The Perils of the Westover Plan for Home Education 

Tara Westover, author of Educated, will speak in Boise on Wednesday, Feb. 13

At various points in Tara Westover's memoir, Educated (Random House, 2018), she is physically and psychologically abused by her older brother, who has suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries. Her siblings are denied medical treatment for broken bones, severe burns and concussions, and told that penicillin and vaccines will rob them of God's grace.

Tara's parents, Val and LaRee, are fundamentalist members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in the State of Idaho, where much of the action in Educated takes place, the medical neglect she suffers at their hands is perfectly legal under religious exemptions to Gem State child harm laws. For years, appeals to lawmakers to lift those exemptions—to allow people over 18 to decide whether so-called faith-healing is for them instead of having its practices forced on them as children—have not precipitated action.

Educated was one of the hottest new books of 2018, and it's more than the flavor of the week. In it, Tara, who will be in Boise on Wednesday, Feb. 13, as part of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series, tells a harrowing life story of growing up in a household where her father railed against the government and her brother viciously abused her. She yearned to escape, eventually finding some solace in the beauty of the world and the elegance of ideas at a renowned university.

When Tara was a child, herbs were considered "God's pharmacy," and she worked in her father's scrap yard and learned to make tinctures with her mother, but the innocence of youth gave way to terror and neglect when she entered puberty. Her brother "Shawn" (Tara changed the first names of family members in the book) began to harp on her emerging femininity, calling her a "whore" when he discovered her applying makeup, and his increasingly sexualized abuse escalated from there. Her parents turned blind eyes to the situation.

If the Westovers had a family motto, it would be "All's well that ends well." For her headstrong and charismatic father, every success and crisis averted is proof of God's favor, and every failure and cataclysm is a test. His philosophy gives him total control over his family, yet he takes no responsibility when things go wrong.

It's a habit of mind—one of unchallenged power, vindictiveness and mistrust of authority—that extends to the present day. Val and LaRee's lawyer wrote to Haaretz that "An educated person would conclude [from reading Educated] that the Westover home school performed in a way we can only hope public schools could imitate," citing Tara and several other siblings who have obtained doctorates.

Tara has since argued that her achievements have come both because and in spite of how she was raised. The self-reliance and perseverance she learned through the Westover plan for home education got her into college, and surely helped her write a brilliant, heartfelt and illuminating book; but to crib her parents' attorney, no educated person would wish a childhood like hers on their own progeny.


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