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).

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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.