The program ended and I returned to BYU. Campus looked the way it always had, and it would have been easy to forget Cambridge and settle back into the life I’d had there. But Professor Steinberg was determined that I not forget. He sent me an application for something called the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which, he explained, was a little like the Rhodes Scholarship, but for Cambridge instead of Oxford. It would provide full funding for me to study at Cambridge, including tuition, room and board. As far as I was concerned it was comically out of reach for someone like me, but he insisted that it was not, so I applied.
Not long after, I noticed another difference, another small shift. I was spending an evening with my friend Mark, who studied ancient languages. Like me, and almost everyone at BYU, Mark was Mormon.
“Do you think people should study church history?” he asked.
“I do,” I said.
“What if it makes them unhappy?”
I thought I knew what he meant, but I waited for him to explain.
“Many women struggle with their faith after they learn about polygamy,” he said. “My mother did. I don’t think she’s ever understood it.”
“I’ve never understood it, either,” I said.
There was a tense silence. He was waiting for me to say my line: that I was praying for faith. And I had prayed for it, many, many times.
Perhaps both of us were thinking of our history, or perhaps only I was. I thought of Joseph Smith, who’d had as many as forty wives. Brigham Young had had fifty-five wives and fifty-six children. The church had ended the temporal practice of polygamy in 1890, but it had never recanted the doctrine. As a child I’d been taught—by my father but also in Sunday school—that in the fullness of time God would restore polygamy, and in the afterlife, I would be a plural wife. The number of my sister wives would depend on my husband’s righteousness: the more nobly he lived, the more wives he would be given.
I had never made my peace with it. As a girl I had often imagined myself in heaven, dressed in a white gown, standing in a pearly mist across from my husband. But when the camera zoomed out there were ten women standing behind us, wearing the same white dress. In my fantasy I was the first wife but I knew there was no guarantee of that; I might be hidden anywhere in the long chain of wives. For as long as I could remember, this image had been at the core of my idea of paradise: my husband, and his wives. There was a sting in this arithmetic: in knowing that in the divine calculus of heaven, one man could balance the equation for countless women.
I remembered my great-great-grandmother. I had first heard her name when I was twelve, which is the year that, in Mormonism, you cease to be a child and become a woman. Twelve was the age when lessons in Sunday school began to include words like purity and chastity. It was also the age that I was asked, as part of a church assignment, to learn about one of my ancestors. I asked Mother which ancestor I should choose, and without thinking she said, “Anna Mathea.” I said the name aloud. It floated off my tongue like the beginning of a fairy tale. Mother said I should honor Anna Mathea because she had given me a gift: her voice.
“It was her voice that brought our family to the church,” Mother said. “She heard Mormon missionaries preaching in the streets of Norway. She prayed, and God blessed her with faith, with the knowledge that Joseph Smith was His prophet. She told her father, but he’d heard stories about the Mormons and wouldn’t allow her to be baptized. So she sang for him. She sang him a Mormon hymn called ‘O My Father.’ When she finished singing, her father had tears in his eyes. He said that any religion with music so beautiful must be the work of God. They were baptized together.”
After Anna Mathea converted her parents, the family felt called by God to come to America and meet the prophet Joseph. They saved for the journey, but after two years they could bring only half the family. Anna Mathea was left behind.
The journey was long and harsh, and by the time they made it to Idaho, to a Mormon settlement called Worm Creek, Anna’s mother was sick, dying. It was her last wish to see her daughter again, so her father wrote to Anna, begging her to take what money she had and come to America. Anna had fallen in love and was to be married, but she left her fiancé in Norway and crossed the ocean. Her mother died before she reached the American shore.
The family was now destitute; there was no money to send Anna to her fiancé, to the marriage she had given up. Anna was a financial burden on her father, so a bishop persuaded her to marry a rich farmer as his second wife. His first wife was barren, and she flew into a jealous rage when Anna became pregnant. Anna worried the first wife might hurt her baby, so she returned to her father, where she gave birth to twins, though only one would survive the harsh winter on the frontier.
Mark was still waiting. Then he gave up and mumbled the words I was supposed to say, that he didn’t understand fully, but that he knew polygamy was a principle from God.
I agreed. I said the words, then braced myself for a wave of humiliation—for that image to invade my thoughts, of me, one of many wives standing behind a solitary, faceless man—but it didn’t come. I searched my mind and discovered a new conviction there: I would never be a plural wife. A voice declared this with unyielding finality; the declaration made me tremble. What if God commanded it? I asked. You wouldn’t do it, the voice answered. And I knew it was true.
