Tara Westover, Educated

“…How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?” — Vogue

Educated by [Tara Westover]

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (February 20, 2018)

Publication Date: February 20, 2018

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

#1 International Bestseller

Tara Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom. Instead of traditional lessons, she grew up learning how to stew herbs into medicine, scavenging in the family scrap yard and helping her family prepare for the apocalypse. She had no birth certificate and no medical records and had never been enrolled in school.

Westover’s mother proved a marvel at concocting folk remedies for many ailments. As Tara developed her own coping mechanisms, little by little, she started to realize that what her family was offering didn’t have to be her only education. Her first day of university was her first day in school—ever—and she would eventually win an esteemed fellowship from Cambridge and graduate with a PhD in intellectual history and political thought.

For readers of The Glass Castle and Wild, a stunning new memoir about family, loss and the struggle for a better future

#1 International Bestseller

Tara Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom. Instead of traditional lessons, she grew up learning how to stew herbs into medicine, scavenging in the family scrap yard and helping her family prepare for the apocalypse. She had no birth certificate and no medical records and had never been enrolled in school.

Westover’s mother proved a marvel at concocting folk remedies for many ailments. As Tara developed her own coping mechanisms, little by little, she started to realize that what her family was offering didn’t have to be her only education. Her first day of university was her first day in school—ever—and she would eventually win an esteemed fellowship from Cambridge and graduate with a PhD in intellectual history and political thought.

Jayanti Tamm, Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult


Jayanti Tamm, Contributor Huffpost

Author and professor, Jayanti Tamm is the author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. She was a Princeton University Mid-Career Fellow.

What Is A Cult? Recognizing And Avoiding Unhealthy Groups

04/14/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2011


Who in our over-stimulated, media-saturated, hyper-connected world would ever go and knowingly join a cult? The answer is no one.

No one wakes up one morning and decides to join a cult. Even if someone did, good luck trying to look up the address for the nearest local cult, for there isn’t a single group that would ever admit to or advertise as being a cult. And why would they? The word ‘cult’ is explosive, loaded with connotations of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide — not exactly an ideal marketing strategy. For the most part, cults are keenly and obsessively aware of their public persona and consciously labor to maintain a positive image.

Scrolling through their websites, their mission statements are warmly fuzzy and vague; they promise redemption, renewal, rejuvenation, and reinvention. They offer answers, solutions, and happiness. It’s all there, yours for the taking. What isn’t included is the reality beneath the surface, the leader’s demands for obedience from its members, the psychological pressure, the ability to subordinate all activities to the leader’s will.

But most people don’t find and join cults through Internet searches. Most people stumble upon them accidentally. A flyer in the laundromat for a free meditation class. A listing in the newspaper for a community service project. A poster at the library for a musical performance. Recruitment is purposefully subtle; the pull is gentle, gradual. Events are welcoming; attention is lavished on the visitor with the intention to create an environment that feels inclusive, nonthreatening, and safe. The visitor is warmly encouraged to return, to step in closer. It is not until later, often much later, that one may look around and, with great surprise, discover the strange terrain upon which one now stands.

Cults, whether they are offshoots of Eastern or Western traditional religions, are surprisingly
similar in their methods and means. The tactics and techniques used to recruit, maintain, and
disown noncompliant members seem pulled from a universal handbook of do’s and don’ts.
With all of their rules and restrictions, laws and codes, ultimately cults are about grasping and preserving absolute and unconditional control.

Cults are fueled by and thrive on control. The willingness to surrender control comes from
excessive devotion to the leader and the leader’s vision. The leader’s personal agenda is
presented as a universal elixir, one that will eradicate both personal and global moral, ethical, and spiritual maladies. The follower’s faith becomes both the provider and the enabler.

Faith in the mission, faith in the leader is an agent used to unify a disparate collection of strong individuals from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The loss of the individual is the gain of the group. Individual achievements are discouraged, downplayed and finally eradicated while the group’s achievements are encouraged, celebrated and memorialized.

