Authors: Tara Westover
The winter after Tyler left, Audrey turned fifteen. She picked up her driver’s license from the county courthouse and, on her way home, got a job flipping burgers. Then she took a second job milking cows at four A.M. every morning. For a year she’d been fighting with Dad, bucking under the restraints he put on her. Now she had money; she had her own car; we hardly saw her. The family was shrinking, the old hierarchy compressing.
Dad didn’t have enough of a crew to build hay sheds, so he went back to scrapping. With Tyler gone, the rest of us were promoted: Luke, at sixteen, became the eldest son, my father’s right hand, and Richard and I took his place as grunts.
I remember the first morning I entered the junkyard as one of my father’s crew. The earth was ice, even the air felt stiff. We were in the yard above the lower pasture, which was overrun by hundreds of cars and trucks. Some were old and broken down but most had been wrecked and they looked it—bent, arched, twisted, the impression they gave was of crumpled paper, not steel. In the center of the yard there was a lake of debris, vast and deep: leaking car batteries, tangles of insulated copper wire, abandoned transmissions, rusted sheets of corrugated tin, antique faucets, smashed radiators, serrated lengths of luminous brass pipe, and on and on. It was endless, a formless mass.
Dad led me to its edge.
“You know the difference between aluminum and stainless steel?” he said.
“I think so.”
“Come here.” His tone was impatient. He was used to dictating to grown men. Having to explain his trade to a ten-year-old girl somehow made us both feel small.
He yanked out a chunk of shimmering metal. “This here’s aluminum,” he said. “See how it shines? Feel how light it is?” Dad put the piece into my hand. He was right; it was not as heavy as it looked. Next Dad handed me a dented pipe. “This here’s steel,” he said.
We began to sort the debris into piles—aluminum, iron, steel, copper—so it could be sold. I picked up a piece of iron. It was dense with bronze rust, and its jagged angles nibbled at my palms. I had a pair of leather gloves, but when Dad saw them he said they’d slow me down. “You’ll get calluses real quick,” he promised as I handed them over. I’d found a hard hat in the shop, but Dad took that, too. “You’ll move slower trying to balance this silly thing on your head,” he said.
Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel. Dad saw every piece of scrap as the money it could be sold for, minus the time needed to sort, cut and deliver it. Every slab of iron, every ring of copper tubing was a nickel, a dime, a dollar—less if it took more than two seconds to extract and classify—and he constantly weighed these meager profits against the hourly expense of running the house. He figured that to keep the lights on, the house warm, he needed to work at breakneck speed. I never saw Dad carry anything to a sorting bin; he just chucked it, with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing.
The first time I saw him do it, I thought it was an accident, a mishap that would be corrected. I hadn’t yet grasped the rules of this new world. I had bent down, and was reaching for a copper coil, when something massive cut through the air next to me. When I turned to see where it had come from, I caught a steel cylinder full in the stomach.
The impact knocked me to the ground. “Oops!” Dad hollered. I rolled over on the ice, winded. By the time I’d scrambled to my feet, Dad had launched something else. I ducked but lost my footing and fell. This time I stayed down. I was shaking but not from cold. My skin was alive and tingling with the certainty of danger, yet when I looked for the source of that danger, all I could see was a tired old man, tugging on a broken light fixture.
I remembered all the times I’d seen one of my brothers burst through the back door, howling, pinching some part of his body that was gashed or squashed or broken or burned. I remembered two years before, when a man named Robert, who worked for Dad, had lost a finger. I remembered the otherworldly pitch of his scream as he ran to the house. I remembered staring at the bloody stump, and then at the severed finger, which Luke brought in and placed on the counter. It looked like a prop from a magic trick. Mother put it on ice and rushed Robert to town so the doctors could sew it back on. Robert’s was not the only finger the junkyard had claimed. A year before Robert, Shawn’s girlfriend, Emma, had come through the back door shrieking. She’d been helping Shawn and lost half her index. Mother had rushed Emma to town, too, but the flesh had been crushed, and there was nothing they could do.
I looked at my own pink fingers, and in that moment the junkyard shifted. As children, Richard and I had passed countless hours in the debris, jumping from one mangled car to the next, looting some, leaving others. It had been the backdrop for a thousand imagined battles—between demons and wizards, fairies and goons, trolls and giants. Now it was changed. It had ceased to be my childhood playground and had become its own reality, one whose physical laws were mysterious, hostile.
I was remembering the strange pattern the blood had made as it streaked down Emma’s wrist, smearing across her forearm, when I stood and, still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, “Don’t throw them here!
Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said. “God and his angels are here, working right alongside us. They won’t let you be hurt.”
I WASN’T THE ONLY ONE whose feet were searching for solid ground. For six months after the car accident, Mother had improved steadily and we’d thought she would fully recover. The headaches had become less frequent, so that she was shutting herself in the basement only two or three days a week. Then the healing had slowed. Now it had been nine months. The headaches persisted, and Mother’s memory was erratic. At least twice a week she’d ask me to cook breakfast long after everyone had eaten and the dishes had been cleared. She’d tell me to weigh a pound of yarrow for a client, and I’d remind her that we’d delivered the yarrow the day before. She’d begin mixing a tincture, then a minute later couldn’t remember which ingredients she’d added, so that the whole batch had to be tossed. Sometimes she would ask me to stand next to her and watch, so I could say, “You already added the lobelia. Next is the blue vervain.”
Mother began to doubt whether she would ever midwife again, and while she was saddened by this, Dad was devastated. His face sagged every time Mother turned a woman away. “What if I have a migraine when she goes into labor?” she told him. “What if I can’t remember what herbs I’ve given her, or the baby’s heart rate?”
