Authors: Tara Westover
I call. The first thing Richard remembers is the twine, which, true to his nature, he refers to as a “baling implement.” Next he remembers the spilled gasoline. I ask how Luke managed to put out the fire and get himself down the mountain, given that he was in shock when I found him. Dad was with him, Richard says flatly.
Then why wasn’t Dad at the house?
Richard says, Because Luke had run through the weeds and set the mountain afire. You remember that summer. Dry, scorching. You can’t go starting forest fires in farm country during a dry summer. So Dad put Luke in the truck and told him to drive to the house, to Mother. Only Mother was gone.
I think it over for a few days, then sit back down to write. Dad is there in the beginning—Dad with his funny jokes about socialists and dogs and the roof that keeps liberals from drowning. Then Dad and Luke go back up the mountain, Mother drives away and I turn the tap to fill the kitchen sink. Again. For the third time it feels like.
On the mountain something is happening. I can only imagine it but I see it clearly, more clearly than if it were a memory. The cars are stacked and waiting, their fuel tanks ruptured and drained. Dad waves at a tower of cars and says, “Luke, cut off those tanks, yeah?” And Luke says, “Sure thing, Dad.” He lays the torch against his hip and strikes flint. Flames erupt from nowhere and take him. He screams, fumbles with the twine, screams again, and takes off through the weeds.
Dad chases him, orders him to stand still. It’s probably the first time in his whole life that Luke doesn’t do something when Dad is telling him to. Luke is fast but Dad is smart. He takes a shortcut through a pyramid of cars and tackles Luke, slamming him to the ground.
I can’t picture what happens next, because nobody ever told me how Dad put out the fire on Luke’s leg. Then a memory surfaces—of Dad, that night in the kitchen, wincing as Mother slathers salve on his hands, which are red and blistering—and I know what he must have done.
Luke is no longer on fire.
I try to imagine the moment of decision. Dad looks at the weeds, which are burning fast, thirsty for flame in that quivering heat. He looks at his son. He thinks if he can choke the flames while they’re young, he can prevent a wildfire, maybe save the house.
Luke seems lucid. His brain hasn’t processed what’s happened; the pain hasn’t set in.
The Lord will provide,
I imagine Dad thinking.
God left him conscious.
I imagine Dad praying aloud, his eyes drawn heavenward, as he carries his son to the truck and sets him in the driver’s seat. Dad shifts the engine into first, the truck starts its roll. It’s going at a good speed now, Luke is gripping the wheel. Dad jumps from the moving truck, hits the ground hard and rolls, then runs back toward the brushfire, which has spread wider and grown taller.
The Lord will provide,
he chants, then he takes off his shirt and begins to beat back the flames.
* Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident. His account differs from both mine and Richard’s. In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire. This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s. Still, perhaps our memories are in error. Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass. What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.
I wanted to get away from the junkyard and there was only one way to do that, which was the way Audrey had done it: by getting a job so I wouldn’t be at the house when Dad rounded up his crew. The trouble was, I was eleven.
I biked a mile into the dusty center of our little village. There wasn’t much there, just a church, a post office and a gas station called Papa Jay’s. I went into the post office. Behind the counter was an older lady whose name I knew was Myrna Moyle, because Myrna and her husband Jay (Papa Jay) owned the gas station. Dad said they’d been behind the city ordinance limiting dog ownership to two dogs per family. They’d proposed other ordinances, too, and now every Sunday Dad came home from church shouting about Myrna and Jay Moyle, and how they were from Monterey or Seattle or wherever and thought they could impose West Coast socialism on the good people of Idaho.
I asked Myrna if I could put a card up on the board. She asked what the card was for. I said I hoped I could find jobs babysitting.
“What times are you available?” she said.
“Anytime, all the time.”
“You mean after school?”
“I mean all the time.”
Myrna looked at me and tilted her head. “My daughter Mary needs someone to tend her youngest. I’ll ask her.”
Mary taught nursing at the school, which Dad said was just about as brainwashed as a person could get, to be working for the Medical Establishment
the Government both. I thought maybe he wouldn’t let me work for her, but he did, and pretty soon I was babysitting Mary’s daughter every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. Then Mary had a friend, Eve, who needed a babysitter for her three children on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A mile down the road, a man named Randy ran a business out of his home, selling cashews, almonds and macadamias. He stopped by the post office one afternoon and chatted with Myrna about how tired he was of packing the boxes himself, how he wished he could hire some kids but they were all tied up with football and band.
“There’s at least one kid in this town who isn’t,” Myrna said. “And I think she’d be real eager.” She pointed to my card, and soon I was babysitting from eight until noon Monday to Friday, then going to Randy’s to pack cashews until supper. I wasn’t paid much, but as I’d never been paid anything before, it felt like a lot.
