Authors: Tara Westover
Dad didn’t leave his bed for two months unless one of my brothers was carrying him. He peed in a bottle, and the enemas continued. Even after it became clear that he would live, we had no idea what kind of life it would be. All we could do was wait, and soon it felt as though everything we did was just another form of waiting—waiting to feed him, waiting to change his bandages. Waiting to see how much of our father would grow back.
It was difficult to imagine a man like Dad—proud, strong, physical—permanently impaired. I wondered how he would adjust if Mother were forever cutting his food for him; if he could live a happy life if he wasn’t able to grasp a hammer. So much had been lost.
But mixed in with the sadness, I also felt hope. Dad had always been a hard man—a man who knew the truth on every subject and wasn’t interested in what anybody else had to say.
never the other way around: when he was not speaking, he required silence.
The explosion transformed him from lecturer to observer. Speaking was difficult for him, because of the constant pain but also because his throat was burned. So he watched, he listened. He lay, hour after hour, day after day, his eyes alert, his mouth shut.
Within a few weeks, my father—who years earlier had not been able to guess my age within half a decade—knew about my classes, my boyfriend, my summer job. I hadn’t told him any of it, but he’d listened to the chatter between me and Audrey as we changed his bandages, and he’d remembered.
“I’d like to hear more about them classes,” he rasped one morning near the end of the summer. “It sounds real interesting.”
It felt like a new beginning.
DAD WAS STILL BEDRIDDEN when Shawn and Emily announced their engagement. It was suppertime, and the family was gathered around the kitchen table, when Shawn said he guessed he’d marry Emily after all. There was silence while forks scraped plates. Mother asked if he was serious. He said he wasn’t, that he figured he’d find somebody better before he actually had to go through with it. Emily sat next to him, wearing a warped smile.
I didn’t sleep that night. I kept checking the bolt on the door. The present seemed vulnerable to the past, as if it might be overwhelmed by it, as if I might blink, and when my eyes opened I would be fifteen.
The next morning Shawn said he and Emily were planning a twenty-mile horse ride to Bloomington Lake. I surprised both of us by saying I wanted to go. I felt anxious when I imagined all those hours in the wilderness with Shawn, but I pushed the anxiety aside. There was something I had to do.
Fifty miles feels like five hundred on a horse, particularly if your body is more accustomed to a chair than a saddle. When we arrived at the lake, Shawn and Emily slipped nimbly off their horses and began to make camp; it was all I could do to unhitch Apollo’s saddle and ease myself onto a fallen tree. I watched Emily set up the tent we were to share. She was tall and unthinkably slight, with long, straight hair so blond it was nearly silver.
We built a fire and sang campfire songs. We played cards. Then we went to our tents. I lay awake in the dark next to Emily, listening to the crickets. I was trying to imagine how to begin the conversation—how to tell her she shouldn’t marry my brother—when she spoke. “I want to talk to you about Shawn,” she said. “I know he’s got some problems.”
“He does,” I said.
“He’s a spiritual man,” Emily said. “God has given him a special calling. To help people. He told me how he helped Sadie. And how he helped you.”
“He didn’t help me.” I wanted to say more, to explain to Emily what the bishop had explained to me. But they were his words, not mine. I had no words. I had come fifty miles to speak, and was mute.
“The devil tempts him more than other men,” Emily said. “Because of his gifts, because he’s a threat to Satan. That’s why he has problems. Because of his righteousness.”
She sat up. I could see the outline of her long ponytail in the dark. “He said he’ll hurt me,” she said. “I know it’s because of Satan. But sometimes I’m scared of him, I’m scared of what he’ll do.”
I told her she shouldn’t marry someone who scares her, that no one should, but the words left my lips stillborn. I believed them, but I didn’t understand them well enough to make them live.
I stared into the darkness, searching it for her face, trying to understand what power my brother had over her. He’d had that power over me, I knew. He had some of it still. I was neither under his spell, nor free of it.
“He’s a spiritual man,” she said again. Then she slipped into her sleeping bag, and I knew the conversation was over.
