Gene Westover: Tara’s Religious, Mentally Ill Father (Educated)

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 Gene Westover? What is Gene’s relationship with his daughter Tara like? And why doesn’t Tara Westover have any contact with him?

Gene Westover is the fictional name Tara Westover gives to her father in her memoir Educated.

We’ll look at events leading up to Gene Westover’s break with Tara, events that might indicate why Tara chose not to reveal Gene’s real name, even though she used the real names of some of her other family members.

Gene Westover Hears the Voice of God

The family lived at the base of Buck’s Peak, a mountain in Franklin County, Idaho. Tara’s father, Gene, had free reign to impose his beliefs on the rest of the family from this remote, isolated location, free from interference (or intervention) from the outside world.

Gene’s family had been living on the mountain for over 50 years, but his own siblings had long since moved away by the time Tara was born in 1986. He had a contentious relationship with his own mother, whom Tara knew as “Grandma-down-the-hill” and who lived (as her nickname would suggest) just down the hill from Tara’s immediate family. She did not share her son’s hardline beliefs and frequently clashed with him over his refusal to send his children to school

Gene was a religious fundamentalist, who believed that he could communicate directly with God and who took the text of the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon literally. He once forced the family to purge their refrigerator of dairy products and brought home 50 gallons of honey in his truck. He had done this because he had read in the Book of Isaiah, “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” He believed that God was telling him dairy was evil and honey was good.

He was an apocalyptic prophet, believing that the family was living at a time close to the end of the world, or as he called the era, the “Days of Abomination.” In his fevered end-times scenario, Gene believed that the government and the basic structure of society would collapse, paper currency would become worthless, and everything would descend into anarchy and chaos. To prepare the family for what he saw as an inevitability, Gene insisted on stockpiling supplies of homemade canned goods, clothing, gold, and, most disturbingly, high quantities of military-grade weaponry

Gene Westover Uproots the Family

The family would take annual trips to visit Gene’s parents during the winter months, when the latter would snowbird in Arizona. This was usually to combat Gene’s intense bouts of depression, which would set over him during the harsh winters on the mountain in Idaho. He would take to bed and refuse to emerge from his room for days at a time.

Faye explained this away by likening Gene to a sunflower: he’d wither and die in the snow, so he needed to be replanted in the sun. Looking back, Tara now sees that this was a symptom of her father’s mental illness—but, like so many other things in her childhood, she accepted her mother’s rationalizations for the family’s need to uproot itself and cater to Gene’s needs.

While the family was in Arizona, Gene would assail Tara’s grandmother with his unorthodox views. When he found out that she was going to see the doctor, he informed her that herbalism (as practiced by Faye) was a sacred calling, one which used God’s own bounty on earth to cure sickness. He contrasted this with the godless, unnatural, and dangerous practices of modern medicine.

He claimed that “doctors and pills” were Grandma’s gods, and that she had given herself over to false idols. He thoroughly believed that doctors were in the business of slowly poisoning their patients over time. He even accused his mother of being an agent of the Illuminati.

One day during this trip, Gene abruptly declared that the family would have to hit the road back to Idaho, immediately. The family began their journey home in the early evening, meaning that they would be doing most of the 12-hour drive in the middle of the night. No one on board was wearing a seatbelt. Gene made Tara’s 17-year-old brother Tyler do the entire drive in their uninsured vehicle. Tara blames her father, in part, for the horrific crash that resulted when Tyler fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night. Miraculously, everyone survived and managed to make it back to Buck’s Peak, but it was a defining moment for young Tara.

Gene Westover in the Junkyard

The junkyard was the family’s main source of income. Tara began working as part of her father’s junkyard crew—at the age of ten.

She describes the junkyard as a dangerous and desolate place, cluttered with leaking car batteries, rusting corrugated tin, and jagged pieces of brass piping. Tara’s job was to sort aluminum, iron, copper, and steel. Gene was more concerned with efficiency than safety. He even compelled Tara to remove her rubber working gloves and hard hat, telling her that they would only slow her down.

Tara quickly realized how hazardous working in the junkyard would be. She frequently saw her brothers getting maimed or burned. She’d even seen other members of the work crew lose fingers while cutting metal in the junkyard. Tara herself was hit in the stomach with a steel cylinder that her father had hurled through the air in an attempt to get it into a sorting bin.

Gene reassured his daughter that God and the angels wouldn’t let any harm come to her. Based on what she’d already seen, Tara was beginning to have her doubts.

Near-Death Experiences

One day, Gene forced Tara to pack iron scraps into a flatbed trailer, while he was operating a forklift that was dumping more iron into the trailer. Tara was stabbed in the leg by a piece of iron, then nearly crushed to death by the load of iron that her father was dumping onto her from the forklift. As was typical, Gene was barely concerned with Tara’s safety and wellbeing after this incident, being more upset about the fact that she would now be losing a working day due to her injury.

