A stone gate barred the entrance to Trinity College. Cut into the gate was a small wooden door. I stepped through it. A porter in a black overcoat and bowler hat showed me around the college, leading me through Great Court, the largest of the courtyards. We walked through a stone passageway and into a covered corridor whose stone was the color of ripe wheat.
“This is the north cloister,” the porter said. “It is here that Newton stomped his foot to measure the echo, calculating the speed of sound for the first time.”
We returned to the Great Gate. My room was directly opposite it, up three flights of stairs. After the porter left I stood, bookended by my suitcases, and stared out my little window at the mythic stone gate and its otherworldly battlements. Cambridge was just as I remembered: ancient, beautiful. I was different. I was not a visitor, not a guest. I was a member of the university. My name was painted on the door. According to the paperwork, I belonged here.
I dressed in dark colors for my first lecture, hoping I wouldn’t stand out, but even so I didn’t think I looked like the other students. I certainly didn’t sound like them, and not just because they were British. Their speech had a lilting cadence that made me think of singing more than speaking. To my ears they sounded refined, educated; I had a tendency to mumble, and when nervous, to stutter.
I chose a seat around the large square table and listened as the two students nearest me discussed the lecture topic, which was Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. The student next to me said he’d studied Isaiah Berlin at Oxford; the other said he’d already heard this lecturer’s remarks on Berlin when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. I had never heard of Isaiah Berlin.
The lecturer began his presentation. He spoke calmly but moved through the material quickly, as if he assumed we were already familiar with it. This was confirmed by the other students, most of whom were not taking notes. I scribbled down every word.
“So what are Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts?” the lecturer asked. Nearly everyone raised a hand. The lecturer called on the student who had studied at Oxford. “Negative liberty,” he said, “is the freedom from external obstacles or constraints. An individual is free in this sense if they are not physically prevented from taking action.” I was reminded for a moment of Richard, who had always seemed able to recite with exactness anything he’d ever read.
“Very good,” the lecturer said. “And the second?”
“Positive liberty,” another student said, “is freedom from internal constraints.”
I wrote this definition in my notes, but I didn’t understand it.
The lecturer tried to clarify. He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.
I had no idea what it meant to self-coerce. I looked around the room. No one else seemed confused. I was one of the few students taking notes. I wanted to ask for further explanation, but something stopped me—the certainty that to do so would be to shout to the room that I didn’t belong there.
After the lecture, I returned to my room, where I stared out my window at the stone gate with its medieval battlements. I thought of positive liberty, and of what it might mean to self-coerce, until my head thrummed with a dull ache.
I called home. Mother answered. Her voice rose with excitement when she recognized my weepy “Hello, Mom.” I told her I shouldn’t have come to Cambridge, that I didn’t understand anything. She said she’d been muscle-testing and had discovered that one of my chakras was out of balance. She could adjust it, she said. I reminded her that I was five thousand miles away.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ll adjust the chakra on Audrey and wing it to you.”
“You’ll what it to me?”
“Wing it,” she said. “Distance is nothing to living energy. I can send the corrected energy to you from here.”
“How fast does energy travel?” I asked. “At the speed of sound, or is it more like a jetliner? Does it fly direct, or will it have to lay over in Minneapolis?”
Mother laughed and hung up.
I STUDIED MOST MORNINGS in the college library, near a small window. I was there on a particular morning when Drew, a friend from BYU, sent me a song via email. He said it was a classic but I had never heard of it, nor of the singer. I played the song through my headphones. It gripped me immediately. I listened to it over and over while staring out at the north cloister.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
I scratched those lines into notebooks, into the margins of the essays I was writing. I wondered about them when I should have been reading. From the Internet I learned about the cancer that had been discovered on Bob Marley’s foot. I also learned that Marley had been a Rastafarian, and that Rastafari believe in a “whole body,” which is why he had refused surgery to amputate the toe. Four years later, at age thirty-six, he died.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. Marley had written that line a year before his death, while an operable melanoma was, at that moment, metastasizing to his lungs, liver, stomach and brain. I imagined a greedy surgeon with sharp teeth and long, skeletal fingers urging Marley to have the amputation. I shrank from this frightening image of the doctor and his corrupt medicine, and only then did I understand, as I had not before, that although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.
I flipped through my notebook to the lecture on negative and positive liberty. In a blank corner I scratched the line, None but ourselves can free our minds. Then I picked up my phone and dialed.
“I need to get my vaccinations,” I told the nurse.
I ATTENDED A SEMINAR on Wednesday afternoons, where I noticed two women, Katrina and Sophie, who nearly always sat together. I never spoke to them until one afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, when they asked if I’d like to get a coffee. I’d never “gotten a coffee” before—I’d never even tasted coffee, because it is forbidden by the church—but I followed them across the street and into a café. The cashier was impatient so I chose at random. She passed me a doll-sized cup with a tablespoon of mud-colored liquid in it, and I looked longingly at the foamy mugs Katrina and Sophie carried to our table. They debated concepts from the lecture; I debated whether to drink my coffee.