People at church said Mary could play the piano beautifully. They used the word “professional.” I didn’t know what that meant until one Sunday when Mary played a piano solo for the congregation. The music stopped my breath. I’d heard the piano played countless times before, to accompany hymns, but when Mary played it, the sound was nothing like that formless clunking. It was liquid, it was air. It was rock one moment and wind the next.
The next day, when Mary returned from the school, I asked her if instead of money she would give me lessons. We perched on the piano bench and she showed me a few finger exercises. Then she asked what else I was learning besides the piano. Dad had told me what to say when people asked about my schooling. “I do school every day,” I said.
“Do you meet other kids?” she asked. “Do you have friends?”
“Sure,” I said. Mary returned to the lesson. When we’d finished and I was ready to go, she said, “My sister Caroline teaches dance every Wednesday in the back of Papa Jay’s. There are lots of girls your age. You could join.”
That Wednesday, I left Randy’s early and pedaled to the gas station. I wore jeans, a large gray T-shirt, and steel-toed boots; the other girls wore black leotards and sheer, shimmering skirts, white tights and tiny ballet shoes the color of taffy. Caroline was younger than Mary. Her makeup was flawless and gold hoops flashed through chestnut curls.
She arranged us in rows, then showed us a short routine. A song played from a boom box in the corner. I’d never heard it before but the other girls knew it. I looked in the mirror at our reflection, at the twelve girls, sleek and shiny, pirouetting blurs of black, white and pink. Then at myself, large and gray.
When the lesson finished, Caroline told me to buy a leotard and dance shoes.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Oh.” She looked uncomfortable. “Maybe one of the girls can lend you one.”
She’d misunderstood. She thought I didn’t have money. “It isn’t modest,” I said. Her lips parted in surprise.
These Californian Moyles,
“Well, you can’t dance in boots,” she said. “I’ll talk to your mother.”
A few days later, Mother drove me forty miles to a small shop whose shelves were lined with exotic shoes and strange acrylic costumes. Not one was modest. Mother went straight to the counter and told the attendant we needed a black leotard, white tights and jazz shoes.
“Keep those in your room,” Mother said as we left the store. She didn’t need to say anything else. I already understood that I should not show the leotard to Dad.
That Wednesday, I wore the leotard and tights with my gray T-shirt over the top. The T-shirt reached almost to my knees, but even so I was ashamed to see so much of my legs. Dad said a righteous woman never shows anything above her ankle.
The other girls rarely spoke to me, but I loved being there with them. I loved the sensation of conformity. Learning to dance felt like learning to belong. I could memorize the movements and, in doing so, step into their minds, lunging when they lunged, reaching my arms upward in time with theirs. Sometimes, when I glanced at the mirror and saw the tangle of our twirling forms, I couldn’t immediately discern myself in the crowd. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a gray T-shirt—a goose among swans. We moved together, a single flock.
We began rehearsals for the Christmas recital, and Caroline called Mother to discuss the costume. “The skirt will be how long?” Mother said. “And sheer? No, that’s not going to work.” I heard Caroline say something about what the other girls in the class would want to wear. “Tara can’t wear that,” Mother said. “If that’s what the other girls are wearing, she will stay home.”
On the Wednesday after Caroline called Mother, I arrived at Papa Jay’s a few minutes early. The younger class had just finished, and the store was flooded with six-year-olds, prancing for their mothers in red velvet hats and skirts sparkling with sequins of deep scarlet. I watched them wiggle and leap through the aisles, their thin legs covered only by sheer tights. I thought they looked like tiny harlots.
The rest of my class arrived. When they saw the outfits, they rushed into the studio to see what Caroline had for
. Caroline was standing next to a cardboard box full of large gray sweatshirts. She began handing them out. “Here are your costumes!” she said. The girls held up their sweatshirts, eyebrows raised in disbelief. They had expected chiffon or ribbon, not Fruit of the Loom. Caroline had tried to make the sweatshirts more appealing by sewing large Santas, bordered with glitter, on the fronts, but this only made the dingy cotton seem dingier.
Mother hadn’t told Dad about the recital, and neither had I. I didn’t ask him to come. There was an instinct at work in me, a learned intuition. The day of the recital, Mother told Dad I had a “thing” that night. Dad asked a lot of questions, which surprised Mother, and after a few minutes she admitted it was a dance recital. Dad grimaced when Mother told him I’d been taking lessons from Caroline Moyle, and I thought he was going to start talking about California socialism again, but he didn’t. Instead he got his coat and the three of us walked to the car.
The recital was held at the church. Everyone was there, with flashing cameras and bulky camcorders. I changed into my costume in the same room where I attended Sunday school. The other girls chatted cheerfully; I pulled on my sweatshirt, trying to stretch the material a few more inches. I was still tugging it downward when we lined up on the stage.
