Editor’s note: The following article discusses allegations of child abuse. Those seeking resources or help concerning child abuse or neglect can contact the Division of Child and Family Services, including through an intake hotline at1-855-323-3237.
The first the Westover family saw of the book that would rip apart their lives was a copy of the manuscript, left anonymously one night on the seat of a family truck.
The Westovers had heard talk, enough to dread what was written about them — horrific stories of abuse, sibling-on-sibling violence, primitive homeopathic remedies for life-threatening accidents, scathing harangues from an end-of-days father, a doormat mother who failed to protect her young.
Within months of publication in 2018, the fame of the book “Educated” would spread around the world — eight million copies sold, in 45 languages and a spot on all the major “best-of” lists. Barack Obama and Bill Gates would declare it among their favorites that year. Soon there would be scarcely a literary circle or neighborhood book club that wasn’t buzzing about first-time author Tara Westover.
She was the child who survived abuse and neglect in the remote mountains of southern Idaho, who scrabbled her way out of nonexistent “home schooling” to BYU, to Cambridge, to Harvard, to a doctoral degree to a book on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years, to gripping interviews with Oprah and Ellen.
And then there is the rest of the sprawling Westover family, many of whom don’t recognize themselves on the pages of the manuscript that was dropped off anonymously. The family agreed to let me visit their home in Clifton, Idaho, to share the stories they say lead to a house still divided nearly five years to the day that the book made its debut. Family stories, of course, are complicated — and they are also heartrending when trauma or allegations of abuse are involved.
Such circumstances often lead to long-term estrangement. And nearly 1 in 4 American adults today say they are either not speaking with a family member or have a family member who refuses to speak with them, according to a recent Deseret News/Harris-X survey. Other data indicate 40% of people will experience some form of family estrangement during their lifetime. I drove to Clifton, Idaho, to document the kind of tragedies which precede estrangement, but I also wanted to understand whether reconciliation is still possible.
Tara’s story is artfully told and unrelentingly horrific. The youngest in the family, Tara says she was beaten and terrorized by her older brother (identified by the pseudonym Shawn in the book), who dragged her by the hair, choked her, twisted her limbs and verbally assaulted her while her parents turned a blind eye. She worked the family business — a dangerous scrap salvage yard where the children dodged metal and teetered perilously on beams and forklifts. Her father Val repeatedly put the family at risk. Serious injuries were common. Mother LaRee treated their frequent burns, breaks and lacerations with oils, tinctures and salves.
Val raised the children on frightening tales of the federal raid on Ruby Ridge, and had them fill bug-out bags for the promised day when armed SWAT teams would come for them, too. The family eschewed birth certificates, driver’s licenses, insurance and anything else that might leave a paper trail for the government. They lived off the grid in a remote area beneath Buck’s Peak, near Clifton, 12 miles from the nearest small city of Preston.
Val rarely allowed Tara time to study from books other than religious texts. Tara applied to college against her father’s will, although he put on a good face when she was admitted, “It proves one thing at least,” he said, according to the book. “Our home school is as good as any public education.”She was 17 when she went to Brigham Young University, and said she was unprepared for a world where fellow Latter-day Saints owned running shorts and imbibed caffeinated sodas.
Timid and confused, she humiliated herself in class when she didn’t know what the Holocaust was. She also didn’t understand fractions, let alone algebra, and she didn’t know what “biology” meant before she registered for a class in it. And yet, professors saw potential in her. One remembers her “tenacity and intellectual drive” and openness to “new perspectives.” They persuaded her to do a BYU semester in England at Cambridge University where Tara was ashamed of her shabby clothes. She buried herself in her studies and excelled. After graduation, she won a prestigious Gates Foundation Scholarship to return to Cambridge for graduate studies, and then went to Harvard. She eventually returned to Cambridge to complete a doctoral degree in intellectual history.Each time Tara returned home to Idaho for school breaks, she describes being thrown back into the dark world of sibling violence and work on the perilous scrap heap.
