who has not yet embraced maturity and wisdom.


  3. Hi, Norm. Just a few thoughts here that are a bit ancillary to the meaning of the book, but important regarding the accurate portrayal of Mormonism. Most importantly, as Westover clearly indicates (implicitly in the book, and explicitly in interviews given after its publication), her family is in no way representative of Mormonism. Their eccentricities are rooted in their survivalist beliefs, not their Mormon beliefs. They are no more representative of Mormons than terrorists are of Muslims (something Westover alludes to in the book).

    Also, of minor importance, BYU is not located in Salt Lake City, but 30 miles south in a city called Provo. Mormons also are not forbidden from drinking Diet Coke or caffeinated products in general (a common misconception). The Westover family’s determination not to drink Diet Coke was due to their extreme and incorrect interpretation of a code of health lived by Mormons that instructs that they should not consume alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea.


    1. Thanks for the corrections, Mike. I made some changes to my review to reflect them. I know that Westover’s father’s views are out of sync with mainstream Mormonism. I’ve met and worked with a lot of Mormons in the publishing business and they all placed great importance on education and learning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s