Educated, the new memoir by Tara Westover, deserves to be read by anyone who is concerned about child abuse and neglect. Born in 1986, Westover tells her story of being raised with her six siblings by a paranoid, bipolar survivalist father and her mother, a midwife and herbalist, in a Mormon community at the foot of a mountain in Idaho.
Westover had no birth certificate until the age of nine. Her parents did not remember her birthday and had to obtain her christening and baptism certificates from Salt Lake City. She had no medical records because she had never seen a doctor or nurse. She got her first vaccinations at the age of 22. Westover never went to school until she entered college at the age of 17. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters working in her father’s junkyard.
Westover’s mother initially attempted to teach her children at home, but by the time Tara reached school age any pretense of home education was gone. One of her brothers taught her to read, but that’s where her education ended. Instead of going to school, Tara became a member of her father’s junkyard crew. On her first day, he threw a steel cylinder into a sorting bin, unaware that she was in the way, hitting her in the stomach. On another occasion he ordered her to get into a bin filled with 2,000 pounds of iron. He then used a massive forklift to raise the bin 25 feet in the air with her in it. She was impaled by an iron spike and thrown some 20 feet to the ground. With a wide gash in her leg her father sent her home so her mother could stop the bleeding with home remedies.
Doctors and hospitals were avoided as tools of Satan, even though the family had an unusual number of severe injuries due to their lifestyle. Westover’s mother suffered a traumatic brain injury when her brother fell asleep at the wheel driving through the night from Arizona. (No member of the family wore seatbelts.) In another overnight driving accident, Tara blacked out and her neck was “frozen” for a month. Her seventeen year old brother received third-degree burns to his leg when he spilled gasoline drained from cars on his jeans, and later lit a cutting torch. Ten-year-old Tara treated him by immersing his leg in a trash can filled of water. His parents debrided the burns with a scalpel and treated his fever and agony with ice and herbs. When Tara had tonsillitis, her father directed her to stand outside with her mouth open for 30 minutes each day.
Westover’s brother “Shawn” (a pseudonym) began to abuse her when she was about 15. When she refused his commands or otherwise displeased him, he would drag her by the hair to the toilet, dunk her head, and twist her wrist until she apologized, breaking it one one occasion. and calling her a whore. This went on for a decade. She later found that he had done the same to her older sister. Westover’s mother witnessed the abuse but later sided with her father in refusing to accept Tara’s account. “Shawn” eventually went on to inflict similar treatment on his wife. Westover is currently estranged from her parents and some of her siblings because she confronted them about her brother’s violence and abuse.
Tara’s older brother Tyler (to whom the book is dedicated), who had been in school before his father withdrew his older children, had escaped to college and encouraged her to follow the same route. He told her about the ACT test, showed her how to access the internet, and completed her application to Brigham Young University (BYU) for her. Tara taught herself algebra and grammar and scored high enough to gain admittance to BYU.
BYU was a new world for Westover. In one of her first lectures on Western art, she asked what the Holocaust was and her teacher and classmates thought she was making an inappropriate joke. Although initially lost and bewildered, her passion for learning enabled her to excel despite having to work multiple jobs to pay for her schooling. Westover graduated from BYU magna cum laude in 2008, receiving “the most outstanding undergraduate” award from the history department. She won a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge University, where she earned her PhD in intellectual history and political thought at the age of 27.
Homeschooling. “Homeschooling” for Tara was first and foremost educational neglect. She was given no formal education and was reliant on a few old textbooks to try to teach herself. It was only her exceptional ability and desire to learn that allowed her to make up for lost ground in college or beyond. “Homeschooling” allowed her to be exploited as a child laborer during school hours, In addition, it deprived her of contact with professionals who might have questioned her various injuries from work and from her brother’s abuse and reported them to the authorities.
Failure to report maltreatment: As in the cases of the Harts and Turpins, nobody reported this family to CPS, even though many family members and residents of their town were aware of the dangerous conditions and educational and medical neglect, if not the abuse, to which these children were subject. Westover’s paternal grandmother argued passionately with her son against his choices to avoid school and medical care. Many members of the community had worked for Westover’s father, been injured and quit or were fired. They were well aware that the children were being forced to work under these conditions instead of going to school. The family attended Mormon church weekly with nearly everyone in the town, and it is inconceivable that other members were unaware of the children’s situation. Westover got to know others in the community by participating in musical theater. She reports that people in the community “reached out to her,” but she never spoke to a social worker or any other person who could really help.
Why did nobody report? The same reluctance to interfere and fear of reprisal that influenced neighbors and family of other maltreated children like the Harts and Turpins probably played a role in this case. But the culture of this particular rural, Mormon community likely made reporting to a government agency unthinkable. Many residents may not even have known that there was an agency to receive such reports. Unfortunately, this type of community is more likely that others to harbor more families living off the grid and failing to meet their children’s fundamental needs.
The key question in the end is this: What, if anything, could be done to save Tara and her siblings from the extreme neglect they all suffered as well as the abuse endured by Tara and her sister? Two possibilities come to mind.
Regulate Homeschooling: There is very little regulation of homeschooling in Idaho,. The state requires that parents who homeschool must provide instruction in “subjects commonly and usually taught in the public schools of Idaho.” However, there are no requirements regarding notification of the relevant authorities, parent qualification, instruction time, bookkeeping, or assessment requirements. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an advocacy group made up of homeschool alumni, recommends that parents be required to provide annual notification of homeschooling, and maintain academic records for each child; students’ academic progress should be evaluated and reported annually and failure to make adequate progress should result in intervention; homeschooled children should meet the same medical and immunization requirements as children who attend public schools; and students should be assessed annually by mandatory reporters. These measures might have protected Westover’s older siblings after they were withdrawn from school. However, someone would have to report the four younger children’s existence to the educational authorities to trigger these protections. Thus, reporting–either to educational or child welfare authorities–becomes crucial
Encourage Mandatory Reporting: To prevent future cases like that of the Hart children, I have recommended universal mandatory reporting accompanied by a robust public information campaign to inform adults about the signs of maltreatment and the obligation to report any reasonable suspicion of maltreatment. But in a small Mormon community like the one where Westover grew up, this many not be enough. Perhaps states like Iowa and Utah could enlist the Mormon church to help promote the message about the importance of reporting abuse and neglect, including educational neglect.
Most people who read Tara Westover’s memoir will marvel at how she managed to escape her deadly background and become an academic superstar and successful writer. But not all children have the strength and gifts Tara had, and she paid a high price in suffering and lifelong scars. So I hope people will also think about how to save future Tara Westovers. It takes a caring community to protect a child whose family is a source of danger instead of protection.