Core Question 1: How can the same family upbringing produce such divergent outcomes?

Can you think of a time when your choices or values contrasted greatly with a sibling or family member? Or if you are a parent, can you identify a time when you witnessed your own children reacting differently to the same parenting conditions? How do your personal examples relate or contrast with Westover’s family dynamics?

While the seven children in the Westover family grew up in similar conditions, their adult lives contrast greatly with one another. Tara’s path, along with two of her siblings, eventually leads to achievements in academia.

Her other siblings take up roles in their parents’ businesses and plant roots in rural Idaho. How did you react to the contrast between the siblings’ divergent choices? As we learned how each sibling coped and responded to the same family upbringing, which sibling did you most identify with?

Although Tara’s childhood circumstances are severe and very different from what many would consider to be the norm, I do not find it unusual that siblings would grow up vastly different from one another - in career path, family path, success level, and belief system.

My mother is one of seven children, and as I’ve only met them all as adults, I see them as vastly different human beings - some atheists, some catholic; one with a PhD and two with no more than a GED, some professionally successful, some not; some Republican, some Democrat, some Independent; some business owners, some laborers, some business professionals; some who never left rural PA, some who moved to the south, and some who moved to the city. They are 7 people all brought up in very similar circumstances, and yet have wildly different life experiences, belief systems, and personal values.

While your childhood will of course have a lasting impact, your parents and your upbringing don’t define you; you still have to make those choices for yourself.

It brings to mind nurture vs. nature in respect to this book. The father was so domineering in his beliefs and way of doing things. Some of his children followed suit and adapted to his demands, while others naturally rebelled. Personality emerges and the beliefs, dogma and traditions we receive as children sometimes don’t hold up as we become young adults and older. Life experiences, education, relationships and jobs influence us – this can go against sibling(s) or parental outlooks on what is right and wrong, acceptable or not, etc. It’s a fascinating look at various children finding their “own” way, especially Tara and her brother (Tyler).


I have only one other sibling, and those who know us pick up pretty quickly on the fact that we’re as different as night and day. As I used to affectionately sum it up for my Marist peers: He was a student athlete, I was student government; he went to a school run by nuns and we had the Marist Brothers; their colors were blue & gold and ours were red and white. When it comes to personal interests, goals, and ambitions, the differences continue to tally.

This divide can probably be traced back to the very first distinction others drew between us: my brother has always been noted to take after our father while I tend to take after our mother. Dad’s direct, decisive (bordering on impatient), and a carpe-diem sort of guy. Mom, on the other hand, is diplomatic, strategic, and the one in our family to keep an eye on the bigger picture/long-term. Rather than clash, however, these competing viewpoints played into a deeper synergy between my parents–they knew when to trade off responsibilities and yield to judgment of the other. Based on her accounting, this balance is sorely lacking in Westover’s family structure.

Her mother, though remembered as a strong and intuitive soul when it came to her professional endeavors, lost this same resolve when it came to tempering the humors of her husband. “Gene” went unchecked, highhandedly established the norms and guidelines by which their family lived, laying the foundation for the outlooks and beliefs that would shape his children’s behaviors (to a tragic extent, in Shawn’s case).

A family is a social unit. Like any other community, it’s members live according to a social contract. While norms are collectively established (either democratically agreed upon or complied with under an autocratic regime in return for safety) individuals independently assess and prioritize their actions and responses to the actions of others according to these principles. This is where deviations occur.

In criminal justice, it is understood that delinquency arises when a social contract no longer benefits certain members of the society. Individuals who feel oppressed or cheated by the system in place feel more compelled to seek out an alternative. One could argue what Tara shares in common with her more academically inclined siblings, Tyler and Richard, is a mild “outsider” status in their household. Tyler and Richard are quieter and milder personalities compared to the other Westover men–they exhibit a passion for academic pursuits decried by their father as corrosive and elitist early on. Tara’s “otherness” arises from her own inquisitive nature–more commonly directed toward spiritual matters than academia–and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her old brother. These factors compounded to strengthen her bond with Tyler while weakening her attachments to her Father, mother, and other siblings.

In the argument of “Nature v. Nurture”, there is no decisive answer. Identity is an outcome resulting from myriad factors. Westover could have easily pinned her family’s woes on their religious background. Instead, a part of her journey toward self-discovery included an understanding that mental illness played a part in her father’s unwavering devotion. Biological nature influences nurturing conditions in a cycle that plays out over generations, branching and adapting as new units are added to the chain.

Tyler and Tara will undoubtedly organize their families differently than their siblings who stayed back in Idaho, but the lessons they pass down will share a common root. A message altered over time, a never-ending story.

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While I find this core question very basic - I won’t hesitate to say that everyone’s opinion probably will be similar. We will all probably think that there are many (too many) other influences in our lives not to project different life paths.
Whether we identify with Tara’s situation or not - is not to say we all don’t understand that there will always be divergent life styles emanating from similar growth situations.
Certainly, some are born right handed, and some left handed. Some are drawn to the arts while others are drawn to sports. Some are mostly influenced by siblings and some are mostly influenced by friends.
We can’t even speculate about Tara’s situation without first walking in her shoes. How many of us grew up in"the sticks"; how many on a farm; how many had both parents overseeing the entire family on a daily basis; and on and on…?
My mind and heart “go out” to Tara because she spent so many years searching for “the balance” in her life. She was (for too long) shielded from “the other side of the coin”. She constantly demonstrated tremendous acceptance and respect and often tempered her growth with self-criticism and self-doubt but could never really understand why.
Her father seemed domineering and her mother seemed accepting. Her father seemed rigid and her mother seemed flexible. Her father seemed protective and her mother seemed inventive. And all of these attributes are good things . . . as long as they are kept in balance.
But Tara was shielded from the “other side” of these attributes - the most important of which seems to have been communication and whole world education.