I RETURNED TO BYU a few days before the fall semester. I drove directly to Nick’s apartment. We’d hardly spoken. Whenever he called, I always seemed to be needed somewhere to change a bandage or make salve. Nick knew my father had been burned, but he didn’t know the severity of it. I’d withheld more information than I’d given, never saying that there had been an explosion, or that when I “visited” my father it wasn’t in a hospital but in our living room. I hadn’t told Nick about his heart stopping. I hadn’t described the gnarled hands, or the enemas, or the pounds of liquefied tissue we’d scraped off his body.
I knocked and Nick opened the door. He seemed surprised to see me. “How’s your dad?” he asked after I’d joined him on the sofa.
In retrospect, this was probably the most important moment of our friendship, the moment I could have done one thing, the better thing, and I did something else. It was the first time I’d seen Nick since the explosion. I might have told him everything right then: that my family didn’t believe in modern medicine; that we were treating the burn at home with salves and homeopathy; that it had been terrifying, worse than terrifying; that for as long as I lived I would never forget the smell of charred flesh. I could have told him all that, could have surrendered the weight, let the relationship carry it and grow stronger. Instead I kept the burden for myself, and my friendship with Nick, already anemic, underfed and underused, dwindled in obsolescence.
I believed I could repair the damage—that now I was back,
would be my life, and it wouldn’t matter that Nick understood nothing of Buck’s Peak. But the peak refused to give me up. It clung to me. The black craters in my father’s chest often materialized on chalkboards, and I saw the sagging cavity of his mouth on the pages of my textbooks. This remembered world was somehow more vivid than the physical world I inhabited, and I phased between them. Nick would take my hand, and for a moment I would be there with him, feeling the surprise of his skin on mine. But when I looked at our joined fingers, something would shift so that the hand was not Nick’s. It was bloody and clawed, not a hand at all.
When I slept, I gave myself wholly to the peak. I dreamed of Luke, of his eyes rolling back in his head. I dreamed of Dad, of the slow rattle in his lungs. I dreamed of Shawn, of the moment my wrist had cracked in the parking lot. I dreamed of myself, limping beside him, laughing that high, horrible cackle. But in my dreams I had long, silvery hair.
THE WEDDING WAS IN SEPTEMBER.
I arrived at the church full of anxious energy, as though I’d been sent through time from some disastrous future to this moment, when my actions still had weight and my thoughts, consequences. I didn’t know what I’d been sent to do, so I wrung my hands and chewed my cheeks, waiting for the crucial moment. Five minutes before the ceremony, I vomited in the women’s bathroom.
When Emily said “I do,” the vitality left me. I again became a spirit, and drifted back to BYU. I stared at the Rockies from my bedroom window and was struck by how implausible they seemed. Like paintings.
A week after the wedding I broke up with Nick—callously, I’m ashamed to say. I never told him of my life before, never sketched for him the world that had invaded and obliterated the one he and I had shared. I could have explained. I could have said, “That place has a hold on me, which I may never break.” That would have got to the heart of it. Instead I sank through time. It was too late to confide in Nick, to take him with me wherever I was going. So I said goodbye.
I’d come to BYU to study music, so that one day I could direct a church choir. But that semester—the fall of my junior year—I didn’t enroll in a single music course. I couldn’t have explained why I dropped advanced music theory in favor of geography and comparative politics, or gave up sight-singing to take History of the Jews. But when I’d seen those courses in the catalog, and read their titles aloud, I had felt something infinite, and I wanted a taste of that infinity.
For four months I attended lectures on geography and history and politics. I learned about Margaret Thatcher and the Thirty-Eighth Parallel and the Cultural Revolution; I learned about parliamentary politics and electoral systems around the world. I learned about the Jewish diaspora and the strange history of
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
. By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the room next to the kitchen.
This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music, and my desire to study it, had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not. And yet they called to me.
A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester.
“If you were a woman,” I asked, “would you still study law?”
Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t
to study it.”
“But you’ve talked about nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.
Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”
Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”
I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.