But that’s not the story her parents Val and LaRee tell me during some eight hours of interviews and additional correspondence. When LaRee gives directions on how to get to the family residence she adds sardonically, “You don’t need four-wheel drive.” Come to find out, their home, on the land where they have lived for more than 40 years, is neither very remote nor on a mountain. It’s on the main road through Clifton. A large sign points the way to “Butterfly Express,” their essential oils business located in the same building as their family home.
LaRee teaches classes there in foot-zone therapy and “holistic healing” methods. Val runs the retail side of the business with an inventory of essential oils and herbs spread around a labyrinthine underground warehouse. Their business is so prominent in the small town that the Postal Service — a wing of the federal government Val seems to accept — begins its rounds each day at their company’s loading dock.
There is little trace of the scrap yard or the isolationist artifacts of Tara’s youth. Yes, Val and LaRee still mistrust the government. The Westovers store food for the lean times, but their storage room has a 12-inch reinforced concrete ceiling. They also say they pay taxes and employ accountants and lawyers who’ve helped them divide their business into several LLCs to satisfy Food and Drug Administration requirements.
The living room of the Westover home is a cavernous space enclosed by windows, with vaulted ceilings, religious art and enough sofas and recliners scattered around to regularly envelop dozens of grandchildren. They may hold the Idaho record for Christmas stockings hung in a single home.Val rarely sits. He talks about his daughter’s book, but only in spurts, moving in and out of the interview like a man with too much to do and his clock is running down. He answers questions but prefers to leave the talking to “The Boss,” his wife, LaRee.
Too many times to count in the day, Val comes in from the snow-packed driveway that encircles the large house, sheds his coat and muddy boots at the door and hurries about in his stocking feet. He welcomes visitors and tends to company business, pausing to put a casserole in the oven for anyone who might be around come lunchtime. He makes the casserole himself from a pumpkin the size of a washtub that he got from their garden.
But, in “Educated,” this slightly built man — he stands about 5-feet 9-inches tall — is the towering shadow, who calls the teenaged Tara a “whore” when she rolls up her sleeves on a hot day or wears a dance recital outfit that shows too much leg. This is the same man, by Tara’s account, who lectures his children on the evils of higher education, despite having attended Utah State University. The institutions were dominated by “Illuminati spies” on “the devil’s payroll,” a place where people go who are “too dumb to learn the first time around.”
That Val is apparently not the person his employees know today. “The nicest man ever,” says Jenn Cox, who has worked for their business, Butterfly Express, for some eight years. “He would do anything for anybody.”
Traci Boyce is on her second round of working for the Westovers. Val fired her the first time when she was late nearly every day for four years. “I had a lot of issues with my addiction,” Traci says. A recent graduate from rehab, she moved back to Clifton to get her life in order. She bumped into Val at church; he inquired about her and then, to her surprise, offered her a job again.
Traci knew Tara as a child and says Tara came to her home several years ago, inexplicably asking questions about life in Clifton and home-schooling. Traci didn’t know then that Tara was writing a book. She hasn’t read “Educated,” but she knows the gist of it. And she knows trauma intimately. She also knows what it’s like to be homeless and to be in jail, to come from a dysfunctional family (some members of her family are also recovering addicts).
“I would just tell (Tara) that I love her family,” she says.
Then, looking around the big room where the extended Westover clan has gathered, she becomes emotional and makes a stunning admission. “I envy how she grew up.”
“Educated” is one in a long line of autobiographies variously referred to as confessionals. Mary’s Karr’s memoir “The Liar’s Club” is often cited as the trailblazer in the genre. And in 2015, Karr also published the book “The Art of Memoir” — a how-to writing guide of sorts. A relative familiar with Tara Westover’s writing process claims Tara took her cue from Karr as an example of how to tell a story of childhood abuse. Westover wouldn’t be alone.The fingerprints of Karr’s work can be found in “The Color of Water” by James McBride;“A Child Called ‘It’” by Dave Pelzer; “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt; “The Kiss” by Kathryn Harrison; “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls; “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed; “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, and more.
