Tara Westover’s Life in a Mormon Survivalist Family

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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Perhaps one of the best-known Mormon survivalist families is the Westovers, made famous in daughter Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What was it like to be a child in the Westover family?

We’ll cover the parts of the book that best demonstrate what growing up in a Mormon survivalist family was like for Tara.

Meet the Westovers

Tara Westover was one of seven children born into a family of hardline, anti-government Mormon survivalists who lived on a remote mountain in rural Idaho. A Mormon fundamentalist, her father was an adherent (and active promoter) of an extreme ideology that welded together strands from the militia, anti-vaccination, and evangelical Christian movements.

His adherence to Mormon survivalist views subjected his family to a number of privations.

  • Tara was born at home and didn’t see a doctor or nurse until her adulthood. 
  • She didn’t attend any school growing up, public or private.
  • She didn’t have a birth certificate, and the state of Idaho had no official record of her existence until she was issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth at the age of nine.

These views resulted in four facets of Mormon survivalist life: A literal interpretation of the Bible, austerity at home, an inconsistent birthday, and a belief in Y2K.

1. The Voice of God in a Mormon Survivalist Family

The family lived at the base of Buck’s Peak, a mountain in Franklin County, Idaho. Her 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 Mormon survivalist beliefs and frequently clashed with him over his refusal to send his children to school

As a religious fundamentalist, Gene believed that he could communicate directly with God and he 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.

2. Isolation and Austerity in a Mormon Survivalist Household

His faith and Mormon survivalist approach also made him an avowed opponent of public school, and in fact, all forms of education other than homeschooling. Indeed, he believed that public school was a government conspiracy to indoctrinate children and lure them from the righteous path of God.

He believed in living “off-the-grid” and adhering to strict self-sufficiency, without any help from the government. Gene also had a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur, believing that the federal government was out to get him for defying the “brainwashing” being done in schools and other mainstream institutions of American society.

He also detested what he saw as the “frivolities” of modern life, like interior carpeting, wallpaper, and even most forms of basic hygiene (including basic practices like washing one’s hands after using the bathroom). Tara recalls learning early on that “frivolous” was a severe slander in her family. To him, frivolities were false idols, worshipped by unbelievers who had strayed from the true path of God. 

Growing up in the Westover home, Tara experienced more than just ideological extremism. Her parents’ beliefs had real-world consequences for the children, which frequently put Tara and her siblings in grave danger. Whether it was through near-death experiences in car crashes or maimings in the junkyard where Gene forced his children to work, it was a constant struggle for survival on Buck’s Peak.

3. Birthdays in a Mormon Survivalist Family

Tara had no birth certificate because she hadn’t been born in a hospital or delivered by a licensed medical professional with a witness present. Her family had chosen not to register her birth with the courthouse in town, possibly due to their anti-government, Mormon survivalist beliefs. Officially, the state of Idaho had no record of her existence. Even today, her actual date of birth cannot be determined with 100 percent certainty.

When Tara was nine, Faye decided that she should obtain birth certificates for all her children. This proved more difficult than expected, as she had no documents that could prove her children were, in fact, her own. The only documents for Tara were her christening and her baptismal records, each of which had a different birth date. Eventually, Tara was only issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth after Grandma-down-the-hill swore an affidavit in court attesting that Tara was born on September 27, 1986 (though there was internal family disagreement about the accuracy of this date).

Up until this point, Tara had never known when to celebrate her birthday. As an adult, Tara now sees how this most basic childhood experience had been denied to her. At the time, of course, she accepted it as normal. She believed that she had a birthday (she had been born after all) just like everybody else—it just changed from year-to-year.

But there would still be uncertainty around Tara’s actual birthday, even within her family. Years later, when Tara was applying to college, even her mom Faye couldn’t remember whether her daughter was 16 or 20, observing, “It’s hard to keep track of how old you kids are.”

This contrast appeared especially stark as the year 2000 approached, and Gene became fixated by a new source of paranoia: Y2K.

4. Y2K in a Mormon Survivalist Family

Gene 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.” This is a common belief of Mormon survivalists. In this 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

In this vein, Gene was a Y2K conspiracy theorist, believing that all computers would shut down when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. According to this theory, this would cause the world’s electrical, water, and nuclear systems to melt down, bringing about widespread looting, panic, death, and destruction.

Gene took steps to prepare his family for what he saw as the inevitable result of man’s foolish and heretical faith in modern technology.

  • The family set to work preparing canned food and even stockpiled a thousand-gallon tank of gas on the property to be ready for the day when they would have to take to the road.
  • Disturbingly, Gene somehow acquired a fifty-caliber anti-aircraft rifle, allegedly for the family’s protection and safety.

In many ways, Gene looked forward to the end of civilization at Y2K with a strange sort of glee. He saw it as a vindication of his beliefs and had made a point of reminding everyone at church how well-prepared his family was for the chaos that would soon descend.

The failure of the world to end, then, sent Gene into a deep emotional tailspin. Tara recalls his disappointment as the clock turned from 12:00 to 12:10 to 1:30 AM, with no signs of electricity failing or civilization collapsing. His prophecy had been a false one.

Even as an adolescent, Tara saw her father as being smaller and frailer in that moment. His disappointment made him oddly childlike. She even wondered what sort of cruel God could deny him what he’d been preparing his whole life for. His spirit was broken. Still, he remained a hardline Mormon survivalist.

Tara Westover’s Life in a Mormon Survivalist Family

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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 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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