Tara Westover was born in rural Idaho in 1986, the youngest of seven children. She was raised in a strict Mormon family, with almost no contact with the outside world. As Westover recounts in her memoir, she did not have a birth certificate until years after she was born. Despite her isolated upbringing and lack of formal education, Westover rebelled against her parents and began studying at Brigham Young University, where she proved herself to be an academically gifted student. After graduating from BYU in 2008, Westover went on to earn a Master's degree and PhD from The University of Cambridge. She also won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and held a position as a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
Among Westover and her siblings, three of them have not only been able to pursue higher education, but have also completed doctorates. Westover's experience studying, exploring history, and gaining a wider perspective of the world prompted her to question some of the beliefs she grew up with, and realize that many things about her childhood had been unhealthy and damaging. In 2009, while at work on her graduate studies, Westover confronted her parents about the abuse she had been suffering for years at the hands of her brother. Their denial finally prompted Westover to sever ties with them. Once estranged from her family, Westover began to reflect on her experiences and process the trauma she endured. Mentors and friends encouraged her to tell her story, because they knew it was astonishing. Westover eventually turned this combination of narrative and reflection into her memoir, Educated , which was published in 2018.
Educated immediately topped the New York Times Best Seller list, and received many positive reviews as well as numerous awards. In its first three years in print, over 8 million copies of the book were sold. It was named one of the Best Books of 2018 by the New York Times, Oprah Magazine, The Economist, The Guardian, and Publishers Weekly. Westover was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Many critics and readers have praised Westover's honesty and vulnerability in revealing both the abuse she suffered, and the sense of loss she experienced as she gradually cut ties with her family. In interviews given after the publication of her memoir, Westover has stated that she is only in contact with three of her siblings, and that she no longer practices Mormonism or any other religion.
In the memoir, Westover is explicit about the reality that she has to rely on memories and conflicting accounts about events that occurred a long time ago. Because her family was so isolated and avoided contact with public services at all costs, there are almost no official records for Westover to use to confirm what she remembers. Westover uses pseudonyms for many of the characters in her memoir, including both of her parents and many of her siblings. The memoir also begins with a note in which Westover states, “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief.” Westover attempts to reject interpretations which would present her memoir as fueled primarily by a critique of Mormonism, and shows compassion toward the childhood she experienced. Nonetheless, some of her family members have come forward to challenge the events she recounts in the book.
An attorney has made statements on behalf of Westover's parents, claiming that the memoir misrepresents the quality of education Westover received while homeschooled, and the severity of the injuries which were treated at home rather than in medical settings. Her parents also dispute suggestions by Westover in Educated that her father may have bipolar disorder and that her mother incurred a brain injury. Although the memoir is dedicated to Westover's brother Tyler—who also chose to pursue an education and inspired his younger sister to do the same—Westover has stated that Tyler disputed some of the content of the memoir after its publication.