These compelling, shocking and horrifying tales often become the staple of book clubs, read predominantly by women and tapping into a growing concern for the rights and welfare of children. Some fall into the class of celebrity memoir entwined with voyeuristic family drama, the most recent entry in that category being “Spare” by Prince Harry.
The stories are true stories. They are not fiction.
And that’s why they’re so compelling to read. But more than a few have also been controversial or outed as outright hoaxes. “A Million Little Pieces,” an addiction memoir by James Frey, came to an embarrassing confessional end on “Oprah.” Frey admitted that he had originally pitched his book as a novel, and then sold it as memoir. And then there’s “Love and Consequences” by Margaret B. Jones about an Indian foster child growing up with Los Angeles gangbangers. “Jones” turned out to be Margaret Seltzer who grew up a privileged white girl in Sherman Oaks. Or, “Go Ask Alice,” the first of a series by Beatrice Sparks, a therapist based in Logan, Utah, who wrote memoirs allegedly from her case files or discovered diaries written by troubled teens.
There is an important line between a hoax and a true memoir. But true memoirs are also sometimes murky. An author’s memories collide with the experiences of family drama and abuse. A memoir isn’t about objectivity — it’s one person’s subjective experience. But Tara Westover — like Prince Harry, in a way — stands out in the memoir genre for accusing family members who are very much still alive. And the Westover family stands out for the fact that Tara’s mother, LaRee, decided to publish her own memoir, with the in-your-face title “Educating,” aimed at telling her side of things.
San Francisco psychiatrist Joshua Coleman, author of several books and studies on parenting adult children and family estrangement, told me that abused children today have more avenues to discover their stories than in prior generations:“There are many more ways for children to look back on their childhoods and, rightly or wrongly, accuse their parents of abuse or harm, or neglect or trauma. And that includes not only through therapists, but also self-help books, online forums, and TikTok influencers and Instagram posts, and the like. So the ability for the adult child to weigh in as a kind of social authority that they wouldn’t have had in the past — it’s far greater today than it’s ever been.”
Westover’s extended family is large, and the local community is tiny. And just about everyone has a version of the facts. There are family members who assert their own memories. There are friends who admit they don’t know everything, but express doubts about what’s described. And then there is Tara’s mother. The titles of Tara’s and LaRee’s memoirs play on the theme of home schooling — Tara’s being her journey from what she claims was an afterthought home school to a doctoral degree, and LaRee’s, claiming to have built a rigorous foundation at home for not one but three children with doctorates.
Did these children obtain doctorates in spite of their parents or because of their parents? Was the Westover home a nurturing environment where seven children thrived intellectually, or was it a house of horrors?
It is a realm where concepts of truth and memory coexist without ever seeming to fully coalesce.
Today, LaRee is clearly “The Boss” in this family, rarely letting Val finish a sentence, quick to interject motherly pride for her seven children, extolling the virtues of the passions spelled out in her book — natural healing, midwifery, homeschooling — and asserting her version of events. Which ultimately is what every memoir boils down to — a version of events.
In the Val and LaRee Westover story, their life raising seven children revolved around family, education, hard work and faith. The children had part-time jobs and busy social lives and joined in community theater productions (a source remembers as a child being in awe of Tara who played the lead in a local production of “Annie”). As teenagers, Tara and her brother Richard were a popular singing duet around their valley. Tara took dance and voice lessons and won local awards for her singing. LaRee says she scrounged thrift stores to build costumes for Tara’s performances. LaRee also claims it was her, not Val, who demanded modest costumes for Tara’s entire dance company to fit the family’s standards.