I knew someone must have the answer so I decided to ask one of my professors. I chose the professor of my Jewish history class, because he was quiet and soft-spoken. Dr. Kerry was a short man with dark eyes and a serious expression. He lectured in a thick wool jacket even in hot weather. I knocked on his office door quietly, as if I hoped he wouldn’t answer, and soon was sitting silently across from him. I didn’t know what my question was, and Dr. Kerry didn’t ask. Instead he posed general questions—about my grades, what courses I was taking. He asked why I’d chosen Jewish history, and without thinking I blurted that I’d learned of the Holocaust only a few semesters before and wanted to learn the rest of the story.
“You learned of the Holocaust when?” he said.
“They didn’t teach about it in your school?”
“They probably did,” I said. “Only I wasn’t there.”
“Where were you?”
I explained as best I could, that my parents didn’t believe in public education, that they’d kept us home. When I’d finished, he laced his fingers as if he were contemplating a difficult problem. “I think you should stretch yourself. See what happens.”
“Stretch myself how?”
He leaned forward suddenly, as if he’d just had an idea. “Have you heard of Cambridge?” I hadn’t. “It’s a university in England,” he said. “One of the best in the world. I organize a study abroad program there for students. It’s highly competitive and extremely demanding. You might not be accepted, but if you are, it may give you some idea of your abilities.”
I walked to my apartment wondering what to make of the conversation. I’d wanted moral advice, someone to reconcile my calling as a wife and mother with the call I heard of something else. But he’d put that aside. He’d seemed to say, “First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”
I applied to the program.
EMILY WAS PREGNANT. THE pregnancy was not going well. She’d nearly miscarried in the first trimester, and now that she was approaching twenty weeks, she was beginning to have contractions. Mother, who was the midwife, had given her Saint-John’s-wort and other remedies. The contractions lessened but continued.
When I arrived at Buck’s Peak for Christmas, I expected to find Emily on bed rest. She wasn’t. She was standing at the kitchen counter straining herbs, along with half a dozen other women. She rarely spoke and smiled even more rarely, just moved about the house carrying vats of cramp bark and motherwort. She was quiet to the point of invisibility, and after a few minutes, I forgot she was there.
It had been six months since the explosion, and while Dad was back on his feet, it was clear he would never be the man he was. He could scarcely walk across a room without gasping for air, so damaged were his lungs. The skin on his lower face had regrown, but it was thin and waxy, as if someone had taken sandpaper and rubbed it to the point of transparency. His ears were thick with scars. He had thin lips and his mouth drooped, giving him the haggard appearance of a much older man. But it was his right hand, more than his face, that drew stares: each finger was frozen in its own pose, some curled, some bowed, twisting together into a gnarled claw. He could hold a spoon by wedging it between his index finger, which bowed upward, and his ring finger, which curved downward, but he ate with difficulty. Still, I wondered whether skin grafts could have achieved what Mother had with her comfrey and lobelia salve. It was a miracle, everyone said, so that was the new name they gave Mother’s recipe: after Dad’s burn it was known as Miracle Salve.
At dinner my first night on the peak, Dad described the explosion as a tender mercy from the Lord. “It was a blessing,” he said. “A miracle. God spared my life and extended to me a great calling. To testify of His power. To show people there’s another way besides the Medical Establishment.”
I watched as he tried and failed to wedge his knife tightly enough to cut his roast. “I was never in any danger,” he said. “I’ll prove it to you. As soon as I can walk across the yard without near passing out, I’ll get a torch and cut off another tank.”
The next morning when I came out for breakfast, there was a crowd of women gathered around my father. They listened with hushed voices and glistening eyes as Dad told of the heavenly visitations he’d received while hovering between life and death. He had been ministered to by angels, he said, like the prophets of old. There was something in the way the women looked at him. Something like adoration.
I watched the women throughout the morning and became aware of the change my father’s miracle had wrought in them. Before, the women who worked for my mother had always approached her casually, with matter-of-fact questions about their work. Now their speech was soft, admiring. Dramas broke out between them as they vied for my mother’s esteem, and for my father’s. The change could be summed up simply: before, they had been employees; now they were followers.
