Protecting the Abuser while Neglecting the Abused

Tara Westover in her best-seller "Educated"

Posted Sep 13, 2019

In her best-selling memoir, Educated, Tara Westover describes her emergence from an Idaho survivalist family to establishing her own identity and, eventually, earning a Ph.D. while attending Harvard and Cambridge Universities.*

One of the many themes in this beautifully written book is Ms. Westover’s troubled relationship with her brother Shawn. He was endearing at times and drew her close to him, only to then, without a warning, erupt into making threats and engaging into acts of terrifying violence. At one point, without any obvious provocation, Shawn grabbed Tara by the hair and dragged her around the house demanding that she acknowledge being “a whore” (a total mischaracterization). No matter what abuse Ms. Westover suffered at her brother’s hands, she clung to the hope that he would change. At one point she observed with much relief, “His expression, as well as his words, seemed to belong to a much older man, a man whose hot blood had cooled, who was at peace.” She felt guilty for doubting that Shawn had the capacity to change.  During a ride with him to get a milkshake, she discovered that her earlier assessment was correct. Shawn had not changed as evidenced by his calmly stating that their sister was “a lying piece of shit” who deserved “a bullet in her head” but that she was not worth wasting “a good bullet on.” After this declaration, he cheerfully proposed that they watch a movie. 

Tara’s assessment of her brother’s change was challenged again when she learned that he slashed a pet dog to death in front of his young son. Months later, during a phone call, Shawn told Tara he was unsure “whether I should kill you myself or hire an assassin.”  Tara Westover called her parents., but her pleas were met with a familiar wall of denial. Although they had at times appeared to sympathize with her, they continued to believe in the inherent goodness of their son. Tara’s mother explained to her that Shawn “didn’t mean it,” referring to his threats. She also declared that Shawn did not stab the dog or threaten Tara with a knife. Instead, Tara was the culprit – the liar. Her father did not believe his daughter’s accounts of Shawn’s threats and violence and demanded that she provide “proof.” 

Ms. Westover repeatedly returned to visit her family in Idaho.  During one of her trips home from graduate school, it became evident that nothing had changed. For years, Ms. Westover’s parents refused to accept that Shawn was a criminal.  Instead, they concluded that the seriously flawed person was Tara – that Ms. Westover “was possessed, dangerous, taken by the devil.” It took learning about a call from Shawn to Tyler, another brother, to finally convince Ms. Westover that her part in the family “drama” must end.  Shawn had warned Tyler, “I can have you out of this family in two minutes. You know I can do it. Just ask Tara.” Clearly, Shawn had retained his position of having total dominion over the family.

Denial is an enormously powerful defense for a parent who cannot acknowledge that he or she has an offspring who is a criminal, despite the evidence. Even with a son in prison for homicide, a parent may maintain that an adult child is a good person, that others do not understand him, that he is actually innocent. Tragically, some parents allow criminals in their family to control everyone’s life.They permit the abuser to reign unchallenged in their household. They defend and support an abuser, while doing little to protect the abused. Like Tara Westover, the abused start doubting their own memory, perceptions, and judgment. They suspect that they are the “crazy” ones.  The criminal in the household remains in charge.

*Tara Westover. "Educated". (NY: Random House, 2018)