But did Val ever call Tara a “whore” because of those costumes? LaRee jumps in to answer the question with a firm, “No.”Val is more circumspect. “I have no recollection, but I’m not perfect. And I made mistakes, and my memories are not perfect,” he admits. He describes a tempestuous relationship with his own mother when he was a teenager. “As I got kids of my own, I realized some of the mistakes that I’d made, felt sorry and, you know, tried to mend the fences and apologize.” Here Val’s voice cracks as he talks about his still estranged daughter. “Well, I’m still apologizing, and I’m still repenting, because at 70 years old, I’m still learning. I’m still appreciating and being grateful. And the things that bothered me and troubled me were such incidental non-issue things.”
Tara was the youngest of seven children, and by her mother’s account, the prettiest. She loved girly clothes, makeup and new shoes. She was not academically inclined, and preferred her music to studies. She was outspoken among her older siblings and usually got her way, according to her sister Valaree.
Tara spent one summer working for Blake Atkin, the family’s attorney. She was training as a paralegal, and pushed her ideas in the office. Atkin described her as smart, articulate and strong-willed. “If anybody had a good, solid basis to jump off of when they started becoming an adult, she did,” Akin says.
In “Educated,” Tara describes a moment when she was failing her classes at BYU and running out of money. She called home and unloaded her worries on Val. “It’ll be OK, honey,” he unexpectedly responded. “Maybe I can help with the money. We’ll figure it out. Just be happy, OK?”It was a soft moment between father and daughter that soon passed for Tara.
“I knew it wouldn’t last, that the next time we spoke everything would be different,” Tara wrote. Later as she studied brain chemistry in a psychology class, she began to suspect that her father was bipolar. Laree acknowledges that her husband has experienced health problems but takes issue with Tara’s armchair diagnosis.
The Westovers’ homeopathic remedies go beyond a bottle of lavender oil in the medicine chest. When Val and his son Luke were severely burned in separate gasoline fires in the scrap yard, LaRee and the family spent days and weeks treating them round the clock with oils and tinctures, claiming to have healed even Val’s singed lungs. Neither went to a hospital. They show few visible signs of scarring, although Luke hikes up a pant leg to show me the little scarring that does remain.
A table in the living room is scattered with religious books — a Bible and deep-dive commentaries on the Old Testament, because Val and LaRee co-teach an adult Sunday School class. In their religious studies they are different but perhaps only by degrees. There are more intense discussions around the dinner table, with slightly more apocalyptic interpretations of scripture.
The family has long been a fixture in their local congregation, even if they admittedly toe a more extreme line than other congregants. When Tara’s book hit the stands, LaRee noticed on Sundays some folks in their pew might slide away. But after five years that attention has died down, they say.
The angry calls to the family business have also tapered off. Today they see far fewer strangers wandering around their property, peeking in the windows or coming to the door wanting to tour the scene of “Educated.” (Employee Jenn Cox said she often obliged, giving the curious tours of the company if they asked.) Butterfly Express has also recovered from the initial hit to its bottom line. Nowadays there are also fewer hostile Facebook messages about the company and confrontations at trade shows. Students from nearby BYU-Idaho no longer study “Educated” in their English curriculum, or at least LaRee doesn’t hear as much about homework essays involving their family.
Family friend Theron Jensen says that, “Generally, everybody seems to appreciate the Westovers for what they do and who they are.” Jensen is friends with Tara’s brother, Shawn, the alleged perpetrator of the most terrifying violence in “Educated.” Both Tara and Shawn declined multiple requests for interviews.
“I’ve read the book, so I understand the allegations,” says Jensen. Could there be a dark side to his friend? “Certainly. I mean, there’s a dark side to all of us, I suspect in some sense.” But the Shawn he knows is patient, even when dealing with children. If there’s anger or impatience, he says, “I’ve not seen it.”
When I ask, Val and LaRee avoid direct responses to questions about Shawn’s history. LaRee bristles at accusations by others that she would protect her son at the expense of her daughter. They are eager to share stories of the young Shawn who stood up for the little guy, and the adult Shawn who helps his neighbors. That’s the Shawn who told his mother after Tara’s book was published, “There was a time when I’d have given my life for Tara. I can’t do that now. I’ve got a wife and kids and responsibilities. But if you ever need anything for her, you can talk to me.”