To maintain the unity and cohesion of the cult, there is a clear separation between those ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ Members are holy, special, chosen; outsiders are unholy, ignorant, toxic. Contact with the outside world — often including family — is discouraged, and family is redefined as the group itself. In this new family, subjugation and subservience is expected and obedience and control is demanded. From one’s sexuality to one’s personal hygiene, the leader possesses unquestioned, absolute authority over its members’ lives. For a cult leader, it is imperative to seem infallible, to possess the answers, the solutions, the only route to salvation. The leader is fierce in singular righteousness, in the design to hail oneself absolute. A narcissist with insatiable needs for power, control, and, very often fame, the leader seeks affirmation of supreme authority through alignment with public figures and celebrities, achieving large numbers of recruits, and amassing private fiefdoms.Bottom of Form

Through the need to please the leader, to ascend the ranks, to work to fulfill the leader’s vision, cults dictate followers’ actions and thoughts. Obedient members receive exalted status and conformity is enforced through notions of guilt, shame, and failure by both the leader and other members. A system of reporting on members for transgressions creates both an internal police force and opportunities for promotion and rewards for turning in brother and sister members. Those who violate the rules are punished and eventually, to maintain the coherent group unity, expelled. After time, the group assumes all roles — family, friends, church, home, work, community, and departing, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, after years or even decades, without having a concrete safety net is challenging, and sometimes utterly impossible. The world on the other side appears frightening and overwhelming.

Just who is so easily swept up in the group-think and loss of individuality that are hallmarks of cults? A misconception is that there is a certain ‘type’ — usually imbalanced, weak — that not only finds themselves caught inside a cult but that isn’t able to extract themselves from it. The truth is, there isn’t one typical profile, ‘type.’ People with advanced degrees and people without any formal education are both equally likely to find themselves swaddled in orange robes or holed up in a compound. The urge to be a part of something is elemental, raw, and natural. To have a defined goal, a purpose, offers meaning. Most people strive for acceptance within social groups and long for affirmation from others. Be it in an office or country club, adjustments are made to conform, to gain approval and to advance.

In cults, extremism is the norm. When hyper devotion is expected behavior, for acceptance new recruits tend to rapidly thrust themselves into the prescribed lifestyle much to the chagrin of their family and friends on the ‘outside.’ There is no blame, no fault for having the audacity to plunge into belief, into faith so deeply, so forcefully that critical and analytical red flags, even if they once appeared, are snapped off. Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical.

While the boundary between cults and religion often feels confusing — the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions differ only slightly with cults being “small” in size and possessing “beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Deciding what is strange or sinister certainly depends on the beholder. When accusations of being in a cult appear, members quickly and vehemently deny they are in a cult — they are part of a ‘spiritual path,’ a ‘special church,’ a ‘progressive movement’ — other groups are cults, but not theirs. No way.

Perhaps it is more useful to discern what a religious movement is or what a cult is by comparing its impact upon members’ lives: does it compliment or control? At their best, healthy religions and organizations compliment rich, full lives by offering balance, community, comfort. At their worst, they lapse into vehicles demanding control. Cults limit lives into narrow, claustrophobic existences whose singular purpose is the cult itself.

Cult leaders, experts in psychological manipulation, prey on both the follower’s ability to believe and need to belong. But this type of behavior is hardly limited to cults. After all, the aptitude and capacity to exploit human beings is universal, and, with the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult. What prevents that from occurring is that most established religions and groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain that from happening; cults, however, are purposefully designed so that the only restraints are the ones placed upon the people who, without even realizing it, have just done what they never thought they would do — join a cult.

Is it a Cult? The Top Ten Signs the ‘Group’ You’ve Joined is Not what It Seems

  1. The leader and group are always correct and anything the leader does can be justified.

·  Questions, suggestions, or critical inquiry are forbidden.

·  Members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda

·  Followers are meant to believe that they are never good enough.

·  Required dependency upon the leader and group for even the most basic problem-solving.

·  Reporting on members for disobedient actions or thoughts is mandated and rewarded.

·  Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected to gain promotion.

·  The ‘outside’ world — often including family and friends — is presented as rife with impending catastrophe, evil, and temptations.

·  Recruitment of new members is designed to be purposefully upbeat and vague about the actual operations of the leader and group.

·  Former members are shunned and perceived as hostile.

Jayanti Tamm is the author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (Three Rivers Press). She is a Visiting Professor in the MFA Program at Queens College, CUNY.

Mackenzi Kingdon, MA, LMHCA, Spiritual Abuse


Home >GoodTherapy Blog >Shame and Silence: Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

Shame and Silence: Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

February 1, 2017 • Contributed by Mackenzi Kingdon, MA, LMHCA, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert



Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects.


Parent-child spiritual abuse, while common, may be tricky to recognize, as the line between abuse and influence can at times be blurry one. When does the attempt to influence and shape a child’s moral outlook through religious upbringing cross the line into abuse?

I imagine many individuals, when considering the topic of spiritual abuse, think of the movie Carrie. In this film, Carrie suffers extreme physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of her mother, all in the name of God.

