Authors: Tara Westover
“You okay?” Dad pleaded. “Honey, can you hear me?”
Mother was in the passenger seat. Her body faced away from the window. I couldn’t see her face, but there was something terrifying in the way she slumped against her seat.
“Can you hear me?” Dad said. He repeated this several times. Eventually, in a movement so small it was almost imperceptible, I saw the tip of Mother’s ponytail dip as she nodded.
Dad stood, looking at the active power lines, looking at the earth, looking at Mother. Looking helpless. “Do you think—should I call an ambulance?”
I heard him say that. And if he did, which surely he must have, Mother must have whispered a reply, or maybe she wasn’t able to whisper anything, I don’t know. I’ve always imagined that she asked to be taken home.
I was told later that the farmer whose tractor we’d hit rushed from his house. He’d called the police, which we knew would bring trouble because the car wasn’t insured, and none of us had been wearing seatbelts. It took perhaps twenty minutes after the farmer informed Utah Power of the accident for them to switch off the deadly current pulsing through the lines. Then Dad lifted Mother from the station wagon and I saw her face—her eyes, hidden under dark circles the size of plums, and the swelling distorting her soft features, stretching some, compressing others.
I don’t know how we got home, or when, but I remember that the mountain face glowed orange in the morning light. Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.
Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey, even after I corrected her twice. “Thank you, Audrey, but just dark and quiet, that’s fine. Dark. Quiet. Thank you. Come check on me again, Audrey, in a little while.”
Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives.
There was never any more talk of a hospital. The moment for such a decision had passed, and to return to it would be to return to all the fury and fear of the accident itself. Dad said doctors couldn’t do anything for her anyhow. She was in God’s hands.
In the coming months, Mother called me by many names. When she called me Audrey I didn’t worry, but it was troubling when we had conversations in which she referred to me as Luke or Tony, and in the family it has always been agreed, even by Mother herself, that she’s never been quite the same since the accident. We kids called her Raccoon Eyes. We thought it was a great joke, once the black rings had been around for a few weeks, long enough for us to get used to them and make them the subject of jokes. We had no idea it was a medical term. Raccoon eyes. A sign of serious brain injury.
Tyler’s guilt was all-consuming. He blamed himself for the accident, then kept on blaming himself for every decision that was made thereafter, every repercussion, every reverberation that clanged down through the years. He laid claim to that moment and all its consequences, as if time itself had commenced the instant our station wagon left the road, and there was no history, no context, no agency of any kind until he began it, at the age of seventeen, by falling asleep at the wheel. Even now, when Mother forgets any detail, however trivial, that look comes into his eyes—the one he had in the moments after the collision, when blood poured from his own mouth as he took in the scene, raking his eyes over what he imagined to be the work of his hands and his hands only.
Me, I never blamed anyone for the accident, least of all Tyler. It was just one of those things. A decade later my understanding would shift, part of my heavy swing into adulthood, and after that the accident would always make me think of the Apache women, and of all the decisions that go into making a life—the choices people make, together and on their own, that combine to produce any single event. Grains of sand, incalculable, pressing into sediment, then rock.
The mountain thawed and the Princess appeared on its face, her head brushing the sky. It was Sunday, a month after the accident, and everyone had gathered in the living room. Dad had begun to expound a scripture when Tyler cleared his throat and said he was leaving.
“I’m g-g-going to c-college,” he said, his face rigid. A vein in his neck bulged as he forced the words out, appearing and disappearing every few seconds, a great, struggling snake.
Everyone looked at Dad. His expression was folded, impassive. The silence was worse than shouting.
Tyler would be the third of my brothers to leave home. My oldest brother, Tony, drove rigs, hauling gravel or scrap, trying to scrape together enough money to marry the girl down the road. Shawn, the next oldest, had quarreled with Dad a few months before and taken off. I hadn’t seen him since, though Mother got a hurried call every few weeks telling her he was fine, that he was welding or driving rigs. If Tyler left too, Dad wouldn’t have a crew, and without a crew he couldn’t build barns or hay sheds. He would have to fall back on scrapping.
“What’s college?” I said.
“College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,” Dad said. Tyler stared at the floor, his face tense. Then his shoulders dropped, his face relaxed and he looked up; it seemed to me that he’d stepped out of himself. His eyes were soft, pleasant. I couldn’t see him in there at all.
He listened to Dad, who settled into a lecture. “There’s two kinds of them college professors,” Dad said. “Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth.” Dad grinned. “Don’t know which is worse, come to think of it, a bona fide agent of the Illuminati, who at least knows he’s on the devil’s payroll, or a high-minded professor who thinks his wisdom is greater than God’s.” He was still grinning. The situation wasn’t serious; he just needed to talk some sense into his son.
