Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir, explores the relationship of knowledge with power. Westover’s experiences and commentary suggest that while knowledge is indeed power, an important corollary is that when people in power control knowledge, prevent others from obtaining it, or distort it, the purpose of education is subverted. This subversion allows the powerful to control people, and breaking away from this control by seeking knowledge allows people to gain agency in their lives. This is the conflict Westover faces as she grows into young adulthood: a struggle to wrest agency, by means of education, from her father’s grip and to chart her own course in the world. 

Unlike novels, memoirs recall actual lives, which rarely follow neat narrative arcs. After the prologue, Educated takes readers to Westover’s early childhood to describe the day when her father, Gene, decided that dairy products were “evil” to eat. This event serves as the inciting incident, although it does not launch the story’s conflict, which has already existed for years. Rather, it helps readers understand that Westover’s father had the power to decide what was true for his family—a power that shapes Westover’s life and limits her access to knowledge. During the memoir’s rising action, Westover recalls and interprets events of her childhood to better understand conflicts related to knowledge and power. 

Gene’s dominance, which he claims as a right and obligation as the patriarch, is nearly complete and rarely questioned. He decides, for example, that Faye will become a midwife and overrides her doubts, ordering her to learn what she needs to know. He decides whether health concerns require the attention of educated professionals and refuses to seek appropriate care even in situations involving burns and head injuries. Gene also controls historical knowledge, leading Westover not only to misunderstand her family but also to be entirely ignorant of world and national history. She has no idea, for example, about the Holocaust or the struggle for civil rights. 

The memoir describes how Westover gradually realizes that Gene’s dominance is not as complete as he hopes. As a daughter in a patriarchal family, Westover is more easily controlled than were her older brothers. The eldest, Shawn, becomes controlling like his father and extends this desire for control to physical threats, while two of Westover’s brothers break free and serve as signposts leading toward Westover’s own education and eventual emergence from paternal control. Tyler and Richard both seek formal education, eventually earning doctorates, and they leave the isolation and paranoia of the family home. Westover is still at home, but she begins to realize that other families differ from hers, and Tyler encourages her to consider college, provides her with study materials, and helps her with health issues. He does not push her, but he makes it clear that he can help if she decides on college. When Westover does go to college and experiences the family’s anger, Richard stands with her as she deals with obstacles in the way of her education. 

Westover’s older sister Audrey, by contrast, does not seek education, instead accepting the role of obedient wife. Later, she proves unable or unwilling to stand with Westover against Shawn’s violence. Audrey’s choices intensify the memoir’s conflict: she accepts the severe limitations around access to education that her father and, later, her husband impose. Exposure to the larger world, one beyond the rigid patriarchy associated with Gene’s interpretation of the role of fathers and husbands, allows Richard, Tyler, and eventually Westover herself to break free from Gene’s dominance. Lacking that exposure, Audrey and, later, Shawn’s wife Emily cannot. 

Other people in Westover’s life also shape the rising action. Her classmates demonstrate other ways of living. Importantly, her bishop—another man with religious authority—helps her take advantage of financial support, and professors make her aware of opportunities for further education. Whether they do so simply by living their lives or by intentionally guiding Westover, all these people broaden her knowledge about the world and thus her choices. 

The memoir’s climax is bittersweet. Not without sacrifice, Westover has established herself as a young scholar and developed deep relationships outside her family. Her new understanding of the possibilities of life has heightened the painful knowledge of how different her life is from the lives of her mother, Audrey, and especially of Emily as she endures dangerous pregnancies and Shawn’s escalating violence. When her parents come to visit Westover in Boston, her father confronts her about her educational path. He saw, she recalls, “a woman damned.” She writes that she just needed to “yield” to be restored to the family, but restoration would require her to accept paternal power over her life. She refuses, simultaneously claiming her path and losing her parents. 

In the memoir’s falling action, Westover grapples with the climax’s fallout. She considers what she would have to give up to reconcile with her family and feels the pull of her father’s insistence that only he has the authority to dispense or withhold knowledge. Then she learns about Emily’s second risky (and untreated) pregnancy and realizes that her mother, once an uneasy ally, now agrees with Gene that their youngest daughter is under demonic influence. Westover cannot return to the family fold. She, Tyler, and Richard have each other, their own families, and their work. With counseling—another kind of specialized knowledge—Westover begins to reconcile herself to the price of her education. 

The obstacles to education and information in Westover’s life are arresting and uncommon. Yet in a February 2022 New York Times column, Westover comments that while education is vital for young people, structures that disempower students and limit their access to education are widespread. In particular, the financial stresses of higher education limit opportunities. Even after finding the motivation to leave the family home, Westover could not have sought education had her teachers and other adults not helped her get funding. For students, she writes, money “frees your mind for living.” Financial security allows students the time to seek knowledge, and that knowledge then empowers them to set their own paths. Financial support decreases the power that those who would dole out knowledge can wield to keep others in their control. The conclusion of Educated resolves in an imperfect way; the extended Westover family remains disrupted by the author’s quest to control what she can learn, where she can study, and what she can do with her knowledge.