Authors: Tara Westover
When Grandpa-down-the-hill was a young man, there’d been herds of livestock spread across the mountain, and they were tended on horseback. Grandpa’s ranching horses were the stuff of legend. Seasoned as old leather, they moved their burly bodies delicately, as if guided by the rider’s thoughts.
At least, that’s what I was told. I never saw them. As Grandpa got older he ranched less and farmed more, until one day he stopped farming. He had no need for horses, so he sold the ones that had value and set the rest loose. They multiplied, and by the time I was born there was a whole herd of wild horses on the mountain.
Richard called them dog-food horses. Once a year, Luke, Richard and I would help Grandpa round up a dozen or so to take to the auction in town, where they’d be sold for slaughter. Some years Grandpa would look out over the small, frightened herd bound for the meat grinder, at the young stallions pacing, coming to terms with their first captivity, and a hunger would appear in his eyes. Then he’d point to one and say, “Don’t load that ’un. That ’un we’ll break.”
But feral horses don’t yield easily, not even to a man like Grandpa. My brothers and I would spend days, even weeks, earning the horse’s trust, just so we could touch it. Then we would stroke its long face and gradually, over more weeks, work our hands around its wide neck and down its muscular body. After a month of this we’d bring out the saddle, and the horse would toss its head suddenly and with such violence that the halter would snap or the rope break. Once a large copper stallion busted the corral fence, smashed through it as if it weren’t there, and came out the other side bloody and bruised.
We tried not to name them, these beasts we hoped to tame, but we had to refer to them somehow. The names we chose were descriptive, not sentimental: Big Red, Black Mare, White Giant. I was thrown from dozens of these horses as they bucked, reared, rolled or leapt. I hit the dirt in a hundred sprawling postures, each time righting myself in an instant and skittering to the safety of a tree, tractor or fence, in case the horse was feeling vengeful.
We never triumphed; our strength of will faltered long before theirs. We got some so they wouldn’t buck when they saw the saddle, and a few who’d tolerate a human on their back for jaunts around the corral, but not even Grandpa dared ride them on the mountain. Their natures hadn’t changed. They were pitiless, powerful avatars from another world. To mount them was to surrender your footing, to move into their domain. To risk being borne away.
The first domesticated horse I ever saw was a bay gelding, and it was standing next to the corral, nibbling sugar cubes from Shawn’s hand. It was spring, and I was fourteen. It had been many years since I’d touched a horse.
The gelding was mine, a gift from a great-uncle on my mother’s side. I approached warily, certain that as I moved closer the horse would buck, or rear, or charge. Instead it sniffed my shirt, leaving a long, wet stain. Shawn tossed me a cube. The horse smelled the sugar, and the prickles from his chin tickled my fingers until I opened my palm.
“Wanna break him?” Shawn said.
. I was terrified of horses, or I was terrified of what I thought horses were—that is, thousand-pound devils whose ambition was to dash brains against rock. I told Shawn he could break the horse. I would watch from the fence.
I refused to name the horse, so we called him the Yearling. The Yearling was already broke to a halter and lead, so Shawn brought out the saddle that first day. The Yearling pawed the dirt nervously when he saw it; Shawn moved slowly, letting him smell the stirrups and nibble curiously at the horn. Then Shawn rubbed the smooth leather across his broad chest, moving steadily but without hurry.
“Horses don’t like things where they can’t see ’em,” Shawn said. “Best to get him used to the saddle in front. Then when he’s real comfortable with it, with the way it smells and feels, we can move it around back.”
An hour later the saddle was cinched. Shawn said it was time to mount, and I climbed onto the barn roof, sure the corral would descend into violence. But when Shawn hoisted himself into the saddle, the Yearling merely skittered. His front hooves raised a few inches off the dirt, as if he’d pondered rearing but thought better of it, then he dropped his head and his paws stilled. In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that
world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.
I named him Bud. Every night for a week I watched Shawn and Bud gallop through the corral in the gray haze of dusk. Then, on a soft summer evening, I stood next to Bud, grasping the reins while Shawn held the halter steady, and stepped into the saddle.
SHAWN SAID HE WANTED out of his old life, and that the first step was to stay away from his friends. Suddenly he was home every evening, looking for something to do. He began to drive me to my rehearsals at Worm Creek. When it was just the two of us floating down the highway, he was mellow, lighthearted. He joked and teased, and he sometimes gave me advice, which was mostly “Don’t do what I did.” But when we arrived at the theater, he would change.
