The protagonist and narrator of the memoir. Tara grows up isolated from mainstream society in a strict Mormon household, and grapples with her upbringing when she later pursues her education. She is extremely intelligent and hardworking, as well as brave and physically tough. Because she grew up in a manipulative and abusive household, Tara often does not trust her instincts or judgements.
Tara's father, and the patriarch of the Westover household. He is devoutly religious and believes he has a mission from God. Gene also believes that he needs to be prepared for the impending apocalypse, and that the government is dangerous. He is an extremely controlling man who wants to be dominant at all times. Nonetheless, he can occasionally be loving and kind to his children. There is evidence that Gene suffers from bipolar disorder, and his mental illness may be what is driving his paranoid delusions.
Tara's mother, and the wife of Gene. She grows up in a family where social conformity is highly valued and rebels by marrying Gene at a young age. She is the mother of seven children, and eventually begins to work as a midwife. Later, Faye becomes well known as a healer who uses intuition to “diagnose” medical problems and treats them with herbal remedies. Faye sometimes seems willing to stand up for herself and can find sly ways of supporting Tara by going behind her husband's back. Ultimately, her loyalty is to her husband and her religion.
Tara's brother. Shawn works alongside Tara helping their father, and at times the two siblings are close. However, Shawn also flies into violent rages, especially after he suffers a serious head injury which seems to change his personality. Beginning when Tara is a teenager, he taunts and abuses her. Shawn also displays violence toward the various women he dates, including his wife Emily. In addition to the violence, Shawn is a skilled liar and manipulator, and he is able to get the entire family to believe his word over Tara's.
Tara's brother. Tyler is extremely intelligent and studious, even as a young child. He is the first sibling to break with the family and pursue a college education. He eventually goes on to get a PhD, and marries a woman who is much more liberal than the family he grew up in. Tyler is an ally to Tara and always tries to help his sister. He is the first person to suggest she should move out and go to college. Tyler also believes Tara when she tells him that Shawn has abused her. Tyler is a kind and compassionate person, and he is able to find a balance between maintaining a relationship with his family, and standing up for Tara.
Tara's only sister. Audrey is older than Tara, and the two sisters are not close while growing up. Audrey gets married young, and lives a traditional life, focused on being an obedient wife and mother. When Audrey realizes that Tara has also been abused by Shawn, she finds a sense of independence. For a brief time, Audrey is angry and wants her family to know what Shawn has done. However, Audrey is not strong enough to stand up for herself, and quickly caves into family pressure. Audrey is much more traditional and submissive than her sister, and because she has not been educated, she cannot think for herself in the same way.
Tara's brother. Richard is the closest to Tara in age, and is also quite intelligent. He attends college, and eventually gets a PhD. Richard also maintains a relationship with Tara after she becomes estranged from her family, but she is less close with him than she is with Tyler.
A friend of Tara's. Charles and Tara meet when they are children, and stay friends for many years, including after Tara leaves for college. Their friendship sometimes veers toward romance, but Tara is very uncomfortable with physical affection. Charles is kind, affectionate, and admires Tara. Charles is one of the first people outside of her family with whom Tara becomes close, but she is ashamed and desperate to hide the reality of the abuse she experiences from him. Tara eventually drives Charles away when he becomes overwhelmed and realizes he cannot save her from her problems.
A leader in a Mormon congregation in Utah. Tara meets the Bishop when she is attending college at Brigham Young University, and he can tell there is something wrong with her. The Bishop is sensitive, intuitive, and kind. He takes an interest in Tara and gradually coaxes her into opening up to him. When he hears Tara's story, he never judges her, and does everything he can to try and help her.
A history professor at Brigham Young University. Professor Kerry is one of Tara's teachers, and he sees her intellectual potential. He helps her to get into the study abroad program. He is a perceptive man who can see intellectual talent, and he is also committed to helping those who really need it. Although he is kind, he is somewhat naÃ¯ve because he thinks Tara's insecurities simply come from her having grown up poor and uneducated.
A professor of history at Cambridge University. Professor Steinberg is assigned to be Tara's supervisor during her time as a study abroad student at Cambridge. He is fascinated by her unique history and academic talent, and he is determined to see Tara go to graduate school. Professor Steinberg is skilled at solving problems to ensure Tara can get the support she needs, and he pushes her to believe in herself.
One of Tara's roommates at college. Robin takes an interest in Tara and tries to help her. She teaches Tara basic life skills, and also encourages her to do things like apply for a grant. Robin's kindness and helpfulness help Tara become more integrated into the normal world.
Shawn's wife. Emily marries Shawn even though he has already been abusing her. She believes that it is God's plan for a woman to submit to her husband, and she never challenges or questions Shawn, even when he is violent with her.
Shawn's ex-girlfriend. Erin gives Tara hope and the confidence to believe in herself. She confirms that Shawn abused her during their relationship, which allows Tara to believe that she is not going crazy or making up lies.
Tara's brother. He leads a traditional life, and works alongside his father.
Tara's oldest brother. Although he tries to live a more independent life, he ends up working for his father.