Authors: Tara Westover
I left for Idaho just before midnight, hoping I would arrive at around three in the morning and the house would be quiet. When I reached the peak, I crept up the driveway, wincing each time a bit of gravel snapped beneath my tires. I eased the car door open noiselessly, then padded across the grass and slipped through the back door, moving silently through the house, reaching my hand out to feel my way to the filing cabinet.
I had only made it a few steps when I heard a familiar
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted. “It’s me!”
I flipped the light switch and saw Shawn sitting across the room, pointing a pistol at me. He lowered it. “I thought you were…someone else.”
“Obviously,” I said.
We stood awkwardly for a moment, then I went to bed.
The next morning, after Dad left for the junkyard, I told Mother one of my fake stories about BYU needing her tax returns. She knew I was lying—I could tell because when Dad came in unexpectedly and asked why she was copying the returns, she said the duplicates were for her records.
I took the copies and returned to BYU. Shawn and I exchanged no words before I left. He never asked why I’d been sneaking into my own house at three in the morning, and I never asked who he’d been waiting for, sitting up in the middle of the night, with a loaded pistol.
THE FORMS SAT ON my desk for a week before Robin walked with me to the post office and watched me hand them to the postal worker. It didn’t take long, a week, maybe two. I was cleaning houses in Draper when the mail came, so Robin left the letter on my bed with a note that I was a Commie now.
I tore open the envelope and a check fell onto my bed. For four thousand dollars. I felt greedy, then afraid of my greed. There was a contact number. I dialed it.
“There’s a problem,” I told the woman who answered. “The check is for four thousand dollars, but I only need fourteen hundred.”
The line was silent.
“Let me get this straight,” the woman said. “You’re saying the check is for too
money? What do you want me to do?”
“If I send it back, could you send me another one? I only need fourteen hundred. For a root canal.”
“Look, honey,” she said. “You get that much because that’s how much you get. Cash it or don’t, it’s up to you.”
I had the root canal. I bought my textbooks, paid rent, and had money left over. The bishop said I should treat myself to something, but I said I couldn’t, I had to save the money. He told me I could afford to spend some. “Remember,” he said, “you can apply for the same amount next year.” I bought a new Sunday dress.
I’d believed the money would be used to control me, but what it did was enable me to keep my word to myself: for the first time, when I said I would never again work for my father, I believed it.
I wonder now if the day I set out to steal that tax return wasn’t the first time I left
to go to Buck’s Peak. That night I had entered my father’s house as an intruder. It was a shift in mental language, a surrendering of where I was from.
My own words confirmed it. When other students asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from Idaho,” a phrase that, as many times as I’ve had to repeat it over the years, has never felt comfortable in my mouth. When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there. I never uttered the words “I’m from Idaho” until I’d left it.
I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.
My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.
It was in this state that I first heard the term bipolar disorder. I was sitting in Psychology 101 when the professor read the symptoms aloud from the overhead screen: depression, mania, paranoia, euphoria, delusions of grandeur and persecution. I listened with a desperate interest.
This is my father,
I wrote in my notes.
He’s describing Dad
A few minutes before the bell rang, a student asked what role mental disorders might have played in separatist movements. “I’m thinking of famous conflicts like Waco, Texas, or Ruby Ridge, Idaho,” he said.
Idaho isn’t famous for many things, so I figured I’d have heard of whatever “Ruby Ridge” was. He’d said it was a conflict. I searched my memory, trying to recall if I’d ever heard the words. There was something familiar in them. Then images appeared in my mind, weak and distorted, as if the transmission were being disrupted at the source. I closed my eyes and the scene became vivid. I was in our house, crouching behind the birchwood cabinets. Mother was kneeling next to me, her breath slow and tired. She licked her lips and said she was thirsty, then before I could stop her she stood and reached for the tap. I felt the tremor of gunfire and heard myself shout. There was a thud as something heavy fell to the floor. I moved her arm aside and gathered up the baby.
The bell rang. The auditorium emptied. I went to the computer lab. I hesitated for a moment over the keyboard—struck by a premonition that this was information I might regret knowing—then typed “Ruby Ridge” into the browser. According to Wikipedia, Ruby Ridge was the site of a deadly standoff between Randy Weaver and a number of Federal agencies, including the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI.
The name Randy Weaver was familiar, and even as I read it I heard it falling from my father’s lips. Then the story as it had lived in my imagination for thirteen years began replaying in my mind: the shooting of a boy, then of his father, then of his mother. The Government had murdered the entire family, parents and children, to cover up what they had done.