Spiritual abuse perpetuated by parents, not always obvious or blatant, can be seen when parents:

  • Encourage single-minded thinking. When parents discourage questions or shut a child down for challenging what they learn, they are teaching the child that critical thinking is not valuable.
  • Use exclusive language or “us vs. them” mentality when referring to those who do not adhere to the same religious group. This language serves to give children a pointed message about the organization of social relationships and can encourage both an elitist mentality or a savior complex.
  • Stifle a child’s interest in learning about other religious practices. This often furthers exclusive language by sending the message that others might be dangerous, evil, etc.
  • Force a child to participate in certain rituals such as prayer, worship, communion, bowing, group participation, repentance, public displays of adherence, etc. A child who does not wish to participate likely has a reason, and parents who ignore the child’s choices send the message that children do not have the freedom to make their own choices.
  • Force a child to remain in an environment where a traumatic event occurred. Children who have an extreme reaction to a religious environment typically do so for a reason. Parents may be unaware a traumatic event has taken place, but to ignore the child’s reaction instead of attempting to discover the reason for it is likely to teach the child they cannot expect to be protected from harm, even by their parents.

The parent-child dynamic of spiritual abuse should not be equated with a parent’s attempt to raise a child in a religious household. Parents who follow a particular faith may read their child stories from a religious text, explain why certain morals are important or why they hold certain beliefs, and bring their child to church events. These are not examples of abuse when they are not forced on a child.

Further, parents who encourage their child to ask questions and provide the child with explanations instead of simply saying, “Because God says so,” can help their child learn, grow, and think critically. It is often worth it for a parent to take the time to explain to a child why they chose to follow a particular faith, as this serves to introduce the child to that unique and important aspect of the parent’s life.


Society as a whole has become more aware of cult practices in recent years. Cults might exist as small branches of major religions or are large organizations in their own right, and they may be difficult to recognize or define. People who have left them, however, often report abusive practices, though many share that they did not recognize these tactics as abuse until they had a chance to step away from them.

Some of the following may be questions to consider:

  • Am I in danger? Physical danger? Danger of a destroyed reputation?
  • Am I being forced to pay money in order to become spiritually enlightened?
  • Have I been shamed for thinking differently?
  • Have I been equipped with the tools to research my beliefs on my own, or are there only a chosen few individuals who are authorized to give me information?
  • Is there a ranking system? Am I being taught that I am somehow lesser than other individuals?
  • Is my individuality unappreciated or unwelcomed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may wish to carefully consider the religious group to which you belong. It may be a good idea to seek the support of a trusted friend or family member along with professional help from a counselor, particularly one trained to provide help with spiritual and religious issues. A person should not have to worry that sharing their worries or opinions will lead to judgment or recrimination.

Religion Versus Cult

ICSA: Identifying and Understanding Abusive Groups


Rev. Richard L. Dowhower

Religions respect the individual’s autonomy.

Cults enforce compliance.

Religions try to help individuals meet their spiritual needs.

Cults exploit spiritual needs.

Religions tolerate and even encourage questions and independent, critical thinking.

Cults discourage questions and independent critical thinking.

Religions encourage psycho-spiritual integration.

Cults “split” members into the “good cult self” and the “bad old self.”

Conversion to religions involves an unfolding of internal processes central to a person’s identity.

Cultic conversion involves an unaware surrender to external forces that care little for the person’s identity.

Religions view money as a means, subject to ethical restraints, toward achieving noble ends.

Cults view money as an end or as a means toward achieving power or the selfish goals of the leader.

Religions view sex between clergy and the faithful as unethical.

Cults frequently subject members to the sexual appetites of the leaders.

Religions respond to critics respectfully.

Cults frequently intimidate critics with physical or legal threats.

Religions cherish the family.

Cults view the family as an enemy.

Religions encourage a person to think carefully before making a commitment to join.

Cults encourage quick decisions with little information.

From “Guidelines for Clergy” by Rev. Richard L. Dowhower, in Recovery From Cults, edited by Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. and published by W.W. Norton and Company. Reprinted with permission.

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The Narcissistic Father, by Mark Banschick M.D.

The Narcissistic Father, How a narcissistic dad can affect your life, by Mark Banschick M.D., author of The Intelligent Divorce


Posted Mar 13, 2013

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm (that they cause) does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”  —T.S. Eliot

You used to think that by the time you were in your twenties and definitely by your thirties you’d have your act together: You’d be establishing a successful career, have your own place, be in a committed and stable relationship, visit the gym enough to have the body you always wanted, and your social life would be vibrant.