I thought again of Anna Mathea, wondering what kind of world it was in which she, following a prophet, could leave her lover, cross an ocean, enter a loveless marriage as a second mistress, then bury her first child, only to have her granddaughter, in two generations, cross the same ocean an unbeliever. I was Anna Mathea’s heir: she had given me her voice. Had she not given me her faith, also?
I WAS PUT ON A SHORT LIST for the Gates scholarship. There would be an interview in February in Annapolis. I had no idea how to prepare. Robin drove me to Park City, where there was an Ann Taylor discount outlet, and helped me buy a navy pantsuit and matching loafers. I didn’t own a handbag so Robin lent me hers.
Two weeks before the interview my parents came to BYU. They had never visited me before, but they were passing through on their way to Arizona and stopped for dinner. I took them to the Indian restaurant across the street from my apartment.
The waitress stared a moment too long at my father’s face, then her eyes bulged when they dropped to his hands. Dad ordered half the menu. I told him three mains would be enough, but he winked and said money was not a problem. It seemed the news of my father’s miraculous healing was spreading, earning them more and more customers. Mother’s products were being sold by nearly every midwife and natural healer in the Mountain West.
We waited for the food, and Dad asked about my classes. I said I was studying French. “That’s a socialist language,” he said, then he lectured for twenty minutes on twentieth-century history. He said Jewish bankers in Europe had signed secret agreements to start World War II, and that they had colluded with Jews in America to pay for it. They had engineered the Holocaust, he said, because they would benefit financially from worldwide disorder. They had sent their own people to the gas chambers for money.
These ideas were familiar to me, but it took me a moment to remember where I’d heard them: in a lecture Dr. Kerry had given on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols, published in 1903, purported to be a record of a secret meeting of powerful Jews planning world domination. The document was discredited as a fabrication but still it spread, fueling anti-Semitism in the decades before World War II. Adolf Hitler had written about the Protocols in Mein Kampf, claiming they were authentic, that they revealed the true nature of the Jewish people.
Dad was talking loudly, at a volume that would have suited a mountainside but was thunderous in the small restaurant. People at nearby tables had halted their own conversations and were sitting in silence, listening to ours. I regretted having chosen a restaurant so near my apartment.
Dad moved on from World War II to the United Nations, the European Union, and the imminent destruction of the world. He spoke as if the three were synonyms. The curry arrived and I focused my attention on it. Mother had grown tired of the lecture, and asked Dad to talk about something else.
“But the world is about to end!” he said. He was shouting now.
“Of course it is,” Mother said. “But let’s not discuss it over dinner.”
I put down my fork and stared at them. Of all the strange statements from the past half hour, for some reason this was the one that shocked me. The mere fact of them had never shocked me before. Everything they did had always made sense to me, adhering to a logic I understood. Perhaps it was the backdrop: Buck’s Peak was theirs and it camouflaged them, so that when I saw them there, surrounded by the loud, sharp relics of my childhood, the setting seemed to absorb them. At least it absorbed the noise. But here, so near the university, they seemed so unreal as to be almost mythic.
Dad looked at me, waiting for me to give an opinion, but I felt alienated from myself. I didn’t know who to be. On the mountain I slipped thoughtlessly into the voice of their daughter and acolyte. But here, I couldn’t seem to find the voice that, in the shadow of Buck’s Peak, came easily.
We walked to my apartment and I showed them my room. Mother shut the door, revealing a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. that I’d put up four years before, when I’d learned of the civil rights movement.
“Is that Martin Luther King?” Dad said. “Don’t you know he had ties to communism?” He chewed the waxy tissue where his lips had been.
They departed soon after to drive through the night. I watched them go, then took out my journal. It’s astonishing that I used to believe all this without the slightest suspicion, I wrote. The whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.
I thought of something Tyler’s wife, Stefanie, had told me over the phone a few days before. She said it had taken her years to convince Tyler to let her immunize their children, because some part of him still believed vaccines are a conspiracy by the Medical Establishment. Remembering that now, with Dad’s voice still ringing in my ears, I sneered at my brother. He’s a scientist! I wrote. How can he not see beyond their paranoia! I reread what I had written, and as I did so my scorn gave way to a sense of irony. Then again, I wrote. Perhaps I could mock Tyler with more credibility if I had not remembered, as I did just now, that to this day I have never been immunized.