But what about the Shawn who allegedly terrorized his little sister? Tara speculates that Shawn’s two severe head injuries — the first from a fall while working with his father and the second from a motorcycle accident — intensified what she claims was his volatile personality. LaRee prefers to think that the brain damage softened and mellowed her son. After the first accident, when Tara learned Shawn was calling her name from his hospital delirium, she hesitated to visit. She wrote that she was “afraid that if he died, I might be glad.” But she soon quit her job to sit by her brother’s bedside day and night while he recovered. After the motorcycle injury, Tara was the one who rushed Shawn to the hospital, even though her father wanted him brought home for LaRee’s natural remedies.
Tara’s terrifying nadir in “Educated” comes one night on a visit home from Cambridge. She writes that Shawn takes her for a ride in his truck, pulls into a parking lot and darkly accuses her: “You talk too much to Audrey.” (Tara’s pseudonym in “Educated” for her older sister Valaree.) Tara had begun to suspect that Valaree had also suffered abuse from Shawn. “I’d put a bullet in her head,” Shawn continues, “But I don’t want to waste a good bullet.”
What followed is retold in three different versions, from Tara, her parents and their lawyer Blake Atkin. According to Tara, when she got home that night she told her parents that Shawn had threatened Valaree. Her parents summoned Shawn to the house to account for himself. Tara sat in wordless fear as Shawn arrived, crossed the room to her, placed a small bloody knife in her hand and said, “If you’re smart … you’ll use this on yourself. Because it will be better than what I’ll do to you if you don’t.”
Val and LaRee remember it differently — that Tara was tongue-tied. They brought Shawn over to clear the air. Shawn was devastated, and Tara claimed not to have any memories of Shawn’s violent treatment of her over the years until a therapist suggested she was suppressing something. “I couldn’t get her to give me any details,” recalls Val. “I maybe could have handled it differently, better. It was not an easy experience.”
Believing in that moment that her parents would not take her side, Tara fled the house as soon as she could. Driving away, she passed the trailer where Shawn lived, and saw, lying in the snow, the bloody dead body of his German shepherd. “After Dad had called, Shawn had stepped outside and slashed the dog to death,” she wrote in “Educated.” Others in the family claimed, according to the book, that the dog had to be put down because it was killing chickens.
What Tara didn’t know, and her parents didn’t share, was that they quickly called their lawyer after these events. When Atkin arrived at the house that night, Val and LaRee asked if they should call the police. After listening to their version of the encounter, he said, no. “The facts didn’t bear it out,” he said. Tara was already gone, so Atkin did not hear her side of the story, and what he later read in her book was more graphic.
Tara’s sister Valaree recalls what she claims was “the first time (Tara) told me what she was starting to think and believe.” The two sisters had spent a day snowboarding near Salt Lake City and Tara raised the issue in the car on the way home. After that conversation Valaree set boundaries, refusing to talk to Tara in person without witnesses present, limiting herself to email exchanges so her words would not be misconstrued. “She told me I was treating her like she was dangerous,” Valaree says. “And then years later I looked back on that night and thought, I wish I’d had any idea how dangerous you were.” The “danger” is what Valaree sees as an attempt to divide and destroy the family.
For a time, Valaree’s relationship with her brother Shawn was inexplicably “distant.” Then she figured out that Shawn thought she had joined Tara’s camp in the family divide. The sisters have not spoken for several years. Valaree says, “If she were to show up at my house, my response would be, ‘Go home. You can’t mend your relationships with your siblings until you mend your relationships with your parents.’”