They used complex phrases with ease. Some of them, like “the second wave,” I’d heard before even if I didn’t know what they meant; others, like “the hegemonic masculinity,” I couldn’t get my tongue around let alone my mind. I’d taken several sips of the grainy, acrid fluid before I understood that they were talking about feminism. I stared at them as if they were behind glass. I’d never heard anyone use the word “feminism” as anything but a reprimand. At BYU, “You sound like a feminist” signaled the end of the argument. It also signaled that I had lost.
I left the café and went to the library. After five minutes online and a few trips to the stacks, I was sitting in my usual place with a large pile of books written by what I now understood to be second-wave writers—Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir. I read only a few pages of each book before slamming it shut. I’d never seen the word “vagina” printed out, never said it aloud.
I returned to the Internet and then to the shelves, where I exchanged the books of the second wave for those that preceded the first—Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.
From the moment I had first understood that my brother Richard was a boy and I was a girl, I had wanted to exchange his future for mine. My future was motherhood; his, fatherhood. They sounded similar but they were not. To be one was to be a decider. To preside. To call the family to order. To be the other was to be among those called.
I knew my yearning was unnatural. This knowledge, like so much of my self-knowledge, had come to me in the voice of people I knew, people I loved. All through the years that voice had been with me, whispering, wondering, worrying. That I was not right. That my dreams were perversions. That voice had many timbres, many tones. Sometimes it was my father’s voice; more often it was my own.
I carried the books to my room and read through the night. I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft, but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.
Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.
IN DECEMBER, AFTER I had submitted my last essay, I took a train to London and boarded a plane. Mother, Audrey and Emily picked me up at the airport in Salt Lake City, and together we skidded onto the interstate. It was nearly midnight when the mountain came into view. I could only just make out her grand form against the inky sky.
When I entered the kitchen I noticed a gaping hole in the wall, which led to a new extension Dad was building. Mother walked with me through the hole and switched on the light.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” she said. “Amazing” was the word.
It was a single massive room the size of the chapel at church, with a vaulted ceiling that rose some sixteen feet into the air. The size of the room was so ridiculous, it took me a moment to notice the decor. The walls were exposed Sheetrock, which contrasted spectacularly with the wood paneling on the vaulted ceiling. Crimson suede sofas sat cordially next to the stained upholstery love seat my father had dragged in from the dump many years before. Thick rugs with intricate patterns covered half the floor, while the other half was raw cement. There were several pianos, only one of which looked playable, and a television the size of a dining table. The room suited my father perfectly: it was larger than life and wonderfully incongruous.
Dad had always said he wanted to build a room the size of a cruise ship but I’d never thought he’d have the money. I looked to Mother for an explanation but it was Dad who answered. The business was a roaring success, he explained. Essential oils were popular, and Mother had the best on the market. “Our oils are so good,” he said, “we’ve started eating into the profits of the large corporate producers. They know all about them Westovers in Idaho.” Dad told me that one company had been so alarmed by the success of Mother’s oils, they had offered to buy her out for an astonishing three million dollars. My parents hadn’t even considered it. Healing was their calling. No amount of money could tempt them. Dad explained that they were taking the bulk of their profits and reconsecrating them to God in the form of supplies—food, fuel, maybe even a real bomb shelter. I suppressed a grin. From what I could tell, Dad was on track to become the best-funded lunatic in the Mountain West.
Richard appeared on the stairwell. He was finishing his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Idaho State. He’d come home for Christmas, and he’d brought his wife, Kami, and their one-month-old son, Donavan. When I’d met Kami a year before, just before the wedding, I’d been struck by how normal she was. Like Tyler’s wife, Stefanie, Kami was an outsider: she was a Mormon, but she was what Dad would have called “mainstream.” She thanked Mother for her herbal advice but seemed oblivious to the expectation that she renounce doctors. Donavan had been born in a hospital.
I wondered how Richard was navigating the turbulent waters between his normal wife and his abnormal parents. I watched him closely that night, and to me it seemed he was trying to live in both worlds, to be a loyal adherent to all creeds. When my father condemned doctors as minions of Satan, Richard turned to Kami and gave a small laugh, as if Dad were joking. But when my father’s eyebrows rose, Richard’s expression changed to one of serious contemplation and accord. He seemed in a state of constant transition, phasing in and out of dimensions, unsure whether to be my father’s son or his wife’s husband.
MOTHER WAS OVERWHELMED WITH holiday orders, so I passed my days on Buck’s Peak just as I had as a child: in the kitchen, making homeopathics. I poured the distilled water and added the drops from the base formula, then passed the tiny glass bottle through the ring made by my thumb and index fingers, counting to fifty or a hundred, then moving on to the next. Dad came in for a drink of water. He smiled when he saw me.