At first he watched the younger boys with wary concentration, then he began to bait them. It wasn’t obvious aggression, just small provocations. He might flick off a boy’s hat or knock a soda can from his hand and laugh as the stain spread over the boy’s jeans. If he was challenged—and he usually wasn’t—he would play the part of the ruffian, a hardened “Whatcha gonna do about it?” expression disguising his face. But after, when it was just the two of us, the mask lowered, the bravado peeled off like a breastplate, and he was my brother.
It was his smile I loved best. His upper canines had never grown in, and the string of holistic dentists my parents had taken him to as a child had failed to notice until it was too late. By the time he was twenty-three, and he got himself to an oral surgeon, they had rotated sideways inside his gums and were ejecting themselves through the tissue under his nose. The surgeon who removed them told Shawn to preserve his baby teeth for as long as possible, then when they rotted out, he’d be given posts. But they never rotted out. They stayed, stubborn relics of a misplaced childhood, reminding anyone who witnessed his pointless, endless, feckless belligerence, that this man was once a boy.
IT WAS A HAZY summer evening, a month before I turned fifteen. The sun had dipped below Buck’s Peak but the sky still held a few hours of light. Shawn and I were in the corral. After breaking Bud that spring, Shawn had taken up horses in a serious way. All summer he’d been buying horses, Thoroughbreds and Paso Finos, most of them unbroken because he could pick them up cheap. We were still working with Bud. We’d taken him on a dozen rides through the open pasture, but he was inexperienced, skittish, unpredictable.
That evening, Shawn saddled a new horse, a copper-coated mare, for the first time. She was ready for a short ride, Shawn said, so we mounted, him on the mare, me on Bud. We made it about half a mile up the mountain, moving deliberately so as not to frighten the horses, winding our way through the wheat fields. Then I did something foolish. I got too close to the mare. She didn’t like having the gelding behind her, and with no warning she leapt forward, thrusting her weight onto her front legs, and with her hind legs kicked Bud full in the chest.
Bud went berserk.
I’d been tying a knot in my reins to make them more secure and didn’t have a firm hold. Bud gave a tremendous jolt, then began to buck, throwing his body in tight circles. The reins flew over his head. I gripped the saddle horn and squeezed my thighs together, curving my legs around his bulging belly. Before I could get my bearings, Bud took off at a dead run straight up a ravine, bucking now and then but running, always running. My foot slipped through a stirrup up to my calf.
All those summers breaking horses with Grandpa, and the only advice I remembered him giving was, “Whate’er you do, don’t git your foot caught in the stirrup.” I didn’t need him to explain. I knew that as long as I came off clean, I’d likely be fine. At least I’d be on the ground. But if my foot got caught, I’d be dragged until my head split on a rock.
Shawn couldn’t help me, not on that unbroken mare. Hysteria in one horse causes hysteria in others, especially in the young and spirited. Of all Shawn’s horses, there was only one—a seven-year-old buckskin named Apollo—who might have been old enough, and calm enough, to do it: to explode in furious speed, a nostril-flapping gallop, then coolly navigate while the rider detached his body, lifting one leg out of the stirrup and reaching to the ground to catch the reins of another horse wild with fright. But Apollo was in the corral, half a mile down the mountain.
My instincts told me to let go of the saddle horn—the only thing keeping me on the horse. If I let go I’d fall, but I’d have a precious moment to reach for the flapping reins or try to yank my calf from the stirrup.
Make a play for it,
my instincts screamed.
Those instincts were my guardians. They had saved me before, guiding my movements on a dozen bucking horses, telling me when to cling to the saddle and when to pitch myself clear of pounding hooves. They were the same instincts that, years before, had prompted me to hoist myself from the scrap bin when Dad was dumping it, because they had understood, even if I had not, that it was better to fall from that great height rather than hope Dad would intervene. All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.
Bud reared, thrusting his head so high I thought he might tumble backward. He landed hard and bucked. I tightened my grip on the horn, making a decision, based on another kind of instinct, not to surrender my hold.
Shawn would catch up, even on that unbroken mare. He’d pull off a miracle. The mare wouldn’t even understand the command when he shouted, “Giddy-yap!”; at the jab of his boot in her gut, which she’d never felt before, she would rear, twisting wildly. But he would yank her head down, and as soon as her hooves touched the dirt, kick her a second time, harder, knowing she would rear again. He would do this until she leapt into a run, then he would drive her forward, welcoming her wild acceleration, somehow guiding her even though she’d not yet learned the strange dance of movements that, over time, becomes a kind of language between horse and rider. All this would happen in seconds, a year of training reduced to a single, desperate moment.
