Authors: Tara Westover
The real challenge was finding time to study. Every morning at seven, my father gathered his sons, divided them into teams and sent them out to tackle the tasks of the day. It usually took about an hour for Dad to notice that Tyler was not among his brothers. Then he’d burst through the back door and stride into the house to where Tyler sat studying in his room. “What the hell are you doing?” he’d shout, tracking clumps of dirt onto Tyler’s spotless carpet. “I got Luke loading I-beams by himself—one man doing a two-man job—and I come in here and find you sitting on your ass?”
If Dad had caught me with a book when I was supposed to be working, I’d have skittered, but Tyler was steady. “Dad,” he’d say. “I’ll w-w-work after l-l-lunch. But I n-n-need the morning to s-st-study.” Most mornings they’d argue for a few minutes, then Tyler would surrender his pencil, his shoulders slumping as he pulled on his boots and welding gloves. But there were other mornings—mornings that always astonished me—when Dad huffed out the back door, alone.
I DIDN’T BELIEVE TYLER would really go to college, that he would ever abandon the mountain to join the Illuminati. I figured Dad had all summer to bring Tyler to his senses, which he tried to do most days when the crew came in for lunch. The boys would putter around the kitchen, dishing up seconds and thirds, and Dad would stretch himself out on the hard linoleum—because he was tired and needed to lie down, but was too dirty for Mother’s sofa—and begin his lecture about the Illuminati.
One lunch in particular has lodged in my memory. Tyler is assembling tacos from the fixings Mother has laid out: he lines up the shells on his plate, three in a perfect row, then adds the hamburger, lettuce and tomatoes carefully, measuring the amounts, perfectly distributing the sour cream. Dad drones steadily. Then, just as Dad reaches the end of his lecture and takes a breath to begin again, Tyler slides all three of the flawless tacos into Mother’s juicer, the one she uses to make tinctures, and turns it on. A loud roar howls through the kitchen, imposing a kind of silence. The roar ceases; Dad resumes. Tyler pours the orange liquid into a glass and begins to drink, carefully, delicately, because his front teeth are still loose, still trying to jump out of his mouth. Many memories might be summoned to symbolize this period of our lives, but this is the one that has stayed with me: of Dad’s voice rising up from the floor while Tyler drinks his tacos.
As spring turned to summer, Dad’s resolve turned to denial—he acted as if the argument were over and he had won. He stopped talking about Tyler’s leaving and refused to hire a hand to replace him.
One warm afternoon, Tyler took me to visit Grandma- and Grandpa-over-in-town, who lived in the same house where they’d raised Mother, a house that could not have been more different from ours. The decor was not expensive but it was well cared for—creamy white carpet on the floors, soft floral paper on the walls, thick, pleated curtains in the windows. They seldom replaced anything. The carpet, the wallpaper, the kitchen table and countertops—everything was the same as it was in the slides I’d seen of my mother’s childhood.
Dad didn’t like us spending time there. Before he retired Grandpa had been a mailman, and Dad said no one worth our respect would have worked for the Government. Grandma was even worse, Dad said. She was frivolous. I didn’t know what that word meant, but he said it so often that I’d come to associate it with her—with her creamy carpet and soft petal wallpaper.
Tyler loved it there. He loved the calm, the order, the soft way my grandparents spoke to each other. There was an aura in that house that made me feel instinctively, without ever being told, that I was not to shout, not to hit anyone or tear through the kitchen at full speed. I
have to be told, and told repeatedly, to leave my muddy shoes by the door.
“Off to college!” Grandma said once we were settled onto the floral-print sofa. She turned to me. “You must be so proud of your brother!” Her eyes squinted to accommodate her smile. I could see every one of her teeth.
Leave it to Grandma to think getting yourself brainwashed is something to celebrate,
“I need the bathroom,” I said.
Alone in the hall I walked slowly, pausing with each step to let my toes sink into the carpet. I smiled, remembering that Dad had said Grandma could keep her carpet so white only because Grandpa had never done any real work. “My hands might be dirty,” Dad had said, winking at me and displaying his blackened fingernails. “But it’s honest dirt.”
WEEKS PASSED AND IT was full summer. One Sunday Dad called the family together. “We’ve got a good supply of food,” he said. “We’ve got fuel and water stored away. What we don’t got is money.” Dad took a twenty from his wallet and crumpled it. “Not this fake money. In the Days of Abomination, this won’t be worth a thing. People will trade hundred-dollar bills for a roll of toilet paper.”
I imagined a world where green bills littered the highway like empty soda cans. I looked around. Everyone else seemed to be imagining that too, especially Tyler. His eyes were focused, determined. “I’ve got a little money saved,” Dad said. “And your mother’s got some tucked away. We’re going to change it into silver. That’s what people will be wishing they had soon, silver and gold.”
A few days later, Dad came home with the silver, and even some gold. The metal was in the form of coins, packed in small, heavy boxes, which he carried through the house and piled in the basement. He wouldn’t let me open them. “They aren’t for playing,” he said.
Some time after, Tyler took several thousand dollars—nearly all the savings he had left after he’d paid the farmer for the tractor and Dad for the station wagon—and bought his own pile of silver, which he stacked in the basement next to the gun cabinet. He stood there for a long time, considering the boxes, as if suspended between two worlds.
Tyler was a softer target: I begged and he gave me a silver coin as big as my palm. The coin soothed me. It seemed to me that Tyler’s buying it was a declaration of loyalty, a pledge to our family that despite the madness that had hold of him, that made him want to go to school, ultimately he would choose us. Fight on our side when The End came. By the time the leaves began to change, from the juniper greens of summer to the garnet reds and bronzed golds of autumn, that coin shimmered even in the lowest light, polished by a thousand finger strokes. I’d taken comfort in the raw physicality of it, certain that if the coin was real, Tyler’s leaving could not be.
