Gaslighting, Sibling Abuse, and Seeking Help in Tara Westover's 'Educated'

The power of education goes far beyond a textbook, lecture, or any sort of assessment. In the memoir, Educated, a story of resilience, complex familial relationships, and the plethora of outcomes of choices that any individual makes in their lifetime is beautifully articulated by author, Tara Westover. The magnitude of trauma that Westover faces and eventually overcomes becomes evident gradually throughout the novel, making the story all the more gut-wrenching and fascinating. Starts With Youth aims to raise awareness about intergenerational trauma and breaking the cycle of such trauma, and this novel presents a prime example of the importance of understanding familial trauma and creates a much-needed discourse around understanding how these cycles manifest themselves in reality.

Westover, the youngest of seven, is born into an extremist Mormon family living in rural Idaho. Her father, a radical conspiracy theorist and anti-government individual who sustains the family through scrapping metals, and her mother, a herbal medicine healer and midwife, do not believe in governmental institutions such as hospitals and schools. As such, the descriptions of preventable physical ailments and injuries that every member of the family sustains are often graphic, difficult to read, and often mind-boggling. Gene, her father, is a dominant man in his very presence, and her mother, Faye, is a quiet, submissive figure in the Westovers’ lives. A major focus throughout the memoir is Tara’s relationship with her physically and emotionally abusive older brother, Shawn. As Tara grows older, her desire to go to school and receive an education becomes increasingly prevalent, despite her not having any sort of education - her “homeschooling” was practically non-existent as her parents valued working in the scrapyard above education. Despite this, Tara increasingly tests the boundaries of her existing life, eventually leading her to manage to receive an offer of admission into Brigham Young University. Life at the university shocks and shatters her existing version of reality - she hears the word ‘Holocaust’ for the very first time in her art history course. However, her tenacity and hard work eventually gets her to Cambridge for a fellowship, then to Harvard for another, and finally back to Cambridge to pursue a PhD in history. This story of resilience and success does not discriminate against broken familial relationships, a questioning of individuality, seeking help from others, and several points of internal and external turmoil. Though this book has a tremendous amount of central themes relating to education, mental health, family, and religion, this article will focus on three nuances within the memoir: gaslighting, sibling abuse, and willingness to seek help.


Oxford dictionary defines the phenomenon of gaslighting as, “manipulate(ing) (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” Tara’s memories and beliefs were constantly delegitimized by her family. Towards the end of the novel, Tara realizes that her fathers’ extreme and dangerous beliefs are likely representative of bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia, and despite her prior unquestionable devotion to the wellbeing of her family, she ends up cutting ties with her parents and most of her siblings. She writes, “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.” The language Tara uses more towards the beginning/middle of the novel is very timid, constantly leading her to question her own experiences and feelings. In the first pages of the memoir, she recognizes that she holds the power to distinguish between fact and fiction, and that her power is manifested in the ability to reclaim her memories and stories that were once used as a method to sustain the patriarchal configuration of her family. Thus, a major takeaway from her experiences with gaslighting, is that perhaps the exact intricacies of memories are not as important as the validation of one’s perceived experiences. So, even if Tara has distortions of the memories themselves, the feelings of disappointment, pain, and anger are palpable and valid nonetheless. The novel in its entirety is Taras’ reclamation and validation of these suppressed feelings.

"So, even if Tara has distortions of the memories themselves, the feelings of disappointment, pain, and anger are palpable and valid nonetheless."

Sibling Abuse

In an interview with The Guardian, Tara explains that “in families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth.” So when she finally confides in her parents about the horrible physical and emotional abuse her brother, Shawn, has put her through, their responses are riddled with doubts, hostility, and reducing her to ‘being taken by the devil’. Tara’s parents turned a blind eye towards Shawn's abusive nature as they didn’t want to believe the unthinkable - that their own child was an abuser. The unfortunate reality is that Tara’s parents not believing her is quite common amongst other victims of sibling abuse. More often than not many parents are afraid and ashamed to admit that their own child is capable of doing such things to their sibling. What a victim of abuse needs the most is someone to believe them, and as we have seen from this book, it becomes even more difficult to disclose what is going on when the perpetrator is a family member. If you want to learn more about sibling abuse, see our article here.

Seeking Help

As Tara slowly emerges from her sheltered way of living, she faces several more unexpected barriers that halt her academic and social progress while attending BYU. One of these major barriers is her unwillingness to seek help; whether it be simple social support or professional psychological help. The bottom line is this: seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have been proven to be effective at guiding and aiding clients to overcome their existing struggles. Due to Tara’s upbringing as being radically self-sufficient, it was apparent that using the people around her as a support network was a foreign concept to her. She was in desperate need of financial and mental support, yet did not know how to reach out for it; even shunned it as an option. When she sees a university counseling service pamphlet she thinks; “to see [a counselor] would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette.”

However, later in the memoir, Westover writes: “To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.” Recognizing the error in her ways and taking back the power of her own strength through seeking help and recognizing that asking for help is not weak, it is, in fact, quite the opposite.

If you have read this far and are debating whether or not you should read this book, I'll give you a straightforward answer: YES! It portrays such strength, resilience, and bravery, while also depicting important, often undiscussed topics in a new light.

Watch this video to hear Tara briefly discuss her story!

Written By: Daphna and Dayna