My wife and I have attempted to raise our children with rock solid values and a strong sense of belonging. We have tried to openly challenge our own beliefs and customs thus exposing our children to acceptance of reasonable doubts. All of this seems right to us, but we also know that our beliefs and values have changed over the years (though not in radical ways).
When all of this is said and done - the one overwhelming belief that we have cherished and held onto is the fact that every day each person must look in their own mirror and determine whether they are pleased and fulfilled by what they see.
Our children are different and this is good.

Great points, Bill. You hit two very important points in my view: balance and attachments.

Personalities are like tea–they come in all varieties and some are a lot stronger than others. With a little help, these qualities can be tempered over time. Which brings us to the second factor, attachments.

Milton Hershey (sadly, not at all associated with the chocolate company) proposed that human behavior was shaped by attachments, the bonds we form with others. Attachments fall under a hierarchy of preference and are ordered according to their “strength”–or the degree of value we place on our association with an individual or group.

For example, a young child’s primary attachments are often linked to their primary caregivers. As they grow, new attachments are formed with their peers that may eventually supersede their bonds with their guardians. In these cases, their behaviors will more closely mirror the values espoused by their peers than what they’ve learned at home.

Opportunity seems to have played a big part in Tyler and Tara’s development. As they were able to get away from their homestead and form new attachments, they were opened to new possibilities that their siblings couldn’t attain.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

The book has me thinking of how we leave for college and come back different people. How we marry and morph a bit more. As we age we continue to grow and, sometimes we go back home and find we simply don’t fit as we used to. While others find it still fits like an old shoe.


I have just started the book and I find it interesting that her brother was very technical and others were more interested in just working around the farm. The divergent education levels seems to be a result of the fathers beliefs at the time the children were born.


This is a such a great observation that I didn’t pick up on initially. I had been thinking that maybe some of Tara’s siblings were born with an innate drive to learn or see what else is out there and some just weren’t, however this could be more of a case of how the kids were nurtured. As Gene’s erratic behavior became worse over time, his kids became more likely to explore other ideas the world had to offer.

I grew up the youngest and only girl in a family of five and my experience is that everyone’s personality makes a significant difference in how we react to family upbringing even within the same household. In addition to that, Tara makes it quite clear that the Father that she remembers is quite different from the Father that her older siblings experienced. Clearly, all people change so although parenting styles may remain the same for a parent, goals & priorities for their own life and the lives of their children evolve as both parents and children continue to grow and mature.
As a parent of four young women, I too can see that each one is very unique and is affected quite differently by life’s challenges.
I am the only one of my siblings to leave the West Coast & the only one to receive a Bachelor’s degree. My second to the oldest brother, did receive an associate’s degree but has not completed the requirements for his Bachelor’s degree as of yet.
So far, I identify mostly with Tara, having all brothers I was often at the brunt of their jokes or teasing while we were children and although I did not suffer the abuse from a sibling like she did, on occasion, we did get physical when settling our differences. Otherwise, I am grateful that I have good relationships with all of my siblings, and even though we do not see each other much, when we do it is a welcome experience and sad when we must leave each other’s presence. (Two of my siblings have left the United States and currently live in Mexico.)

As I read about Tara’s upbringing it reminded me of various ways my family was as I grew up. I have 3 sisters and 1 brother, in contrast to Tara’s family, my Mother was the one whom disciplined and kept the home front running, she was firm and definitely ran a tight ship. Whereas, my Father was the bread winner (that was his only job). When I observe us siblings, we all followed the same upbringing for expectations lead by the family. My Mother taught us girls an old-fashioned type of expectation, finish high school find a man and get married start a family. My brother was to serve in the Army, go onto a higher education and be successful. Overtime, all of girls ended up going on for degrees in various sectors. So, I can see the divergence of Tara’s family similar in those aspects. Although my mother was the disciplinarian, I don’t recall ever experiencing anything like Tara describes, I believe we were sheltered but not to the same extent.
As for any reaction to the divergence within Tara’s family I didn’t really per se have a reaction as much as I could see similarities as I mentioned earlier.

Great points, Danielle, and a really interesting train of thought to follow.

It got me thinking about my relationship with the childhood friends in my hometown and how our dynamic has changed since we all went off to college. Like my family, these friends played an important part in my early youth. But unlike my parents and siblings, we did not keep in contact quite as much during our college years.

We each went off and had our own adventures, changing and growing along the way, but in the back of each of our heads an old and outdated perception remained. It wasn’t until we all reunited that we got to take stock of the shifts in personality and worldview that manifested over that time and reconcile the individuals we remembered with the strangers that supplanted them.

But, as you note, there are always certain touchstones (shared memories or personal quirks) that call us back to those older times and make us feel at home.

I find it interesting to see how each of the siblings responded to a father and brother who seemingly had untreated bipolar disorder their whole lives. Audrey, who decided to stay and raise her children in Idaho, continued to be victimized by Shawn both physically and psychologically but remained “loyal” to the family by submitting herself to their ideas and beliefs. Richard and Tyler, on the other hand, went to great lengths to study and obtain an education and an independence from the family. Tara tried to stay around for awhile to help the family business, but eventually gained the courage and the determination to break out of her isolated surroundings into a completely different culture and lifestyle. I cannot even imagine the self-doubt that she must have experienced and the fortitude she had after she had been so emotionally abused by Shawn and even by her father. She is an amazingly strong person!