But you’re nowhere near where you thought you’d be, and the tiny boxes next to the list of achievements that you’d hoped to accomplish are still unchecked.

As your confidence deflates, you look back on your own upbringing, and think about your father – Mr. Self-Assured. He seemed to have it all – charm, success, popularity. He never seemed to be plagued by self-doubt, unlike you. He was the life of the party, knew everyone and made things happen. You couldn’t get enough of him.

How Kids Experience Narcissistic Traits:

Come to think of it, did his confidence border on arrogance? Is it possible that you were raised by someone with narcissistic traits? And if so, why is it important?

We take our families for granted – it’s natural that we do. Each family is a miniature sociological experiment, with its own set of unwritten rules, secrets, and nuanced behavioral patterns. We take our mom and dad for granted; like this must be what it’s like for everyone. Your dad may have been narcissistic, but you just assumed that all fathers were like him.

Here are some signs that your dad had narcissistic tendencies or was an outright narcissist.

  • Dad was self-centered and pretty vain. He had an inflated sense of self-importance that led him to believe he was superior and entitled to only the best.
  • Dad used people for his own good. He would take advantage of others, to the point of exploiting them when it suited him. Everybody seemed to cater to him, or at least he expected them to.
  • Dad was charismatic. Everyone wanted to be around him and he relished admiration from others. He loved being in the spotlight and the positive reinforcement that came from being the center of attention.
  • No one had an imagination like Dad. Grandiosity is alluring, and so were his fantasies of success, prestige, and brilliance. He would often exaggerate his achievements, and his ambitions and goals bordered on unrealistic.
  • Dad didn’t take criticism well. Nothing stung him like criticism; he often cut those people out of his life or tried to hurt them.
  • Dad’s rage was truly scary. Some people get mad and yell a lot. Dad could hurt you with his anger. It cut to the bone.
  • Dad could be aloof and unsympathetic. Narcissists often have a hard time experiencing empathy; they often disregard and invalidate how others feel. Of course, he was exquisitely sensitive to what he felt.
  • Dad wasn’t around a lot. He got a lot of gratification outside the family. Other fathers hung out with their families a lot more. Plus, he craved excitement and seemed to be more concerned by what others thought of him, rather than how his own kids felt about him.
  • Dad did what he wanted when dealing with you. Narcissists don’t step into someone else’s shoes very often. He did things with you that he enjoyed; maybe you did as well.
  • Dad wanted you to look great to his friends and colleagues. You were most important to him when he could brag about you; sad but true.
  • You couldn’t really get what you needed from him. Even if Dad provided on a material level, you felt deprived on a more subtle level. For example, you wanted his attention and affection, but would only get it sporadically, and only when it worked for him.

When you go through these traits, some may hit home; while others may not be relevant. Some may ring as very true; while others as less so. This is why narcissistic traits are not synonymous with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The Heuristic Problem of Personality Classification:

Narcissism is not a dirty word, in fact, narcissistic traits are commonly found in most of us. There’s nothing disturbed about that. The other extreme is the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a controversial but often helpful label. For the record, our diagnostic categories are somewhat arbitrary and lack the veracity of harder medical diagnostic labels like a broken femur or glaucoma. Those disorders are easier to document and study. Personality Disorders help us organize our thinking about an individual, but may fall far short of a truthful depiction of a whole complex person.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a person is narcissistic or merely has a healthy self-regard. Narcissism isn’t about having high self-confidence; it’s a love for oneself that has morphed into a preoccupation. The term is based on Narcissus, the Greek mythological character who was so infatuated with himself that it ultimately proved fatal.

Although it’s not actually fatal, narcissism can become so pathological that it satisfies the criteria, however faulty, of a personality disorder. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts… as indicated…. by the following”:

  • wanting to be admired
  • having a sense of entitlement
  • being exploitative
  • lacking empathy
  • being envious
  • arrogance

Another characteristic typical of narcissists is a disregard for personal boundaries. Narcissists don’t always acknowledge the need for boundaries, which is coupled with their failure to realize that others do not exist merely to meet their needs. A narcissist will often treat others, especially those that are close to him, as if they are there to fulfill his needs and expectations.

Now that you have a firm grasp on what a narcissistic father may be like, let’s take a look at how he might affect his kids. (We will get to narcissistic mothers another time.)

How a Narcissistic Father Can Hurt His Son or Daughter:

Narcissistic parents often damage their children. For example, they may disregard boundaries, manipulate their children by withholding affection (until they perform), and neglect to meet their children’s needs because their needs come first. Because image is so important to narcissists, they may demand perfection from their children. The child of a narcissist father can, in turn, feel a pressure to ramp up their talents, looks, smarts or charisma. It can cost them if they fulfill Dad’s wishes—and it can cost them if they fail. No winning here.

