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A Psychologist's Take on Tara Westover's Memoir, Educated

A memoir that asks us to deeply reflect on identity and family.

I finished the book late a few nights ago, having not heard of the book at all only a week prior. Blame my discounted Oprah magazine subscription with its list of top books to read. Beneath a bright image of the book was a small but impactful endorsement of the tale. In fact, I have never picked up any of the books on her list because as a clinical psychologist I get enough secondary trauma in my day job that makes me vigilant about protecting myself during off hours. I also typically am not drawn toward memoirs as a genre. But the notion of a survivalist family was intriguing to me as an Oregonian who is used to hearing terms such as “off the grid” and “anti-establishment” on the regular.

As I combed through Amazon reviews of Educated, I was struck by the controversy as well. Although there has been overwhelming support for the book, there have also been accusations of more fiction than fact. Individuals from all walks of life, both those known to the Westover family and outside of their world completely have weighed in. What has been missed perhaps throughout the dialogue is not just the story of a bright and deeply courageous young woman escaping a lifetime of abuse, but rather a story of identity formation in the face of severe parental mental illness.

In Educated, Westover describes a deeply troubling childhood whose lasting impact simply cannot be denied. Whether the story is exaggerated or not, if even a quarter of what happened to her were true, it would still be deemed highly traumatic, to say the least. The sheer number of times of witnessing burns, bloodied family members, and multiple car crashes is enough to give any individual PTSD.

Add to that a brother who by the account provided in the memoir should in actuality be contacted by Child and Protective Services (CPS). As therapists, we begin each and every intake session with limits to confidentiality, one of which is the knowledge of abuse or neglect of a minor or impaired adult. This has meant that when I was an intern at UC Berkeley’s student counseling center, the mere mention of a father who was previously abusive having current exposure or access to any minors would warrant a phone call to CPS. Furthermore, the threats and violence implied by Westover’s brother Shawn would deem necessary a call to police via California’s famous Tarasoff law, otherwise known as “Duty to Warn.”

Disturbing throughout the book was, of course, Westover’s propensity toward continually revisiting the scene of the crime. The only assurance I had that she was still alive was the fact that the book had been published post hoc. As I retold and read aloud passages of the book to my husband, even he was shocked that Westover allowed herself to be alone with Shawn again and again. He astutely asked me, “Does she have Stockholm Syndrome?” Although I had never considered it, being so absorbed by the memoir, there is a good chance he was absolutely right. There is a bonding that happens between victim and captor and there is no doubt that Tara was the victim to Shawn’s twisted violent and abusive antics.

Appreciated throughout the memoir was Westover’s own inquiry into the possibility of her own “madness” so to speak. Was she imagining things, was her memory to be trusted? Could she find evidence? These are the challenging aspects of her story. While proof is sought out in first-person accounts and inquisition, little proof is needed when examining the psychological ramifications of these events. We need not look further than Westover’s loss of her first love and second significant relationship to see how deeply family issues can invade and destroy future lasting unions. Westover’s own mental breakdowns, accounts of waking up screaming in the streets, of staying in bed all day is not unlike an offshoot of her father’s mental illness sprouting a small seed within her. After all, it is not just genetic predisposition, but also environmental stressors under which severe mental illness develops.

It was disheartening reading about Westover’s first brushes with the pulchritude of Italy juxtaposed with desperate emails and calls from family a world away. The conflict is very real and one that many of us have dealt with—how do we honor our families especially when mental illness causes such deep disruption in our own equanimity? The self-care and boundaries that therapists so frequently tout pertain to the reality that without a full cup of our own, we are only draining away our own vital energies when tending to the needs of others. It is that ubiquitous airplane video of securing our own mask before those of others near us.

Whether fully accurate or only partially so, Educated is a deeply inspiring and thought-provoking read on the fire within each and every one of us to overcome adversity should we fight hard enough for it. As a contemporary of Westover’s (we were born one year apart), I recall a life dotted with far fewer screens and media that encouraged the perusal of texts with pages you could hold in your two hands. As a therapist to young adults, many of whom come from ample privilege, I am struck by how hard some have fought for their education such as Westover, while others waste it away calling all of life beyond their screens a bore.

Stories such as Westover’s remind us of the privilege of education, opportunities, and of the real meaning of diversity. It is not just about gender politics, racial wars, or gun control. It is also ironically about understanding how a small subset of those controlling media outlets hardly shows the full picture of what it means to be an American. The story of the Westovers is just one of many who lived through a recession, in economic hardship, with limited education, and mental illness. In fact, I hardly see it as a story of Mormonism at all, only a subtext that lingers in the background. Fundamentalism occurs throughout many major religions. I am grateful that such stories are being published as they are the stories that need to be heard. While Educated is heart-wrenching at times, there are also incredibly tender moments of a brother leaving behind a beloved choir music CD for a sister, and her studying at a borrowed desk working toward her education. It is a story that encourages profound reflection in each of us as to how we become who we are once we step outside the shadows of family.