Based on her diagnostic method of laying hands on Tara’s body, Faye concluded that Tara had suffered kidney damage. Tara was given a mixture of juniper and mullein flower and sent on her way. 

Gene Westover Dictates Tara’s Extracurriculars

Tara’s mother Faye supported her daughter in her desire to take dance classes, taking her to the mall to buy the necessary clothes—under strict orders, however, not to show Gene. Tara was learning how to lie to her father, to conceal parts of her life and her identity that she knew would run afoul of his religious ideals.

Eventually, however, Gene found out the truth about the dance class and stopped Tara from going, telling her that the only things she was learning were promiscuity and immodesty. His censoring of her female identity and self-expression was a grim portent for what his attitude would be toward her as she entered puberty and womanhood.

So Faye sought another outlet for her youngest daughter. She subsequently enrolled Tara in voice classes. Gene, surprisingly, beamed with pride during her performances, telling everyone how blessed the family was to have someone with talent like Tara’s. Looking back, Tara notes that her father seemed to let go of his paranoia and anger when he heard her sing. For those brief moments, he was transported—and transformed.

Gene Westover’s Bipolar Disorder

Once Tara got to college and her financial situation was more secure, she was able to pour herself more vigorously into academics. She had a revelation in a psychology course while listening to a professor list the symptoms of bipolar disorder: depression, mania, paranoia, euphoria, delusions of grandeur, and persecution complexes. The professor was describing her father.

Later, the class discussed the role that mental illness had played in separatist movements and anti-government conflicts, as had happened in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Tara had never heard of Ruby Ridge, but when she looked it up, she saw that it was the site of the standoff between Randy Weaver and the federal government in 1992. These were the same Weavers whom Gene had labeled as fellow “freedom fighters” to Tara, the Weavers of the supposed massacre at the hands of ruthless government agents.

Tara became deeply interested in bipolar disorder and wrote her term paper on the effects that bipolar parents have on their children. Her research showed her that such children are more prone to develop mood disorders themselves, and that they suffer from the stressful environment that their mentally ill parents create.

She forcefully confronted her father the next time she saw him when she visited Buck’s Peak, demanding to know why he had subjected the family to so many terrifying stories that turned out to be completely untrue. He had no answer. This was the beginning of a long process of Tara separating herself from contact with her family: for the first time since starting college, she did not return to Buck’s Peak that summer.

Gene Westover’s Accident

That next spring, however, Tara would once again be exposed to the mayhem of Buck’s Peak. One morning at BYU, she awoke to a phone call from her sister Audrey, who told her that Gene had suffered a catastrophic burn injury in a gas tank explosion and wasn’t likely to survive. She urged Tara to return home to say goodbye.

When she got back to Buck’s Peak, Tara was horrified by her father’s condition, as well as the gruesome scene around him. Much of his skin had simply melted away or was fusing to other parts of his body. Faye and some other women were using butter knives to pry Gene’s ears from his skull, which had fused together in the course of the burn. 

Faye was treating him with Rescue Remedy, the over-the-counter homeopathic that was supposedly effective for shock, as well with lobelia and skullcap—the same remedies that had been ineffective in treating minor scrapes and bruises for the children. Gene could barely ingest the medicine, since his throat had been entirely scarred from the burn. Still, he insisted that he’d rather die than go to the hospital.

Because he couldn’t take liquid, he was also succumbing to dehydration. The hospital offered to send a chopper to airlift him, but again Faye and Gene refused the treatment. He insisted on feeling what he described as “the Lord’s pain.” 

Yet, somehow, against all odds, he survived. This survival would only serve to strengthen his fanatical beliefs. It was the ultimate vindication: he had endured a fiery trial by the Lord’s hand and come out the other side. It also solidified Faye’s belief (and the faith of those around her) in the power of her homeopathy. In her mind, her herbal remedies had seen her husband through a horrific third-degree burn. To Gene and Faye, their faith had now been rewarded and affirmed by the Almighty.

Gene Westover’s Unexpected Visit

While Tara was at Harvard, Gene and Faye abruptly declared that they would be visiting Tara in Boston. She now believes that they were coming to save her, to offer her one final chance at redemption before they would have no choice but to cast her out forever.

While they were in the Northeast, Gene insisted that Tara accompany them on a visit to Palmyra, New York, where, according to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the Angel Moroni first appeared and commanded him to found the true church. It is among the holiest sites in the Mormon faith. Gene believed that touching the cross on the temple grounds would cleanse and heal Tara’s troubled soul.

Later, Gene offered to lay his hands on Tara’s head and cast out the demons he believed had strayed her from the true and righteous path.

In a crucial act of defiance, Tara refused the blessing. She remembers her father staring at her in disbelief. He tried to explain to her that the family had been chosen by the Lord and that all the trials they had gone through had been part of His divine plan to test their resolve and reveal to them their true powers. Her parents told her that she was a lost cause and had given up all chance of salvation. They left her in Boston, and their relationship was broken forever.

Gene Westover: Tara’s Religious, Mentally Ill Father (Educated)

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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

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.

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