I knew it was impossible. I knew it even as I imagined it. But I kept hold of the saddle horn.
Bud had worked himself into a frenzy. He leapt wildly, arching his back as he shot upward, then tossing his head as he smashed his hooves to the ground. My eyes could barely unscramble what they saw. Golden wheat flew in every direction, while the blue sky and the mountain lurched absurdly.
I was so disoriented that I felt, rather than saw, the powerful penny-toned mare moving into place beside me. Shawn lifted his body from the saddle and tilted himself toward the ground, holding his reins tightly in one hand while, with the other, he snatched Bud’s reins from the weeds. The leather straps pulled taut; the bit forced Bud’s head up and forward. With his head raised, Bud could no longer buck and he entered a smooth, rhythmic gallop. Shawn yanked hard on his own reins, pulling the mare’s head toward his knee, forcing her to run in a circle. He pulled her head tighter on every pass, wrapping the strap around his forearm, shrinking the circle until it was so small, the pounding hooves stood still. I slid from the saddle and lay in the wheat, the itchy stalks poking through my shirt. Above my head the horses panted, their bellies swelling and collapsing, their hooves pawing at the dirt.
My brother Tony had taken out a loan to buy his own rig—a semi and trailer—but in order to make the payments, he had to keep the truck on the road, so that’s where he was living, on the road. Until his wife got sick and the doctor she consulted (she had consulted a doctor) put her on bed rest. Tony called Shawn and asked if he could run the rig for a week or two.
Shawn hated trucking long-haul, but he said he’d do it if I came along. Dad didn’t need me in the junkyard, and Randy could spare me for a few days, so we set off, heading down to Las Vegas, then east to Albuquerque, west to Los Angeles, then up to Washington State. I’d thought I would see the cities, but mostly I saw truck stops and interstate. The windshield was enormous and elevated like a cockpit, which made the cars below seem like toys. The sleeper cab, where the bunks were, was musty and dark as a cave, littered with bags of Doritos and trail mix.
Shawn drove for days with little sleep, navigating our fifty-foot trailer as if it were his own arm. He doctored the books whenever we crossed a checkpoint, to make it seem he was getting more sleep than he was. Every other day we stopped to shower and eat a meal that wasn’t dried fruit and granola.
Near Albuquerque, the Walmart warehouse was backed up and couldn’t unload us for two days. We were outside the city—there was nothing but a truck stop and red sand stretching out in all directions—so we ate Cheetos and played Mario Kart in the sleeper. By sunset on the second day, our bodies ached from sitting, and Shawn said he should teach me martial arts. We had our first lesson at dusk in the parking lot.
“If you know what you’re doing,” he said, “you can incapacitate a man with minimal effort. You can control someone’s whole body with two fingers. It’s about knowing where the weak points are, and how to exploit them.” He grabbed my wrist and folded it, bending my fingers downward so they reached uncomfortably toward the inside of my forearm. He continued to add pressure until I twisted slightly, wrapping my arm behind my back to relieve the strain.
“See? This is a weak point,” he said. “If I fold it any more, you’ll be immobilized.” He grinned his angel grin. “I won’t, though, because it’d hurt like hell.”
He let go and said, “Now you try.”
I folded his wrist onto itself and squeezed hard, trying to get his upper body to collapse the way mine had. He didn’t move.
“Maybe another strategy for you,” he said.
He gripped my wrist a different way—the way an attacker might, he said. He taught me how to break the hold, where the fingers were weakest and the bones in my arm strongest, so that after a few minutes I could cut through even his thick fingers. He taught me how to throw my weight behind a punch, and where to aim to crush the windpipe.
The next morning, the trailer was unloaded. We climbed into the truck, picked up a new load and drove for another two days, watching the white lines disappear hypnotically beneath the hood, which was the color of bone. We had few forms of entertainment, so we made a game of talking. The game had only two rules. The first was that every statement had to have at least two words in which the first letters were switched.
“You’re not my little sister,” Shawn said. “You’re my sittle lister.” He pronounced the words lazily, blunting the
’s so that it sounded like “siddle lister.”