In every conversation with the Westover family and friends, they acknowledge that memory is personal and sometimes squishy. For example, Tara’s sister Valaree is generous in her assessment of memory. “We store memories differently. I don’t care how many versions of the story you get, you’re never going to get the whole truth.”But there’s little doubt that there is family trauma and deeply fractured relationships. And nearly everyone I spoke with leaves room for the possibility that the Westovers they know today are not the family of Tara’s youth.
In her how-to book, “The Art of Memoir,” Mary Karr says every memoirist is looking through their own lens of memory. In writing “Liars’ Club,” she made her family virtual collaborators in the process, benefitting from the fact that they freely owned up to what a mess their home had been. She sent her manuscripts to friends and family for prior review, because, she writes, “I often barely believe myself, for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions.”
In a lecture at Utah Valley University in 2020, Tara acknowledged a place for her family’s memories: “My version doesn’t have to be the only version, and I’m really comfortable with the idea that there are other ways of looking at it. But I think part of respecting yourself, actually, and your ability to have your own ideas, is respecting other people’s right for the same.”
In abuse memoirs, truth and memory are twins from different mothers. “Debates about truth and lies are fundamentally irresolvable,” writes Kate Douglas in her book “Contesting Childhood,” an academic look at the genre. Notably, Tara is careful in “Educated” to point out some instances when her memory differs from others, sometimes giving several versions of a traumatic event. Examining many childhood memoirs, Douglas’ book looks at such questions as whether the authors have a right to out their families, and how graphic the tales should be.
Do critics add to the victim’s trauma if they question the story? Is the reader a voyeur or an empathetic fellow traveler? Is it a fair fight between a mentally ill, or alcoholic or addicted parent and an articulate adult author? Is it profit driven? Is it a fad? According to Douglas, some authors are motivated by a quest for justice when the system has failed them. Or they want to break the code of silence imposed on them as children. Or they want to raise community awareness of child abuse. Or they want to show how a victim can triumph over tragedy.
Tara Westover did not answer a list of emailed questions, including about her motivation for writing. By the title, and in subsequent published interviews, that motivation, in part, appears to be the current state of education, specifically the role of the family and the child. The book has been a jumping-off point for Tara to talk about that in academic circles, but it’s the graphic child abuse that most often sticks with average readers of “Educated.”
The books in this genre make the bestseller lists, but are rarely praised as enduring literary classics. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Mary Karr candidly called the genre “trashy,” “primitive” and “outsider art.” But if sales are any indication, it fills a real need for readers: “I think as fiction has become more hyperintellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people, hungry for the real — for real, lived experience — have been forced to migrate to memoir,” Karr said.
The battle lines in the large Westover family are not always clearly drawn. Four of the seven children work for the family business; three do not. The two others with doctorates in the family are Tyler, a senior scientist and engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory, and Richard, an engineer for Intel Corp. in Portland. Both have remained close to their parents, and also to Tara.
When “Educated” was first published, both brothers spoke up for Tara’s story in varying degrees in online book reviews. Tyler wrote that Tara may have “misunderstood” some things, but there was truth in her memoir. “Our parents are extremists, and they and other members of our family have done terrible things that have hurt Tara. There is no doubt there was abuse, neglect and other awful choices.” But he adds, “I was removed quite far from the family when most of those events took place, and for the most part they are not entirely clear in my mind.”
Tyler’s wife Stephanie responded in an email for this story, “As a therapist and a member of the Westover family, I am disappointed that LaRee is still taking steps to discredit her daughter. … It’s not easy for a family to confront the past and choose healing, but it is possible. Val and LaRee were given many opportunities to protect their daughter. Instead, they have chosen to discredit her and protect themselves. They are still choosing that.”
In an online review forum for “Educated,” Richard wrote that the family relationship is more “complicated” than the book portrays. “Tara is doing the best she can with what she knows and I give her kudos as well for that.”He concluded “To you, it is a book and it is cheap to rant about it. To me, it is my life and I am still living it.”
To call this family story “complicated” is an understatement. Some of the siblings have not read “Educated.” A few are still in touch with Tara. All keep contact with their parents to some degree, including Tara, but by email but not face-to-face.