Music played from a stereo on the piano and we began to dance, our feet tapping in sequence. Next we were supposed to leap, reach upward and spin. My feet remained planted. Instead of flinging my arms above my head, I lifted them only to my shoulders. When the other girls crouched to slap the stage, I tilted; when we were to cartwheel, I swayed, refusing to allow gravity to do its work, to draw the sweatshirt any higher up my legs.
The music ended. The girls glared at me as we left the stage—I had ruined the performance—but I could barely see them. Only one person in that room felt real to me, and that was Dad. I searched the audience and recognized him easily. He was standing in the back, the lights from the stage flickering off his square glasses. His expression was stiff, impassive, but I could see anger in it.
The drive home was only a mile; it felt like a hundred. I sat in the backseat and listened to my father shout. How could Mother have let me sin so openly? Was this why she’d kept the recital from him? Mother listened for a moment, chewing her lip, then threw her hands in the air and said that she’d had no idea the costume would be so immodest. “I’m furious with Caroline Moyle!” she said.
I leaned forward to see Mother’s face, wanting her to look at me, to see the question I was mentally asking her, because I didn’t understand, not at all. I knew Mother wasn’t furious with Caroline, because I knew Mother had seen the sweatshirt days before. She had even called Caroline and thanked her for choosing a costume I could wear. Mother turned her head toward the window.
I stared at the gray hairs on the back of Dad’s head. He was sitting quietly, listening to Mother, who continued to insult Caroline, to say how shocking the costumes were, how obscene. Dad nodded as we bumped up the icy driveway, becoming less angry with every word from Mother.
The rest of the night was taken up by my father’s lecture. He said Caroline’s class was one of Satan’s deceptions, like the public school, because it claimed to be one thing when really it was another. It
to teach dance, but instead it taught immodesty, promiscuity. Satan was shrewd, Dad said. By calling it “dance,” he had convinced good Mormons to accept the sight of their daughters jumping about like whores in the Lord’s house. That fact offended Dad more than anything else: that such a lewd display had taken place in a church.
After he had worn himself out and gone to bed, I crawled under my covers and stared into the black. There was a knock at my door. It was Mother. “I should have known better,” she said. “I should have seen that class for what it was.”
MOTHER MUST HAVE FELT guilty after the recital, because in the weeks that followed she searched for something else I could do, something Dad wouldn’t forbid. She’d noticed the hours I spent in my room with Tyler’s old boom box, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so she began looking for a voice teacher. It took a few weeks to find one, and another few weeks to persuade the teacher to take me. The lessons were much more expensive than the dance class had been, but Mother paid for them with the money she made selling oils.
The teacher was tall and thin, with long fingernails that clicked as they flew across the piano keys. She straightened my posture by pulling the hair at the base of my neck until I’d tucked in my chin, then she stretched me out on the floor and stepped on my stomach to strengthen my diaphragm. She was obsessed with balance and often slapped my knees to remind me to stand powerfully, to take up my own space.
After a few lessons, she announced that I was ready to sing in church. It was arranged, she said. I would sing a hymn in front of the congregation that Sunday.
The days slipped away quickly, as days do when you’re dreading something. On Sunday morning, I stood at the pulpit and stared into the faces of the people below. There was Myrna and Papa Jay, and behind them Mary and Caroline. They looked sorry for me, like they thought I might humiliate myself.
Mother played the introduction. The music paused; it was time to sing. I might have had any number of thoughts at that moment. I might have thought of my teacher and her techniques—square stance, straight back, dropped jaw. Instead I thought of Tyler, and of lying on the carpet next to his desk, staring at his woolen-socked feet while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir chanted and trilled. He’d filled my head with their voices, which to me were more beautiful than anything except Buck’s Peak.
Mother’s fingers hovered over the keys. The pause had become awkward; the congregation shifted uncomfortably. I thought of the voices, of their strange contradictions—of the way they made sound float on air, of how that sound was soft like a warm wind, but so sharp it pierced. I reached for those voices, reached into my mind—and there they were. Nothing had ever felt so natural; it was as if I
the sound, and by thinking it brought it into being. But reality had never yielded to my thoughts before.
The song finished and I returned to our pew. A prayer was offered to close the service, then the crowd rushed me. Women in floral prints smiled and clasped my hand, men in square black suits clapped my shoulder. The choir director invited me to join the choir, Brother Davis asked me to sing for the Rotary Club, and the bishop—the Mormon equivalent of a pastor—said he’d like me to sing my song at a funeral. I said yes to all of them.
Dad smiled at everyone. There was scarcely a person in the church that Dad hadn’t called a gentile—for visiting a doctor or for sending their kids to the public school—but that day he seemed to forget about California socialism and the Illuminati. He stood next to me, a hand on my shoulder, graciously collecting compliments. “We’re very blessed,” he kept saying. “Very blessed.” Papa Jay crossed the chapel and paused in front of our pew. He said I sang like one of God’s own angels. Dad looked at him for a moment, then his eyes began to shine and he shook Papa Jay’s hand like they were old friends.