“Who knew we’d have to send you to Cambridge to get you in the kitchen where you belong?” he said.
In the afternoons, Shawn and I saddled the horses and fought our way up the mountain, the horses half-jumping to clamber through snowdrifts that reached their bellies. The mountain was beautiful and crisp; the air smelled of leather and pine. Shawn talked about the horses, about their training, and about the colts he expected in the spring, and I remembered that he was always at his best when he was with his horses.
I had been home about a week when the mountain was gripped by an intense cold spell. The temperature plunged, dropping to zero, then dropping further still. We put the horses away, knowing that if they worked up a sweat, it would turn to ice on their backs. The trough froze solid. We broke the ice but it refroze quickly, so we carried buckets of water to each horse.
That night everyone stayed indoors. Mother was blending oils in the kitchen. Dad was in the extension, which I had begun to jokingly call the Chapel. He was lying on the crimson sofa, a Bible resting on his stomach, while Kami and Richard played hymns on the piano. I sat with my laptop on the love seat, near Dad, and listened to the music. I had just begun a message to Drew when something struck the back door. The door burst open, and Emily flew into the room.
Her thin arms were wrapped around her body and she was shaking, gasping for breath. She wore no coat, no shoes, nothing but jeans, an old pair I’d left behind, and one of my worn T-shirts. Mother helped her to the sofa, wrapping her in the nearest blanket. Emily bawled, and for several minutes not even Mother could get her to say what had happened. Was everyone all right? Where was Peter? He was fragile, half the size he should have been, and he wore oxygen tubes because his lungs had never fully developed. Had his tiny lungs collapsed, his breathing stopped?
The story came out haltingly, between erratic sobs and the clattering of teeth. From what I could tell, when Emily had gone to Stokes that afternoon to buy groceries, she had returned home with the wrong crackers for Peter. Shawn had exploded. “How can he grow if you can’t buy the right food!” he had screamed, then he’d gathered her up and flung her from their trailer, into a snowbank. She’d pounded on the door, begging to be let in, then she’d run up the hillside to the house. I stared at her bare feet as she said this. They were so red, they looked as if they’d been burned.
My parents sat with Emily on the sofa, one on each side of her, patting her shoulders and squeezing her hands. Richard paced a few feet behind them. He seemed frustrated, anxious, as if he wanted to explode into action and was only just being held in check.
Kami was still seated at the piano. She was staring at the group huddled on the couch, confused. She had not understood Emily. She did not understand why Richard was pacing, or why he paused every few seconds to glance at Dad, waiting for a word or gesture—any signal of what should be done.
I looked at Kami and felt a tightening in my chest. I resented her for witnessing this. I imagined myself in Emily’s place, which was easy to do—I couldn’t stop myself from doing it—and in a moment I was in a parking lot, laughing my high-pitched cackle, trying to convince the world that my wrist wasn’t breaking. Before I knew what I was doing I had crossed the room. I grasped my brother’s arm and pulled him with me to the piano. Emily was still sobbing, and I used her sobs to muffle my whispers. I told Kami that what we were witnessing was private, and that Emily would be embarrassed by it tomorrow. For Emily’s sake, I said, we should all go to our rooms and leave it in Dad’s hands.
Kami stood. She had decided to trust me. Richard hesitated, giving Dad a long look, then he followed her from the room.
I walked with them down the hallway then I doubled back. I sat at the kitchen table and watched the clock. Five minutes passed, then ten. Come on, Shawn, I chanted under my breath. Come now.
I’d convinced myself that if Shawn appeared in the next few minutes, it would be to make sure Emily had made it to the house—that she hadn’t slipped on the ice and broken a leg, wasn’t freezing to death in a field. But he didn’t come.
Twenty minutes later, when Emily finally stopped shaking, Dad picked up the phone. “Come get your wife!” he shouted into it. Mother was cradling Emily’s head against her shoulder. Dad returned to the sofa and patted Emily’s arm. As I stared at the three of them huddling together, I had the impression that all of this had happened before, and that everyone’s part was well rehearsed. Even mine.
It would be many years before I would understand what had happened that night, and what my role in it had been. How I had opened my mouth when I should have stayed silent, and shut it when I should have spoken out. What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed—what Emily needed—was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.
The French doors my father had installed squawked as they opened. Shawn shuffled in wearing heavy boots and a thick winter coat. Peter emerged from the folds of thick wool, where Shawn had been shielding him from the cold, and reached out for Emily. She clung to him. Dad stood. He motioned for Shawn to take the seat next to Emily. I stood and went to my room, pausing to take a last look at my father, who was inhaling deeply, readying himself to deliver a lengthy lecture.
“It was very stern,” Mother assured me twenty minutes later, when she appeared at my door asking if I could lend Emily a pair of shoes and a coat. I fetched them and watched from the kitchen as she disappeared, tucked under my brother’s arm.