Mother said Dad was wasting his time, that nobody could talk Tyler out of anything once his mind was made up. “You may as well take a broom and start sweeping dirt off the mountain,” she said. Then she stood, took a few moments to steady herself, and trudged downstairs.
She had a migraine. She nearly always had a migraine. She was still spending her days in the basement, coming upstairs only after the sun had gone down, and even then she rarely stayed more than an hour before the combination of noise and exertion made her head throb. I watched her slow, careful progress down the steps, her back bent, both hands gripping the rail, as if she were blind and had to feel her way. She waited for both feet to plant solidly on one step before reaching for the next. The swelling in her face was nearly gone, and she almost looked like herself again, except for the rings, which had gradually faded from black to dark purple, and were now a mix of lilac and raisin.
An hour later Dad was no longer grinning. Tyler had not repeated his wish to go to college, but he had not promised to stay, either. He was just sitting there, behind that vacant expression, riding it out. “A man can’t make a living out of books and scraps of paper,” Dad said. “You’re going to be the head of a family. How can you support a wife and children with
Tyler tilted his head, showed he was listening, and said nothing.
“A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies—”
“The s-s-school’s run by the ch-ch-church,” Tyler interrupted. “How b-bad can it b-be?”
Dad’s mouth flew open and a gust of air rushed out. “You don’t think the Illuminati have infiltrated the church?” His voice was booming; every word reverberated with a powerful energy. “You don’t think the first place they’d go is that school, where they can raise up a whole generation of socialist Mormons? I raised you better than that!”
I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him, and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son’s face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction. He doesn’t find it.
THE STORY OF HOW TYLER decided to leave the mountain is a strange one, full of gaps and twists. It begins with Tyler himself, with the bizarre fact of him. It happens sometimes in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune. In our family, that was Tyler. He was waltzing while the rest of us hopped a jig; he was deaf to the raucous music of our lives, and we were deaf to the serene polyphony of his.
Tyler liked books, he liked quiet. He liked organizing and arranging and labeling. Once, Mother found a whole shelf of matchboxes in his closet, stacked by year. Tyler said they contained his pencil shavings from the past five years, which he had collected to make fire starters for our “head for the hills” bags. The rest of the house was pure confusion: piles of unwashed laundry, oily and black from the junkyard, littered the bedroom floors; in the kitchen, murky jars of tincture lined every table and cabinet, and these were only cleared away to make space for even messier projects, perhaps to skin a deer carcass or strip Cosmoline off a rifle. But in the heart of this chaos, Tyler had half a decade’s pencil shavings, cataloged by year.
My brothers were like a pack of wolves. They tested each other constantly, with scuffles breaking out every time some young pup hit a growth spurt and dreamed of moving up. When I was young these tussles usually ended with Mother screaming over a broken lamp or vase, but as I got older there were fewer things left to break. Mother said we’d owned a TV once, when I was a baby, until Shawn had put Tyler’s head through it.
While his brothers wrestled, Tyler listened to music. He owned the only boom box I had ever seen, and next to it he kept a tall stack of CDs with strange words on them, like “Mozart” and “Chopin.” One Sunday afternoon, when he was perhaps sixteen, he caught me looking at them. I tried to run, because I thought he might wallop me for being in his room, but instead he took my hand and led me to the stack. “W-which one do y-you like best?” he said.
One was black, with a hundred men and women dressed in white on the cover. I pointed to it. Tyler eyed me skeptically. “Th-th-this is ch-ch-choir music,” he said.
He slipped the disc into the black box, then sat at his desk to read. I squatted on the floor by his feet, scratching designs into the carpet. The music began: a breath of strings, then a whisper of voices, chanting, soft as silk, but somehow piercing. The hymn was familiar to me—we’d sung it at church, a chorus of mismatched voices raised in worship—but
was different. It was worshipful, but it was also something else, something to do with study, discipline and collaboration. Something I didn’t yet understand.
The song ended and I sat, paralyzed, as the next played, and the next, until the CD finished. The room felt lifeless without the music. I asked Tyler if we could listen to it again, and an hour later, when the music stopped, I begged him to restart it. It was very late, and the house quiet, when Tyler stood from his desk and pushed play, saying this was the last time.
“W-w-we can l-l-listen again tomorrow,” he said.
Music became our language. Tyler’s speech impediment kept him quiet, made his tongue heavy. Because of that, he and I had never talked much; I had not known my brother. Now, every evening when he came in from the junkyard, I would be waiting for him. After he’d showered, scrubbing the day’s grime from his skin, he’d settle in at his desk and say, “W-w-what shall we l-l-listen t-t-to tonight?” Then I would choose a CD, and he would read while I lay on the floor next to his feet, eyes fixed on his socks, and listened.