The second rule was that every word that sounded like a number, or like it had a number in it, had to be changed so that the number was one higher. The word “to” for example, because it sounds like the number “two,” would become “three.”
“Siddle Lister,” Shawn might say, “we should pay a-eleven-tion. There’s a checkpoint ahead and I can’t a-five-d a ticket. Time three put on your seatbelt.”
When we tired of this, we’d turn on the CB and listen to the lonely banter of truckers stretched out across the interstate.
“Look out for a green four-wheeler,” a gruff voice said, when we were somewhere between Sacramento and Portland. “Been picnicking in my blind spot for a half hour.”
A four-wheeler, Shawn explained, is what big rigs call cars and pickups.
Another voice came over the CB to complain about a red Ferrari that was weaving through traffic at 120 miles per hour. “Bastard damned near hit a little blue Chevy,” the deep voice bellowed through the static. “Shit, there’s kids in that Chevy. Anybody up ahead wanna cool this hothead down?” The voice gave its location.
Shawn checked the mile marker. We were ahead. “I’m a white Pete pulling a fridge,” he said. There was silence while everybody checked their mirrors for a Peterbilt with a reefer. Then a third voice, gruffer than the first, answered: “I’m the blue KW hauling a dry box.”
“I see you,” Shawn said, and for my benefit pointed to a navy-colored Kenworth a few cars ahead.
When the Ferrari appeared, multiplied in our many mirrors, Shawn shifted into high gear, revving the engine and pulling beside the Kenworth so that the two fifty-foot trailers were running side by side, blocking both lanes. The Ferrari honked, weaved back and forth, braked, honked again.
“How long should we keep him back there?” the husky voice said, with a deep laugh.
“Until he calms down,” Shawn answered.
Five miles later, they let him pass.
The trip lasted about a week, then we told Tony to find us a load to Idaho.
“Well, Siddle Lister,” Shawn said when we pulled into the junkyard, “back three work.”
THE WORM CREEK OPERA HOUSE announced a new play:
. Shawn drove me to the audition, then surprised me by auditioning himself. Charles was also there, talking to a girl named Sadie, who was seventeen. She nodded at what Charles was saying, but her eyes were fixed on Shawn.
At the first rehearsal she came and sat next to him, laying her hand on his arm, laughing and tossing her hair. She was very pretty, with soft, full lips and large dark eyes, but when I asked Shawn if he liked her, he said he didn’t.
“She’s got fish eyes,” he said.
“Yup, fish eyes. They’re dead stupid, fish. They’re beautiful, but their heads’re as empty as a tire.”
Sadie started dropping by the junkyard around quitting time, usually with a milkshake for Shawn, or cookies or cake. Shawn hardly even spoke to her, just grabbed whatever she’d brought him and kept walking toward the corral. She would follow and try to talk to him while he fussed over his horses, until one evening she asked if he would teach her to ride. I tried to explain that our horses weren’t broke all the way, but she was determined, so Shawn put her on Apollo and the three of us headed up the mountain. Shawn ignored her and Apollo. He offered none of the help he’d given me, teaching me how to stand in the stirrups while going down steep ravines or how to squeeze my thighs when the horse leapt over a branch. Sadie trembled for the entire ride, but she pretended to be enjoying herself, restoring her lipsticked smile every time he glanced in her direction.
At the next rehearsal, Charles asked Sadie about a scene, and Shawn saw them talking. Sadie came over a few minutes later but Shawn wouldn’t speak to her. He turned his back and she left crying.
“What’s that about?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said.
By the next rehearsal, a few days later, Shawn seemed to have forgotten it. Sadie approached him warily, but he smiled at her, and a few minutes later they were talking and laughing. Shawn asked her to cross the street and buy him a Snickers at the dime store. She seemed pleased that he would ask and hurried out the door, but when she returned a few minutes later and gave him the bar, he said, “What is this shit? I asked for a Milky Way.”
“You didn’t,” she said. “You said Snickers.”
“I want a Milky Way.”
Sadie left again and fetched the Milky Way. She handed it to him with a nervous laugh, and Shawn said, “Where’s my Snickers? What, you forgot again?”
“You didn’t want it!” she said, her eyes shining like glass. “I gave it to Charles!”
“Go get it.”
“I’ll buy you another.”
“No,” Shawn said, his eyes cold. His baby teeth, which usually gave him an impish, playful appearance, now made him seem unpredictable, volatile. “I want
one. Get it, or don’t come back.”