I scrolled past the backstory to the first shooting. Federal agents had surrounded the Weaver cabin. The mission was surveillance only, and the Weavers were unaware of the agents until a dog began to bark. Believing the dog had sensed a wild animal, Randy’s fourteen-year-old son, Sammy, charged into the woods. The agents shot the dog, and Sammy, who was carrying a gun, opened fire. The resulting conflict left two dead: a federal agent and Sammy, who was retreating, running up the hill toward the cabin, when he was shot in the back.
I read on. The next day, Randy Weaver was shot, also in the back, while trying to visit his son’s body. The corpse was in the shed, and Randy was lifting the latch on the door, when a sniper took aim at his spine and missed. His wife, Vicki, moved toward the door to help her husband and again the sniper opened fire. The bullet struck her in the head, killing her instantly as she held their ten-month-old daughter. For nine days the family huddled in the cabin with their mother’s body, until finally negotiators ended the standoff and Randy Weaver was arrested.
I read this last line several times before I understood it. Randy Weaver was alive? Did Dad know?
I kept reading. The nation had been outraged. Articles had appeared in nearly every major newspaper blasting the government’s callous disregard for life. The Department of Justice had opened an investigation, and the Senate had held hearings. Both had recommended reforms to the rules of engagement, particularly concerning the use of deadly force.
The Weavers had filed a wrongful death suit for $200 million but settled out of court when the government offered Vicki’s three daughters $1 million each. Randy Weaver was awarded $100,000 and all charges, except two related to court appearances, were dropped. Randy Weaver had been interviewed by major news organizations and had even co-written a book with his daughter. He now made his living speaking at gun shows.
If it was a cover-up, it was a very bad one. There had been media coverage, official inquiries, oversight. Wasn’t that the measure of a democracy?
There was one thing I still didn’t understand: Why had federal agents surrounded Randy Weaver’s cabin in the first place? Why had Randy been targeted? I remembered Dad saying it could just as easy be us. Dad was always saying that one day the Government would come after folks who resisted its brainwashing, who didn’t put their kids in school. For thirteen years, I’d assumed that this was why the Government had come for Randy: to force his children into school.
I returned to the top of the page and read the whole entry again, but this time I didn’t skip the backstory. According to all the sources, including Randy Weaver himself, the conflict had begun when Randy sold two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent he’d met at an Aryan Nations gathering. I read this sentence more than once, many times in fact. Then I understood: white supremacy was at the heart of this story, not homeschool. The government, it seemed, had never been in the habit of murdering people for not submitting their children to a public education. This seemed so obvious to me now, it was difficult to understand why I had ever believed anything else.
For one bitter moment, I thought Dad had lied. Then I remembered the fear on his face, the heavy rattling of his breath, and I felt certain that he’d really believed we were in danger. I reached for some explanation and strange words came to mind, words I’d learned only minutes before:
paranoia, mania, delusions of grandeur and persecution
. And finally the story made sense—the one on the page, and the one that had lived in me through childhood. Dad must have read about Ruby Ridge or seen it on the news, and somehow as it passed through his feverish brain, it had ceased to be a story about someone else and had become a story about
If the Government was after Randy Weaver, surely it must also be after Gene Westover, who’d been holding the front line in the war with the Illuminati for years. No longer content to read about the brave deeds of others, he had forged himself a helmet and mounted a nag.
I BECAME OBSESSED WITH bipolar disorder. We were required to write a research paper for Psychology and I chose it as my subject, then used the paper as an excuse to interrogate every neuroscientist and cognitive specialist at the university. I described Dad’s symptoms, attributing them not to my father but to a fictive uncle. Some of the symptoms fit perfectly; others did not. The professors told me that every case is different.
“What you’re describing sounds more like schizophrenia,” one said. “Did your uncle ever get treatment?”
“No,” I said. “He thinks doctors are part of a Government conspiracy.”
“That does complicate things,” he said.
With all the subtlety of a bulldozer I wrote my paper on the effect bipolar parents have on their children. It was accusative, brutal. I wrote that children of bipolar parents are hit with double risk factors: first, because they are genetically predisposed to mood disorders, and second, because of the
stressful environment and
of parents with such disorders
In class I had been taught about neurotransmitters and their effect on brain chemistry; I understood that disease is not a choice. This knowledge might have made me sympathetic to my father, but it didn’t. I felt only anger.
were the ones who’d paid for it, I thought. Mother. Luke. Shawn. We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment. Because Dad always put faith before safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right—after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.