I was as rowdy as any of my brothers, but when I was with Tyler I transformed. Maybe it was the music, the grace of it, or maybe it was
grace. Somehow he made me see myself through his eyes. I tried to remember not to shout. I tried to avoid fights with Richard, especially the kind that ended with the two of us rolling on the floor, him pulling my hair, me dragging my fingernails through the softness of his face.
I should have known that one day Tyler would leave. Tony and Shawn had gone, and they’d belonged on the mountain in a way that Tyler never did. Tyler had always loved what Dad called “book learning,” which was something the rest of us, with the exception of Richard, were perfectly indifferent to.
There had been a time, when Tyler was a boy, when Mother had been idealistic about education. She used to say that we were kept at home so we could get a
education than other kids. But it was only Mother who said that, as Dad thought we should learn more practical skills. When I was very young, that was the battle between them: Mother trying to hold school every morning, and Dad herding the boys into the junkyard the moment her back was turned.
But Mother would lose that battle, eventually. It began with Luke, the fourth of her five sons. Luke was smart when it came to the mountain—he worked with animals in a way that made it seem like he was talking to them—but he had a severe learning disability and struggled to learn to read. Mother spent five years sitting with him at the kitchen table every morning, explaining the same sounds again and again, but by the time he was twelve, it was all Luke could do to cough out a sentence from the Bible during family scripture study. Mother couldn’t understand it. She’d had no trouble teaching Tony and Shawn to read, and everyone else had just sort of picked it up. Tony had taught me to read when I was four, to win a bet with Shawn, I think.
Once Luke could scratch out his name and read short, simple phrases, Mother turned to math. What math I was ever taught I learned doing the breakfast dishes and listening to Mother explain, over and over, what a fraction is or how to use negative numbers. Luke never made any progress, and after a year Mother gave up. She stopped talking about us getting a better education than other kids. She began to echo Dad. “All that really matters,” she said to me one morning, “is that you kids learn to read. That other twaddle is just brainwashing.” Dad started coming in earlier and earlier to round up the boys until, by the time I was eight, and Tyler sixteen, we’d settled into a routine that omitted school altogether.
Mother’s conversion to Dad’s philosophy was not total, however, and occasionally she was possessed of her old enthusiasm. On those days, when the family was gathered around the table, eating breakfast, Mother would announce that today we were
. She kept a bookshelf in the basement, stocked with books on herbalism, along with a few old paperbacks. There were a few textbooks on math, which we shared, and an American history book that I never saw anyone read except Richard. There was also a science book, which must have been for young children because it was filled with glossy illustrations.
It usually took half an hour to find all the books, then we would divide them up and go into separate rooms to “do school.” I have no idea what my siblings did when they did school, but when I did it I opened my math book and spent ten minutes turning pages, running my fingers down the center fold. If my finger touched fifty pages, I’d report to Mother that I’d done fifty pages of math.
“Amazing!” she’d say. “You see? That pace would never be possible in the public school. You can only do that at home, where you can sit down and really focus, with no distractions.”
Mother never delivered lectures or administered exams. She never assigned essays. There was a computer in the basement with a program called Mavis Beacon, which gave lessons on typing.
Sometimes, when she was delivering herbs, if we’d finished our chores, Mother would drop us at the Carnegie library in the center of town. The basement had a room full of children’s books, which we read. Richard even took books from upstairs, books for adults, with heavy titles about history and science.
Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. “If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,” he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.
The older boys—Tony, Shawn and Tyler—had been raised in a different decade, and it was almost as if they’d had different parents. Their father had never heard of the Weavers; he never talked about the Illuminati. He’d enrolled his three oldest sons in school, and even though he’d pulled them out a few years later, vowing to teach them at home, when Tony had asked to go back, Dad had let him. Tony had stayed in school through high school, although he missed so many days working in the junkyard that he wasn’t able to graduate.
Because Tyler was the third son, he barely remembered school and was happy to study at home. Until he turned thirteen. Then, perhaps because Mother was spending all her time teaching Luke to read, Tyler asked Dad if he could enroll in the eighth grade.
Tyler stayed in school that whole year, from the fall of 1991 through the spring of 1992. He learned algebra, which felt as natural to his mind as air to his lungs. Then the Weavers came under siege that August. I don’t know if Tyler would have gone back to school, but I know that after Dad heard about the Weavers, he never again allowed one of his children to set foot in a public classroom. Still, Tyler’s imagination had been captured. With what money he had he bought an old trigonometry textbook and continued to study on his own. He wanted to learn calculus next but couldn’t afford another book, so he went to the school and asked the math teacher for one. The teacher laughed in his face. “You can’t teach yourself calculus,” he said. “It’s impossible.” Tyler pushed back. “Give me a book, I think I can.” He left with the book tucked under his arm.