tough situation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Educated" by Tara Westover. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is Shawn Westover? What is Shawn’s relationship with his sister Tara like? And why doesn’t Tara Westover reveal his real name?

Shawn Westover is the fictitious name Tara Westover gives to one of her brothers in her memoir Educated. We’ll look at Shawn Westover’s relationship with the author and cover parts of Educated that might indicate why Tara chose not to reveal Shawn’s real name, even though she used the real names of at least three of her four other brothers.

Tara Gets to Know Shawn Westover

In the weeks following a car crash, Tara experienced great difficulty moving her neck. Her mother’s homeopathic treatments and energy healing did nothing to alleviate her pain.

It was at this time that a figure with whom she’d had little previous contact entered her life: her older brother Shawn Westover. Being the youngest, Tara had a minimal relationship with Shawn up to this point, as he had left the family home at 17 to pursue work in trucking and welding. He had now returned home after many years of being away. Shawn had an unsavory reputation in the community, being well-known as a bully, brawler, and all-around provocateur.

Tara soon had her own firsthand experience with Shawn’s volatility when he, without warning, put his hands around her head and violently twisted it—to help pop her neck back into place following the accident, or so he claimed. This harsh “treatment” actually did help: Tara could once again pivot her neck. But his non-consensual laying of hands on Tara foreshadowed what was to come between the two siblings. Tara would spend much of the rest of her time on Buck’s Peak subject to Shawn’s displays of kindness, which were all too often followed by displays of terrifying cruelty and violence.

Other warning signs of Shawn’s unstable and combative personality soon emerged. When he would drive her to rehearsals at the theater, Shawn would bait and bully Tara’s friends there. He would flick off their hats or knock soda out of their hands, to dominate and humiliate them.

The Long-Haul Trucking Trip

Shortly after Shawn Westover came back home, he invited Tara to come along with him on a long-haul trucking job down the West Coast. Tara agreed, excited by the possibility of travel and the opportunity to spend time with this mysterious older brother about whom she knew so little.

The trip was hazardous from the start: Shawn was operating on little sleep and even faked the reports at inspection points to make it look like he was getting more rest than he actually was. The more menacing side of his personality also presented itself to Tara. One night, he decided to teach her martial arts, explaining to her how to inflict maximum damage and pain on one’s opponent with only two fingers. He also showed her techniques like how to throw her full body weight behind a punch and crush someone’s windpipe. Clearly, Shawn had an appetite for violence.

But Tara was still enjoying the time with her brother. She recalls passing the time with him by playing elaborate word games, learning trucker lingo, eating junk food, and playing video games—all new experiences for her. The undercurrent of violence was there, but had not yet fully surfaced.

Shawn’s Girlfriend Sadie

Tara was also learning that Shawn could be emotionally abusive, especially to women and girls. He’d become acquainted with a girl named Sadie who was involved in the same theater as Tara. Sadie had a crush on Shawn Westover, and he used that leverage to manipulate and psychologically torture this girl every chance he got.

If he saw her speaking with another boy, Shawn would give Sadie the cold shoulder and refuse to speak to her. Other times, he would force her to buy items for him, only to change his mind and chastise her for bringing him the wrong thing. He would repeat this exercise with her several times over the course of a given night.

Eventually, Sadie began altering her behavior to appease Shawn’s volatile personality. She even demanded that boys at school stop walking next to her, lest Shawn see them when he picked her up after school.

Shawn Westover’s First Assault on Tara

Eventually, it would be Tara’s turn to be a direct recipient of Shawn’s wrath. One day, Shawn Westover ordered her to fetch him a glass of water, and threatened not to drive her into town the next day if she didn’t comply. Perhaps tired of his bossiness, Tara dumped the glass on his head. Shawn’s reaction was swift and brutal.

He chased Tara down the hallway and demanded she apologize. When she refused, he lifted her off the ground by her hair, dragged her into the bathroom, and pushed her head into the toilet.

He then used on her one of the same torture techniques he had taught her on their recent road trip: twisting her wrist and pushing it in a spiral against her inner forearm, causing excruciating pain.