For Val and LaRee, reconciliation would mean that Tara would “come home,” not to stay, but to be part of the family again.Attorney Atkin advised them to sue Tara for defamation when “Educated” was published, but they refused. He says they told him, “If we do that we will probably lose our daughter permanently.”He adds, “And they were probably right about that. There were a couple of times when reporters would call me, and my instruction from (Val and LaRee) was always, ‘Don’t say anything bad about Tara. Don’t do anything that might make it hard for her to someday come back home.’”
Can this family heal from the damage? “I think we’re all OK, except for Tara,” says Valaree. “And I don’t think she wants to come home. So it’s not really relevant at this point. She has no desire to have family relationships.”
There are nieces and nephews Tara doesn’t know, birthdays and holidays she has missed. Grandparents who have died without a last goodbye. In early January, Tara showed up unexpectedly for her paternal grandfather’s funeral in Preston. She stayed at the back of the church, and spoke with a few family members, but not her parents. She had told them she wasn’t coming. LaRee says, “(We) realized she didn’t want us to know, and went along with that.” Their other children “chose not to burden us with knowing she was so close and we hadn’t seen her.”
Reconciliation depends heavily on what the victim wants, according to Caroline Fenkel, a clinical social worker familiar with “Educated.” “I think there are plenty of people who will go home for the holidays at Christmas, and have been abused by their family members, and have never talked about it, and plan on never talking about it,” she told me. “And then there are other victims that would never want to step foot in that house that they were abused in. And don’t want to have any relationship until it’s talked about and discussed and acknowledged.”
Joshua Coleman says of reconciliation, “the buck stops with the parents.” They must take responsibility “in a no-holds-barred kind of way.” Coleman adds, “(T)he narrative isn’t really about the parents’ experiences, if they want reconciliation. It’s really empathizing with what the child’s experience was, understanding why they feel the way they do.”The adult child who made the accusations and cut off the parents holds all the cards.The child feels like estrangement “is working for them, or they would be reconciling. … For the parents, it’s all downside. It’s all loss. It’s all shame. It’s all guilt, remorse. It’s all regret. It’s all fear. So parents have to take the initiative.”
Valaree implies that her family is willing. She says the family business of holistic healing helps the Westover clan understand Tara. “We try to help people with where they are,” Valaree explains. “Part of doing that is to understand that what they remember may or may not be accurate, and that doesn’t matter. What matters is how they feel about it.” Specifically with Tara, Valaree says, “What mattered was how she was feeling and helping her to move past it. But I don’t think she wanted to move past it.”
In a 2018 interview with the Deseret News, Tara said that before writing “Educated” she followed stories in the media about family alienation and loyalty: “I felt like we had stories about family loyalty; I didn’t feel like we had stories about what to do when you felt that loyalty to your family was in conflict with loyalty to yourself. I felt like we had stories about forgiveness, and most of those stories associate reconciliation with forgiveness. They made it seem like reconciliation was the highest form of forgiveness and I just didn’t know whether I would ever be able to reconcile with my family, so I wanted to tell a story that would be about forgiveness but wouldn’t necessarily be about reconciliation.”
On a common theme in her 2020 UVU appearance, Tara said, “(F)or me, I think the estrangement has been a really healthy good thing. They were my family. They were everything I knew, and I had somehow made this decision to step back from them.”
At the end my day in Clifton, dinner at the Westover home is an extended-family affair. Visiting children and grandchildren fill long tables. The littlest ones run circles around the adults while Val serves soup. There are pockets of conversation, and eventually the family disperses after their shared repast. Val sits alone in a recliner in the vast living room that Tara calls “the Chapel,” seemingly exhausted by painful questions and careful answers about the child who is missing from the picture.
In Val’s will, I learn, he has chosen to leave his personal papers to just one child: Tara. He believes “of all of my children, she knows me least.”