A tear slid down Sadie’s cheek, smearing her mascara. She paused for a moment to wipe it away and pull up her smile. Then she walked over to Charles and, laughing as if it were nothing, asked if she could have the Snickers. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out, then watched her walk back to Shawn. Sadie placed the Snickers in his palm like a peace offering and waited, staring at the carpet. Shawn pulled her onto his lap and ate the bar in three bites.
“You have lovely eyes,” he said. “Just like a fish.”
SADIE’S PARENTS WERE DIVORCING and the town was awash in rumors about her father. When Mother heard the rumors, she said now it made sense why Shawn had taken an interest in Sadie. “He’s always protected angels with broken wings,” she said.
Shawn found out Sadie’s class schedule and memorized it. He made a point of driving to the high school several times a day, particularly at those times when he knew she’d be moving between buildings. He’d pull over on the highway and watch her from a distance, too far for her to come over, but not so far that she wouldn’t see him. It was something we did together, he and I, nearly every time we went to town, and sometimes when we didn’t need to go to town at all. Until one day, when Sadie appeared on the steps of the high school with Charles. They were laughing together; Sadie hadn’t noticed Shawn’s truck.
I watched his face harden, then relax. He smiled at me. “I have the perfect punishment,” he said. “I simply won’t see her. All I have to do is not see her, and she will suffer.”
He was right. When he didn’t return her calls, Sadie became desperate. She told the boys at school not to walk with her, for fear Shawn would see, and when Shawn said he disliked one of her friends, she stopped seeing them.
Sadie came to our house every day after school, and I watched the Snickers incident play out over and over, in different forms, with different objects. Shawn would ask for a glass of water. When Sadie brought it, he’d want ice. When she brought that he’d ask for milk, then water again, ice, no ice, then juice. This could go on for thirty minutes before, in a final test, he would ask for something we didn’t have. Then Sadie would drive to town to buy it—vanilla ice cream, fries, a burrito—only to have him demand something else the moment she got back. The nights they went out, I was grateful.
One night, he came home late and in a strange mood. Everyone was asleep except me, and I was on the sofa, reading a chapter of scripture before bed. Shawn plopped down next to me. “Get me a glass of water.”
“You break your leg?” I said.
“Get it, or I won’t drive you to town tomorrow.”
I fetched the water. As I handed it over, I saw the smile on his face and without thinking dumped the whole thing on his head. I made it down the hall and was nearly to my room when he caught me.
“Apologize,” he said. Water dripped from his nose onto his T-shirt.
He grabbed a fistful of my hair, a large clump, his grip fixed near the root to give him greater leverage, and dragged me into the bathroom. I groped at the door, catching hold of the frame, but he lifted me off the ground, flattened my arms against my body, then dropped my head into the toilet. “Apologize,” he said again. I said nothing. He stuck my head in further, so my nose scraped the stained porcelain. I closed my eyes, but the smell wouldn’t let me forget where I was.
I tried to imagine something else, something that would take me out of myself, but the image that came to mind was of Sadie, crouching, compliant. It pumped me full of bile. He held me there, my nose touching the bowl, for perhaps a minute, then he let me up. The tips of my hair were wet; my scalp was raw.
I thought it was over. I’d begun to back away when he seized my wrist and folded it, curling my fingers and palm into a spiral. He continued folding until my body began to coil, then he added more pressure, so that without thinking, without realizing, I twisted myself into a dramatic bow, my back bent, my head nearly touching the floor, my arm behind my back.
In the parking lot, when Shawn had shown me this hold, I’d moved only a little, responding more to his description than to any physical necessity. It hadn’t seemed particularly effective at the time, but now I understood the maneuver for what it was: control. I could scarcely move, scarcely breathe, without breaking my own wrist. Shawn held me in position with one hand; the other he dangled loosely at his side, to show me how easy it was.
Still harder than if I were Sadie,
As if he could read my mind, he twisted my wrist further; my body was coiled tightly, my face scraping the floor. I’d done all I could do to relieve the pressure in my wrist. If he kept twisting, it would break.
“Apologize,” he said.
There was a long moment in which fire burned up my arm and into my brain. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He dropped my wrist and I fell to the floor. I could hear his steps moving down the hall. I stood and quietly locked the bathroom door, then I stared into the mirror at the girl clutching her wrist. Her eyes were glassy and drops slid down her cheeks. I hated her for her weakness, for having a heart to break. That he could hurt her, that anyone could hurt her like