Accusations of Indecency

Tara turned 15 in September 2001. She was now fully in puberty, which brought increased attention to her body and new efforts by the men in her life to control her sexuality

She recalls her body changing at this time as she reached sexual maturity. Most of all, the full weight of her family’s highly patriarchal and often misogynistic views on women, marriage, and sexuality soon began to press upon Tara.

Shawn Westover began to shame Tara for her alleged acts of impropriety. He harshly chastised her for her friendship with Charles, a young man she met at the theatre, telling Tara that she was developing a reputation for being “that kind of girl.” He also started calling her a “whore” for wearing makeup and lip gloss. One night, as punishment, Shawn forced his youngest sister to walk home for 12 miles in the sub-zero conditions of an Idaho winter.

The abuse only continued as Tara got deeper into her teen years. One morning, she woke up to a blinding pain of what felt like needles in her brain and throat. It dawned on her that Shawn was astride her, choking her with both hands, while screaming “Slut!” and “Whore!” It was only through the intervention of her mother and Tyler that Tara survived the assault. 

Yet Shawn could also be fiercely protective of Tara. This protectiveness, too, may have been rooted in Shawn’s need for dominance and control (and his patriarchal notions about needing to “guard” women), but it was certainly a part of his overall behavior toward his sister.

For example, Tara recalls Shawn standing up to Gene and physically threatening him when he saw that Gene had tried to force Tara to operate a dangerous hydraulic metal-cutting tool at the junkyard. Indeed, Shawn was the only one who could stand up to Gene on a consistent basis—and win.

Tara’s feelings toward Shawn were complicated. On the one hand, he was a violent abuser who seemed to have little regard for the physical and emotional safety of others. On the other hand, however, she did enjoy a special bond with him.

Shawn Westover’s Second Assault

Tara came home from her sophomore year of college for Thanksgiving. Her friend Charles joined the Westovers for dinner for the holiday. It would be an evening Tara would never forget. Shawn Westover was in a particularly hostile mood at dinner, making cruel and snide remarks to Tara and Charles. When Tara told Shawn not to touch her after he jabbed one of his fingers into her ribs, the situation rapidly escalated out of control.

Shawn pinned her down to the floor (just out of view of everyone else), cutting off airflow through her windpipe. Later on in the evening, he gut-punched her as she was bringing dinner rolls to the table. When Tara protested again (her resistance was obviously a trigger for him), Shawn once more pinned Tara to the floor and dragged her to the bathroom, where he shoved her face into the toilet. In the course of this attack, Tara broke her toe. This time, the assault was in full view of the family—and Charles.

Tara hated the idea of Charles seeing her in this state—as a victim, a helpless pawn of Shawn’s. So she tried to present it as a game, in which Shawn was only playfully roughhousing with her and there was no need to worry. She even made a point of laughing throughout her assault, to give off the impression that everything was just a joke, happening with her full consent.

Charles was deeply disturbed by the incident and by Tara’s refusal to acknowledge what had really happened. He parted ways with her, telling Tara that she was the only one who could rescue herself from her family.

Shawn Westover’s Final Assault

Shawn would attack Tara on one more occasion. When she was back home a few weeks later for Christmas, she was out driving with Shawn Westover when they happened upon Charles’ car in the parking lot of the local gas station. Shawn, with cunning instinct, immediately recognized that Tara didn’t want Charles to see her with Shawn, especially since she was covered in soot and grime from the junkyard. Shawn, of course, saw an opportunity to inflict maximum humiliation and emotional trauma on his younger sister. He demanded that she accompany him inside.

When she refused, he snapped. He dragged her out of the car and pinned her face-down onto the asphalt parking lot, breaking her wrist and ankle in the process. This attack was in public, so there were plenty of onlookers (though thankfully not Charles).

Tara retreated into the same defensive shell that she’d used during the Thanksgiving attack the month before: she pretended that it was all a joke. She made a public show of laughing as Shawn paraded her through the store at the gas station, in front of the people who’d witnessed the attack in the parking lot just minutes before. She ignored the pain from her wrist and ankle.

