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Tara Westover and the Contradictions Which Allowed Her to Write a NYT Bestseller

4 ¼ min

Human beings love a good rags-to-riches story. As proof of this, consider the enduring popularity of the fairy tale ‘Cinderella.’

In recent years, Americans have put their own unique twist on this genre: the memoirs of people who achieved success after escaping the white working class. Famous examples include The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

A dubious addition to this canon is 2018’s Educated by Tara Westover which hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Months later, it is still holding on at #2 behind Becoming by Michelle Obama.

Westover tells the story of her upbringing in a strict Mormon, survivalist family in Idaho. She did not grow up in physical poverty of the kind Jeanette Walls describes in The Glass Castle. Rather, Westover believes she was raised in intellectual poverty, claiming she received next-to-no education. However, as a teenager she studied on her own, was accepted to college, and later earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge University and completed a fellowship at Harvard.

Westover seems to have carefully selected the elements of her upbringing that will make her family appear backwards. By the time she wrote Educated, she had already spent years moving in elite liberal circles. She clearly figured out exactly which buttons to push:

  • Her family doesn’t go to normal doctors.
  • They don’t believe in formal schooling.
  • They own guns. Lots of them.
  • They worry the government will come after them.

Her family is the embodiment of Barack Obama’s infamous 2008 comments about people who are “bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them….” Given this, perhaps it is not surprising that Obama himself publicly praised Educated as a “remarkable memoir.”

Westover dwells on embarrassing details like the fact that she wasn’t taught to wash her hands after using the bathroom. She speculates that her father has undiagnosed bipolar disorder. (Despite all her degrees, she hasn’t learned that most people believe their parents are insane.)

She is honest about being raised Mormon but frames her upbringing as more broadly Christian. She makes a lot of vague references to reading the Bible and attending church. She describes how her family is always stockpiling supplies for when the world ends, but she doesn’t explain that this is a significant tenet of Mormon theology. She writes about attending counseling sessions with the “Bishop” of her church. That’s a job title that’s used in many denominations and can mean vastly different things. But Westover does not elucidate what role a “Bishop” plays in Mormonism.
Westover’s downplaying of the explicitly Mormon elements of her family’s religious beliefs seems like another attempt to score points with her liberal readership. This way they can associate the backwards Westover family with their crazy Baptist cousins or their eccentric Catholic uncle.

Educated is also full of contradictions. Her mother was – gasp! – an unlicensed midwife. Westover says her family believed drugs provided by hospitals were “an abomination to God.” Yet she also writes that once - when a delivery her mother was attending started to go wrong - her mother personally drove the woman in labor to the hospital.

The biggest contradiction of all is Westover’s constant bemoaning of the fact that she never attended school as a child. Her subsequent academic success proves that either her education at home was far more substantial than she admits or that grade school education is unnecessary.

Westover writes, “I’d learned to read and write by reading only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” That sounds like a pretty good education. Millions of students across America are basically illiterate, yet she was reading the most influential book in human history, the Bible, and also working her way through heavy 19th century texts.

Westover has six older siblings, and two of them earned Ph.D.s just like she did. That does not square with her depiction of a family that despises book learning.

She recounts how she confessed to an eminent professor at Cambridge University that she never attended school. His response was, “How marvelous. It’s as if I’ve stepped into Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion.’” If he isn’t bothered, why should she be?

Westover’s parents could have dumped her in the sausage grinder of their local public school. She seems to believe that is exactly what they should have done. She refuses to admit that if they had taken the conventional path, she would not be where she is today: an academic with impressive credentials and the author of a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Perhaps a little gratitude to her parents is in order. Sadly, it does not seem to be forthcoming.


[Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Emma Freire

Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a writer living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She has also been published in The Federalist and The American Conservative.

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I just finished reading the memoir and wonder if we read the same book! You must not believe anything she wrote was true to make the assumptions you assert.


Re wanting Tara Westover to be grateful: either you didn’t read the book and are commenting on something you know nothing about, or you read the book and feel comfortable ignoring the many, many instances of her parents’ abuse and carelessness. Which is it?


Clueless review. Stick to your day job.


Wow! Do you have some sort of vendetta against Tara? This is astonishing. Did you read the book? Her parents were both abusive and allowed their son to abuse her and her older sister. They deserve nothing, especially gratitude. All of the "contradictions" you speak of, or, well, the one contradiction is laughable at best. You should perhaps find a different line of work. This is not your calling.


Amazing how a true success story is politicized in this article. “... However, as a teenager she studied on her own, was accepted to college, and later earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge University and completed a fellowship at Harvard.” Why is this glossed over? It is the entire theme of the book. As if this is something that most people accomplish during their life. Westover struggles with the belief system she was taught throughout the entirety of her story. She does not make fun of her mother being a midwife (“gasp?”). In fact, imo, she is constantly trying to understand how a family that preaches about “family” had no qualms about disowning their own children, allowed their children to physically and mentally abuse their siblings without a second thought. Love how Westover is depicted as some bratty, ungrateful child in this article. Anyone, especially a woman, should be lifted up and admired for these accomplishments, not knocked around. 1. She was not “home-schooled.” She and her siblings were put to work their asses off for nothing. 2. These “parents” didn’t appear to do much parenting and did not protect their children (except Shaun, for some bizarre reason. Perhaps his psychotic behavior scares them. 3. The mother was a weak woman, who chose her husband over kids and was a charlatan who had no problem taking $$$ from the sinners and whores who ruined America. 4. In the end, this book has an all too common theme. Kids being brought into this world by parents who showed zero love, ruled by fear and the same kids spending their lives trying to figure out what they have to do to make their parents love them. 5. Her “prophetic” father pretty much failed at everything he did, was a miserable person, who ended up taking over the only thing he didn’t help create - his wife’s business. (Wasn’t a woman’s place I the home?)