In the end it wasn’t Dad who convinced Mother to midwife again. She convinced herself, perhaps because it was a part of herself she couldn’t surrender without some kind of struggle. That winter, she midwifed two babies that I remember. After the first she came home sickly and pale, as if bringing that life into the world had taken a measure of her own. She was shut in the basement when the second call came. She drove to the birth in dark glasses, trying to peer through the waves distorting her vision. By the time she arrived the headache was blinding, pulsing, driving out all thought. She locked herself in a back room and her assistant delivered the baby. After that, Mother was no longer the Midwife. On the next birth, she used the bulk of her fee to hire a second midwife, to supervise her. Everyone was supervising her now, it seemed. She had been an expert, an uncontested power; now she had to ask her ten-year-old daughter whether she’d eaten lunch. That winter was long and dark, and I wondered if sometimes Mother was staying in bed even when she didn’t have a migraine.
At Christmas, someone gave her an expensive bottle of blended essential oils. It helped her headaches, but at fifty dollars for a third of an ounce, we couldn’t afford it. Mother decided to make her own. She began buying single, unmixed oils—eucalyptus and helichrysum, sandalwood and ravensara—and the house, which for years had smelled of earthy bark and bitter leaves, suddenly smelled of lavender and chamomile. She spent whole days blending oils, making adjustments to achieve specific fragrances and attributes. She worked with a pad and pen so she could record every step as she took it. The oils were much more expensive than the tinctures; it was devastating when she had to throw out a batch because she couldn’t remember whether she’d added the spruce. She made an oil for migraines and an oil for menstrual cramps, one for sore muscles and one for heart palpitations. In the coming years she would invent dozens more.
To create her formulas, Mother took up something called “muscle testing,” which she explained to me as “asking the body what it needs and letting it answer.” Mother would say to herself, aloud, “I have a migraine. What will make it better?” Then she would pick up a bottle of oil, press it to her chest and, with her eyes closed, say, “Do I need
?” If her body swayed forward it meant yes, the oil would help her headache. If her body swayed backward it meant no, and she would test something else.
As she became more skilled, Mother went from using her whole body to only her fingers. She would cross her middle and index fingers, then flex slightly to try to uncross them, asking herself a question. If the fingers remained entwined that meant yes; if they parted it was no. The sound produced by this method was faint but unmistakable: each time the pad of her middle finger slipped across the nail of her index, there was a fleshy
Mother used muscle testing to experiment with other methods of healing. Diagrams of chakras and pressure points appeared around the house, and she began charging clients for something called “energy work.” I didn’t know what that meant until one afternoon when Mother called me and Richard into the back room. A woman named Susan was there. Mother’s eyes were closed and her left hand was resting on Susan’s. The fingers on her other hand were crossed, and she was whispering questions to herself. After a few she turned to the woman and said, “Your relationship with your father is damaging your kidneys. Think of him while we adjust the chakra.” Mother explained that energy work is most effective when several people are present. “So we can draw from everyone’s energy,” she said. Mother pointed to my forehead and told me to tap the center, between my eyebrows, while with my other hand I was to grab Susan’s arm. Richard was to tap a pressure point on his chest while reaching out to me with his other hand, and Mother was to hold a point in her palm while touching Richard with her foot. “That’s it,” she said as Richard took my arm. We stood in silence for ten minutes, a human chain.
When I think of that afternoon, what I remember first is the awkwardness of it: Mother said she could feel the hot energy moving through our bodies, but I felt nothing. Mother and Richard stood still, eyes shut, breath shallow. They could feel the energy and were transported by it. I fidgeted. I tried to focus, then worried that I was ruining things for Susan, that I was a break in the chain, that Mother and Richard’s healing power would never reach her because I was failing to conduct it. When the ten minutes were up, Susan gave Mother twenty dollars and the next customer came in.
If I was skeptical, my skepticism was not entirely my fault. It was the result of my not being able to decide which of my mothers to trust. A year before the accident, when Mother had first heard of muscle testing and energy work, she’d dismissed both as wishful thinking. “People want a miracle,” she’d told me. “They’ll swallow anything if it brings them hope, if it lets them believe they’re getting better. But there’s no such thing as magic. Nutrition, exercise and a careful study of herbal properties, that’s all there is. But when they’re suffering, people can’t accept that.”
Now Mother said that healing was spiritual and limitless. Muscle testing, she explained to me, was a kind of prayer, a divine supplication. An act of faith in which God spoke through her fingers. In some moments I believed her, this wise woman with an answer to every question; but I could never quite forget the words of that other woman, that other mother, who was also wise.
There’s no such thing as magic.
One day Mother announced that she had reached a new skill level. “I no longer need to say the question aloud,” she said. “I can just think it.”
That’s when I began to notice Mother moving around the house, her hand resting lightly on various objects as she muttered to herself, her fingers flexing in a steady rhythm. If she was making bread and wasn’t sure how much flour she’d added.
Click click click.
If she was mixing oils and couldn’t remember whether she’d added frankincense.
Click click click.
She’d sit down to read her scriptures for thirty minutes, forget what time she’d started, then muscle-test how long it had been.
Click click click.
Mother began to muscle-test compulsively, unaware she was doing it, whenever she grew tired of a conversation, whenever the ambiguities of her memory, or even just those of normal life, left her unsatisfied. Her features would slacken, her face become vacant, and her fingers would click like crickets at dusk.
Dad was rapturous. “Them doctors can’t tell what’s wrong just by touching you,” he said, glowing. “But Mother can!”
THE MEMORY OF TYLER haunted me that winter. I remembered the day he left, how strange it was to see his car bumping down the hill loaded with boxes. I couldn’t imagine where he was now, but sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school—loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.