I visited Buck’s Peak the weekend after I submitted my paper. I had been home for less than an hour when Dad and I got into an argument. He said I owed him for the car. He really only mentioned it but I became crazed, hysterical. For the first time in my life I shouted at my father—not about the car, but about the Weavers. I was so suffocated by rage, my words didn’t come out as words but as choking, sputtering sobs. Why are you like this? Why did you terrify us like that? Why did you fight so hard against made-up monsters, but do nothing about the monsters in your own house?
Dad gaped at me, astonished. His mouth sagged and his hands hung limply at his sides, twitching, as if he wanted to raise them, to do something. I hadn’t seen him look so helpless since he’d crouched next to our wrecked station wagon, watching Mother’s face bulge and distend, unable even to touch her because electrified cables were sending a deadly pulse through the metal.
Out of shame or anger, I fled. I drove without stopping back to BYU. My father called a few hours later. I didn’t answer. Screaming at him hadn’t helped; maybe ignoring him would.
When the semester ended, I stayed in Utah. It was the first summer that I didn’t return to Buck’s Peak. I did not speak to my father, not even on the phone. This estrangement was not formalized: I just didn’t feel like seeing him, or hearing his voice, so I didn’t.
I DECIDED TO EXPERIMENT with normality. For nineteen years I’d lived the way my father wanted. Now I would try something else.
I moved to a new apartment on the other side of town where no one knew me. I wanted a new start. At church my first week, my new bishop greeted me with a warm handshake, then moved on to the next newcomer. I reveled in his disinterest. If I could just pretend to be normal for a little while, maybe it would feel like the truth.
It was at church that I met Nick. Nick had square glasses and dark hair, which he gelled and teased into neat spikes. Dad would have scoffed at a man wearing hair gel, which is perhaps why I loved it. I also loved that Nick wouldn’t have known an alternator from a crankshaft. What he
know were books and video games and clothing brands. And words. He had an astonishing vocabulary.
Nick and I were a couple from the beginning. He grabbed my hand the second time we met. When his skin touched mine, I prepared to fight that primal need to push him away, but it never came. It was strange and exciting, and no part of me wanted it to end. I wished I were still in my old congregation, so I could rush to my old bishop and tell him I wasn’t broken anymore.
I overestimated my progress. I was so focused on what
working, I didn’t notice what wasn’t. We’d been together a few months, and I’d spent many evenings with his family, before I ever said a word about mine. I did it without thinking, casually mentioned one of Mother’s oils when Nick said he had an ache in his shoulder. He was intrigued—he’d been waiting for me to bring them up—but I was angry at myself for the slip, and didn’t let it happen again.
I BEGAN TO FEEL poorly toward the end of May. A week passed in which I could hardly drag myself to my job, an internship at a law firm. I slept from early evening until late morning, then yawned through the day. My throat began to ache and my voice dropped, roughening into a deep crackle, as if my vocal cords had turned to sandpaper.
At first Nick was amused that I wouldn’t see a doctor, but as the illness progressed his amusement turned to worry, then confusion. I blew him off. “It’s not that serious,” I said. “I’d go if it were serious.”
Another week passed. I quit my internship and began sleeping through the days as well as the nights. One morning, Nick showed up unexpectedly.
“We’re going to the doctor,” he said.
I started to say I wouldn’t go, but then I saw his face. He looked as though he had a question but knew there was no point in asking it. The tense line of his mouth, the narrowing of his eyes.
This is what distrust looks like,
Given the choice between seeing an evil socialist doctor, and admitting to my boyfriend that I believed doctors were evil socialists, I chose to see the doctor.
“I’ll go today,” I said. “I promise. But I’d rather go alone.”
“Fine,” he said.
He left, but now I had another problem. I didn’t know
to go to a doctor. I called a friend from class and asked if she’d drive me. She picked me up an hour later and I watched, perplexed, as she drove right past the hospital a few blocks from my apartment. She took me to a small building north of campus, which she called a “clinic.” I tried to feign nonchalance, act as though I’d done this before, but as we crossed the parking lot I felt as though Mother were watching me.
I didn’t know what to say to the receptionist. My friend attributed my silence to my throat and explained my symptoms. We were told to wait. Eventually a nurse led me to a small white room where she weighed me, took my blood pressure, and swabbed my tongue. Sore throats this severe were usually caused by strep bacteria or the mono virus, she said. They would know in a few days.