I AWOKE ONE MORNING in August to find Tyler packing his clothes, books and CDs into boxes. He’d nearly finished by the time we sat down to breakfast. I ate quickly, then went into his room and looked at his shelves, now empty except for a single CD, the black one with the image of the people dressed in white, which I now recognized as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Tyler appeared in the doorway. “I’m l-l-leaving that f-f-for you,” he said. Then he walked outside and hosed down his car, blasting away the Idaho dust until it looked as though it had never seen a dirt road.
Dad finished his breakfast and left without a word. I understood why. The sight of Tyler loading boxes into his car made me crazed. I wanted to scream but instead I ran, out the back door and up through the hills toward the peak. I ran until the sound of blood pulsing in my ears was louder than the thoughts in my head; then I turned around and ran back, swinging around the pasture to the red railroad car. I scrambled onto its roof just in time to see Tyler close his trunk and turn in a circle, as if he wanted to say goodbye but there was no one to say goodbye to. I imagined him calling my name and pictured his face falling when I didn’t answer.
He was in the driver’s seat by the time I’d climbed down, and the car was rumbling down the dirt road when I leapt out from behind an iron tank. Tyler stopped, then got out and hugged me—not the crouching hug that adults often give children but the other kind, both of us standing, him pulling me into him and bringing his face close to mine. He said he would miss me, then he let me go, stepping into his car and speeding down the hill and onto the highway. I watched the dust settle.
Tyler rarely came home after that. He was building a new life for himself across enemy lines. He made few excursions back to our side. I have almost no memory of him until five years later, when I am fifteen, and he bursts into my life at a critical moment. By then we are strangers.
It would be many years before I would understand what leaving that day had cost him, and how little he had understood about where he was going. Tony and Shawn had left the mountain, but they’d left to do what my father had taught them to do: drive semis, weld, scrap. Tyler stepped into a void. I don’t know why he did it and neither does he. He can’t explain where the conviction came from, or how it burned brightly enough to shine through the black uncertainty. But I’ve always supposed it was the music in his head, some hopeful tune the rest of us couldn’t hear, the same secret melody he’d been humming when he bought that trigonometry book, or saved all those pencil shavings.
SUMMER WANED, SEEMING TO evaporate in its own heat. The days were still hot but the evenings had begun to cool, the frigid hours after sunset claiming more of each day. Tyler had been gone a month.
I was spending the afternoon with Grandma-over-in-town. I’d had a bath that morning, even though it wasn’t Sunday, and I’d put on special clothes with no holes or stains so that, scrubbed and polished, I could sit in Grandma’s kitchen and watch her make pumpkin cookies. The autumn sun poured in through gossamer curtains and onto marigold tiles, giving the whole room an amber glow.
After Grandma slid the first batch into the oven, I went to the bathroom. I passed through the hallway, with its soft white carpet, and felt a stab of anger when I remembered that the last time I’d seen it, I’d been with Tyler. The bathroom felt foreign. I took in the pearly sink, the rosy tint of the carpet, the peach-colored rug. Even the toilet peeked out from under a primrose covering. I took in my own reflection, framed by creamy tiles. I looked nothing like myself, and I wondered for a moment if
was what Tyler wanted, a pretty house with a pretty bathroom and a pretty sister to visit him. Maybe this was what he’d left for. I hated him for that.
Near the tap there were a dozen pink and white soaps, shaped like swans and roses, resting in an ivory-tinted shell. I picked up a swan, feeling its soft shape give under pressure from my fingers. It was beautiful and I wanted to take it. I pictured it in our basement bathroom, its delicate wings set against the coarse cement. I imagined it lying in a muddy puddle on the sink, surrounded by strips of curling yellowed wallpaper. I returned it to its shell.
Coming out, I walked into Grandma, who’d been waiting for me in the hall.
“Did you wash your hands?” she asked, her tone sweet and buttery.
“No,” I said.
My reply soured the cream in her voice. “Why not?”
“They weren’t dirty.”
“You should always wash your hands after you use the toilet.”
“It can’t be that important,” I said. “We don’t even have soap in the bathroom at home.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “I raised your mother better than that.”
I squared my stance, ready to argue, to tell Grandma again that we didn’t use soap, but when I looked up, the woman I saw was not the woman I expected to see. She didn’t seem frivolous, didn’t seem like the type who’d waste an entire day fretting over her white carpet. In that moment she was transformed. Maybe it was something in the shape of her eyes, the way they squinted at me in disbelief, or maybe it was the hard line of her mouth, which was clamped shut, determined. Or maybe it was nothing at all, just the same old woman looking like herself and saying the things she always said. Maybe her transformation was merely a temporary shift in my perspective—for that moment, perhaps the perspective was
that of the brother I hated, and loved.
Grandma led me into the bathroom and watched as I washed my hands, then directed me to dry them on the rose-colored towel. My ears burned, my throat felt hot.
Dad picked me up soon after on his way home from a job. He pulled up in his truck and honked for me to come out, which I did, my head bent low. Grandma followed. I rushed into the passenger seat, displacing a toolbox and welding gloves, while Grandma told Dad about my not washing. Dad listened, sucking on his cheeks while his right hand fiddled with the gearshift. A laugh was bubbling up inside him.
Having returned to my father, I felt the power of his person. A familiar lens slid over my eyes and Grandma lost whatever strange power she’d had over me an hour before.
“Don’t you teach your children to wash after they use the toilet?” Grandma said.
Dad shifted the truck into gear. As it rolled forward he waved and said, “I teach them not to piss on their hands.”