In general, here‘s how a narcissistic father can affect a daughter or son.

 Daughters of narcissistic fathers often describe feeling “unsatiated” when it comes to getting what they needed from their fathers. They never got enough and would have to compete with siblings for time with Dad. As a young child, Dad would comment on how beautiful you were. But as you grew older, he would rarely miss out on commenting on weight and attitude. You probably carry these concerns into adulthood, even if you found success. With a dad like this, it’s never enough. With men (or women), you often feel vulnerable and worried you’ll be dumped for someone else. Anxiously avoiding commitment or taking on the narcissistic role are both natural ways to keep relationships safe; it’s understandable and self-protective. (But you lose.)

A daughter needs her dad’s adoration; it validates her and helps her internalize her specialness. Healthy fathers give their girls that gift. You are special and deserve love for being you.

• As the son of a narcissistic father you never feel that you can measure up. Dad was so competitive that he even competed with you. (Or didn’t pay attention to you one way or the other.) You may have accepted defeat—you’d never outdo your dad. Or, you may have worked hard to beat Dad at his own game just to get his attention and some semblance of fatherly pride. You somehow never feel good enough, and even when you do succeed, you still feel empty and second rate.

Just like girls need to be adored by their fathers to feel validated, boys also need their dad to believe in them.

So how do you survive a narcissist father?

  • Get into good therapy. You want to come to terms with Dad for who he is, and how he hurt you. He’s your father after all, and you will need to differentiate from him in order to enjoy his presence without being undermined. It’s no small task.
  • Accept Dad for who he is. His arrogance and constant need for ego stroking can be annoying. If you put him into place in your mind, he may simply end up being a lovable but annoying father. Take the best, as long as he doesn’t still have the power to hurt you.
  • Do not let Dad hurt you. If he has a rage attack, you may decide to get in the car and leave. Limits are often a good thing. “Dad, this is not constructive.”
  • Cut ties if it is too toxic or dangerous. Some narcissistic parents have violent or abusive tendencies. It goes along with their self-righteousness. You are now an adult. Take care and take caution.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and low. Don’t expect a relationship with a narcissistic person to be based on mutuality or reciprocity. Narcissists are selfish and can’t put your needs on par with their own. As an adult, you can keep these conflicts with your father at a distance; but if you date or marry a narcissist, it probably will wear you out.
  • When you want something from a narcissist, convince them that it will be to their benefit. I am not a big fan of dishonesty, but some people with narcissistic traits can be manipulated. When you want such a person to do something for you, you need to spin it in a way so that your request seems to be to their benefit. This may work with your father and with others too.
  • Never let a narcissist determine your self-worth. Narcissists lack empathy and the ability to validate others, so be careful about trusting them with sensitive information or sharing important achievements, because they won’t treat it with the respect it deserves. I have seen this backfire many times. 
  • Sometimes compliance is the simplest way to deal with a narcissistic parent. It may sound cheap, but if your father is narcissistic, you may not be interested in cutting him out of your life. He is your dad, after all. Sometimes, it’s easier, and requires less effort, to comply with most of his wishes. It may not be worth the fight. You are an adult now, and you are not under his roof anymore.
  • Alternatively, you can assert your own authority and challenge his. Narcissists get away with their behavior because others (passively) allow them to. Sometimes, you may need to adopt an authoritative stance and firmly impress upon him that his demeaning attitude is unacceptable. You are no longer a child, and you are not as vulnerable to his rejection or anger. Be prepared for pushback. Narcissistic people hate criticism. 
  • Pity the narcissist. Arrogance doesn’t really inspire sympathy or compassion. But at the end of the day, when you think about it, you may come to pity someone who is in constant need of compliments, attention, and validation. It is freeing.

Appreciate the Healthy Adults Out There:

While it’s hard to grow up unaffected by a narcissistic father, there may have been others who helped you along the way. Looking back on your life, you may identify a grandfather, a grandmother, a coach, a teacher, a therapist or a religious figure who really appreciated you. Maybe your mother saved the day.

Take in the Good:

I hope you can find the good. There may have been some good in your narcissistic father. Embrace that while distancing yourself from the rest. Plus, there may have been special men and women in your upbringing—internalize their good. And, there are good people to care about today—bring in this good as well.

Finally, realize the value within yourself. You don’t have to be great to be good enough.