When they returned home, Tara went to her room to write about the experience in her diary. She couldn’t understand why Shawn did these things to her, even when she’d told him not to touch her and had begged him to stop. Later, Shawn came into her room with an ice pack and told her that she should always feel free to tell him if his “fun and games” went too far. In other words, she was responsible for not having stopped him. He was gaslighting her, denying her reality, and making her think that she had imagined the entire encounter as being more violent than it really was. It was, yet again, classic abuser behavior.

Tara had long convinced herself that Shawn’s violence was her fault—that if she’d just asked Shawn to stop in the right way, he would have. This night, however, she wrote about the experience in her diary plainly and honestly, without resorting to vague or euphemistic language. It was one of her first steps toward recognizing what Shawn truly was—and recognizing, also, how her family had implicitly condoned his abuse.

Years later, as a survivor, Tara would understand why she had come to believe that Shawn’s emotional manipulation had all been her fault. She saw that it was more comforting to accept the abuse as stemming from a flaw in herself, rather than in him—because if it was her defect, she would at least be able to control it. She was displaying a common symptom of abuse victims, that of sympathizing with their abuser or rationalizing away the abuse they suffer.

Shawn Westover’s abuse of Tara may indicate why she chose to give him a fictitious name in her memoir.

Shawn Westover: Tara Westover’s Brother and Abuser

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "Educated" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full Educated summary :

  • How Tara Westover was abused by her brother as a child
  • Why Tara's parents set up the children for failure
  • How Tara ultimately broke out of her parents' grasp and succeeded for herself

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

8 thoughts on “Shawn Westover: Tara Westover’s Brother and Abuser

  • January 10, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    yeah, had a brother like that and he was a sexual abuser as well, ended with attempted murder and the cops being sent but his enabling mother protected him as always while I the sister believe he should of spent the rest of his life in maximum security for the mentally insane for all the horrible abuse. All contact was cut of by my as soon as I was able to and that is the only way to handle pychos like him.

  • April 22, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    I appreciated your focus on the abuse Tara suffered at the hands of her brother. I’ve read reviews and opinion pieces that cast doubt on the accuracy of her memoir, but the one thing that can’t be argued against is the physical and mental scars she still carries, especially the physical. That’s actual proof, plus comments from others who actually witnessed her brother’s violence.

    In a local newspaper article, Tara’s parents said “they did their best with what they knew” about the situation. I can’t understand why her parents protected their abusive son and let him abuse their own flesh and blood. I guess to admit it would have blown up the delusional world they lived in to rationalize allowing such violence.

    • September 29, 2021 at 1:19 pm

      The religious fanatical parents should have stope the psycho brother. What the hell is wrong with them. How did Tara conjure up the resistance not to kill that rotten, ignorant brother.
      Thanks the lucky stars she got out of the hell hole.

  • August 23, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I’m beyond angry that sadistic “Shawn” and Tara’s parents have not been locked away for their evil actions. There are women, children and animals still in the clutches of these uncontrolled psychopathic fanatics. Everyone in their vicinity is in grave danger and those perverts should be stopped from further cruelty.

  • December 4, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    “Shawn” in the book’s real name is Travis

  • July 8, 2021 at 12:24 am

    I read the book and from what I understood, he didn’t force her to walk 12 miles home in winter. They were driving home during wintertime and he put the windows down for the duration of the 12 mile car ride.

  • January 17, 2022 at 6:30 am

    This absurdly twisted trust-hate-love relationship between Tara Westover and her unstable, lunatic fringe family drives me nearly insane with frustration. She meekly submits to the psychological and physical abuse that’s piled on her by her family and yet seems to merely plod ahead without effort in a brilliantly successful academic career, which she seems to pass through with offhand indifference. Scholarship to Cambridge? (yawn) Fellowship at Harvard? Meh. Oh, I just LOVE my brother, even when he’s breaking my bones and threatening my life. I guess I just don’t get it.

  • September 19, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    Is this the family of LJ Westover, who used to live in Venice California as a teenager? I was a neighbor just a few homes from him.


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