MY INTERVIEW FOR THE Gates scholarship took place at St. John’s College in Annapolis. The campus was intimidating, with its immaculate lawns and crisp colonial architecture. I sat nervously in the corridor, waiting to be called in for my interview; I felt stiff in the pantsuit and clung awkwardly to Robin’s handbag. But in the end, Professor Steinberg had written such a powerful letter of recommendation that there was little left for me to do.
I received confirmation the next day: I’d won the scholarship.
The phone calls began—from BYU’s student paper and the local news. I did half a dozen interviews. I was on TV. I awoke one morning to find my picture plastered on BYU’s home page. I was the third BYU student ever to win a Gates scholarship, and the university was taking full advantage of the press. I was asked about my high school experience, and which of my grade school teachers had prepared me for my success. I dodged, I parried, I lied when I had to. I didn’t tell a single reporter that I’d never gone to school.
I didn’t know why I couldn’t tell them. I just couldn’t stand the thought of people patting me on the back, telling me how impressive I was. I didn’t want to be Horatio Alger in someone’s tear-filled homage to the American dream. I wanted my life to make sense, and nothing in that narrative made sense to me.
A MONTH BEFORE MY graduation, I visited Buck’s Peak. Dad had read the articles about my scholarship, and what he said was, “You didn’t mention home school. I’d think you’d be more grateful that your mother and I took you out of them schools, seeing how it’s worked out. You should be telling people that’s what done it: home school.”
I said nothing. Dad took it as an apology.
He disapproved of my going to Cambridge. “Our ancestors risked their lives to cross the ocean, to escape those socialist countries. And what do you do? You turn around and go back?”
Again, I said nothing.
“I’m looking forward to your graduation,” he said. “The Lord has a few choice rebukes for me to give them professors.”
“You will not,” I said quietly.
“If the Lord moves me, I will stand and speak.”
“You will not,” I repeated.
“I won’t go anywhere that the Lord’s spirit isn’t welcome.”
That was the conversation. I hoped it would blow over, but Dad was so hurt that I hadn’t mentioned homeschooling in my interviews that this new wound festered.
There was a dinner the night before my graduation where I was to receive the “most outstanding undergraduate” award from the history department. I waited for my parents at the entrance, but they never appeared. I called Mother, thinking they were running late. She said they weren’t coming. I went to the dinner and was presented with a plaque. My table had the only empty seats in the hall. The next day there was a luncheon for honors graduates, and I was seated with the college dean and the director of the honors program. Again, there were two empty seats. I said my parents had had car trouble.
I phoned my mother after the luncheon.
“Your father won’t come unless you apologize,” she said. “And I won’t, either.”
I apologized. “He can say whatever he wants. But please come.”
They missed most of the ceremony; I don’t know if they saw me accept my diploma. What I remember is waiting with my friends before the music began, watching their fathers snap pictures and their mothers fix their hair. I remember that my friends were wearing colorful leis and recently gifted jewelry.
After the ceremony I stood alone on the lawn, watching the other students with their families. Eventually I saw my parents. Mother hugged me. My friend Laura snapped two photos. One is of me and Mother, smiling our forced smiles; the other is of me wedged between my parents, looking squeezed, under pressure.
I was leaving the Mountain West that night. I had packed before graduation. My apartment was empty, my bags by the door. Laura had volunteered to drive me to the airport, but my parents asked if they could take me.
I expected them to drop me at the curb, but Dad insisted that they walk with me through the airport. They waited while I checked my bags, then followed me to the security gate. It was as if Dad wanted to give me until the last second to change my mind. We walked in silence. When we arrived at security I hugged them both and said goodbye. I removed my shoes, laptop, camera, then I passed through the checkpoint, reassembled my pack, and headed for the terminal.
It was only then that I glanced back and saw Dad, still standing at the checkpoint, watching me walk away, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumping, his mouth slackened. I waved and he stepped forward, as if to follow, and I was reminded of the moment, years before, when power lines had covered the station wagon, with Mother inside it, and Dad had stood next to her, exposed.
He was still holding that posture when I turned the corner. That image of my father will always stay with me: that look on his face, of love and fear and loss. I knew why he was afraid. He’d let it slip my last night on Buck’s Peak, the same night he’d said he wouldn’t come to see me graduate.
“If you’re in America,” he’d whispered, “we can come for you. Wherever you are. I’ve got a thousand gallons of fuel buried in the field. I can fetch you when The End comes, bring you home, make you safe. But if you cross the ocean…”