The story of Dad’s burn had become something of a founding myth: it was told over and over, to newcomers but also to the old. In fact, it was rare to spend an afternoon in the house without hearing some kind of recitation of the miracle, and occasionally these recitations were less than accurate. I heard Mother tell a room of devoted faces that sixty-five percent of Dad’s upper body had been burned to the third degree. That was not what I remembered. In my memory the bulk of the damage had been skin-deep—his arms, back and shoulders had hardly been burned at all. It was only his lower face and hands that had been third-degree. But I kept this to myself.
For the first time, my parents seemed to be of one mind. Mother no longer moderated Dad’s statements after he left the room, no longer quietly gave her own opinion. She had been transformed by the miracle—transformed into him. I remembered her as a young midwife, so cautious, so meek about the lives over which she had such power. There was little of that meekness in her now. The Lord Himself guided her hands, and no misfortune would occur except by the will of God.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER CHRISTMAS, the University of Cambridge wrote to Dr. Kerry, rejecting my application. “The competition was very steep,” Dr. Kerry told me when I visited his office.
I thanked him and stood to go.
“One moment,” he said. “Cambridge instructed me to write if I felt there were any gross injustices.”
I didn’t understand, so he repeated himself. “I could only help one student,” he said. “They have offered you a place, if you want it.”
It seemed impossible that I would really be allowed to go. Then I realized that I would need a passport, and that without a real birth certificate, I was unlikely to get one. Someone like me did not belong at Cambridge. It was as if the universe understood this and was trying to prevent the blasphemy of my going.
I applied in person. The clerk laughed out loud at my Delayed Certificate of Birth. “Nine years!” she said. “Nine years is
a delay. Do you have any other documentation?”
“Yes,” I said. “But they have different birth dates. Also, one has a different name.”
She was still smiling. “Different date and different name? No, that’s not gonna work. There’s no way you’re gonna get a passport.”
I visited the clerk several more times, becoming more and more desperate, until, finally, a solution was found. My aunt Debbie visited the courthouse and swore an affidavit that I was who I said I was. I was issued a passport.
IN FEBRUARY, EMILY GAVE BIRTH. The baby weighed one pound, four ounces.
When Emily had started having contractions at Christmas, Mother had said the pregnancy would unfold according to God’s will. His will, it turned out, was that Emily give birth at home at twenty-six weeks’ gestation.
There was a blizzard that night, one of those mighty mountain storms that clears the roads and closes the towns. Emily was in the advanced stages of labor when Mother realized she needed a hospital. The baby, which they named Peter, appeared a few minutes later, slipping from Emily so easily that Mother said she “caught” him more than delivered him. He was still, and the color of ash. Shawn thought he was dead. Then Mother felt a tiny heartbeat—actually she
his heart beating through a thin film of skin. My father rushed to the van and began scraping at the snow and ice. Shawn carried Emily and laid her on the back seat, then Mother placed the baby against Emily’s chest and covered him, creating a makeshift incubator. Kangaroo care, she called it later.
My father drove; the storm raged. In Idaho we call it a whiteout: when the wind whips the snowfall so violently it bleaches the road, covers it as if with a veil, and you can’t see the asphalt, or the fields or rivers; you can’t see anything except billows of white. Somehow, skidding through snow and sleet, they made it to town, but the hospital there was rural, unequipped to care for such a faint whimper of life. The doctors said they had to get him to McKay-Dee in Ogden as soon as possible, there was no time. He could not go by chopper because of the blizzard, so the doctors sent him in an ambulance. In fact they sent
ambulances, a second in case the first succumbed to the storm.
Many months would pass, and countless surgeries on his heart and lungs would be performed, before Shawn and Emily would bring home the little twig of flesh that I was told was my nephew. By then he was out of danger, but the doctors said his lungs might never develop fully. He might always be frail.
Dad said God had orchestrated the birth just as He had orchestrated the explosion. Mother echoed him, adding that God had placed a veil over her eyes so she wouldn’t stop the contractions. “Peter was supposed to come into the world this way,” she said. “He is a gift from God, and God gives His gifts in whatever way He chooses.”