It was a sunny September afternoon when I heaved my suitcase through Harvard Yard. The colonial architecture felt foreign but also crisp and unimposing compared to the Gothic pinnacles of Cambridge. The central library, called the Widener, was the largest I had ever seen, and for a few minutes I forgot the past year and stared up at it, wonderstruck.
My room was in the graduate dorms near the law school. It was small and cavelike—dark, moist, frigid, with ashen walls and cold tiles the color of lead. I spent as little time in it as possible. The university seemed to offer a new beginning, and I intended to take it. I enrolled in every course I could squeeze into my schedule, from German idealism to the history of secularism to ethics and law. I joined a weekly study group to practice French, and another to learn knitting. The graduate school offered a free course on charcoal sketching. I had never drawn in my life but I signed up for that, too.
I began to read—Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Mill. I lost myself in the world they had lived in, the problems they had tried to solve. I became obsessed with their ideas about the family—with how a person ought to weigh their special obligations to kin against their obligations to society as a whole. Then I began to write, weaving the strands I’d found in Hume’s Principles of Morals with filaments from Mill’s The Subjection of Women. It was good work, I knew it even as I wrote it, and when I’d finished I set it aside. It was the first chapter of my PhD.
I returned from my sketching class one Saturday morning to find an email from my mother. We’re coming to Harvard, she said. I read that line at least three times, certain she was joking. My father did not travel—I’d never known him to go anywhere except Arizona to visit his mother—so the idea that he would fly across the country to see a daughter he believed taken by the devil seemed ludicrous. Then I understood: he was coming to save me. Mother said they had already booked their flights and would be staying in my dorm room.
“Do you want a hotel?” I asked. They didn’t.
A FEW DAYS LATER, I signed in to an old chat program I hadn’t used in years. There was a cheerful jingle and a name turned from gray to green. Charles is online, it said. I’m not sure who started the chat, or who suggested moving the conversation to the phone. We talked for an hour, and it was as if no time had passed.
He asked where I was studying; when I answered, he said, “Harvard! Holy hell!”
“Who woulda thought?” I said.
“I did,” he said, and it was true. He had always seen me like that, long before there was any reason to.
I asked what he’d done after graduating from college and there was a strained silence. “Things didn’t go the way I planned,” he said. He’d never graduated. He’d dropped out his sophomore year after his son was born, because his wife was sick and there was a mound of medical bills. He’d signed on to work the oil rigs in Wyoming. “It was only supposed to be for a few months,” he said. “That was a year ago.”
I told him about Shawn, how I’d lost him, how I was losing the rest of my family. He listened quietly, then let out a long sigh and said, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?”
I hadn’t, not once. “It’s not permanent,” I said. “I can fix it.”
“Funny how you can change so much,” Charles said, “but still sound the same as when we were seventeen.”
MY PARENTS ARRIVED AS the leaves began to turn, when campus was at its most beautiful, the reds and yellows of autumn mingling with the burgundy of colonial brick. With his hayseed grammar, denim shirt and lifetime-member NRA cap, Dad would have always been out of place at Harvard, but his scarring intensified the effect. I had seen him many times in the years since the explosion, but it wasn’t until he came to Harvard, and I saw him set against my life there, that I realized how severely he’d disfigured himself. That awareness reached me through the eyes of others—strangers whose faces changed when he passed them in the street, who turned to get a second look. Then I would look at him, too, and notice how the skin on his chin was taut and plastic; how his lips lacked natural roundness; how his cheeks sucked inward at an angle that was almost skeletal. His right hand, which he often raised to point at some feature or other, was knotted and twisted, and when I gazed at it, set against Harvard’s antediluvian steeples and columns, it seemed to me the claw of some mythical creature.
Dad had little interest in the university, so I took him into the city. I taught him how to take the T—how to feed his card through the slot and push through the rotating gate. He laughed out loud, as if it were a fabulous technology. A homeless man passed through our subway car and asked for a dollar. Dad gave him a crisp fifty.
“You keep that up in Boston, you won’t have any money left,” I said.
“Doubt it,” Dad said with a wink. “The business is rolling. We got more than we can spend!”
Because his health was fragile, my father took the bed. I had purchased an air mattress, which I gave to Mother. I slept on the tile floor. Both my parents snored loudly, and I lay awake all night. When the sun finally rose I stayed on the floor, eyes closed, breathing slow, deep breaths, while my parents ransacked my mini fridge and discussed me in hushed tones.
“The Lord has commanded me to testify,” Dad said. “She may yet be brought to the Lord.”
While they plotted how to reconvert me, I plotted how to let them. I was ready to yield, even if it meant an exorcism. A miracle would be useful: if I could stage a convincing rebirth, I could dissociate from everything I’d said and done in the last year. I could take it all back—blame Lucifer and be given a clean slate. I imagined how esteemed I would be, as a newly cleansed vessel. How loved. All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.
My father wanted to visit the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York—the forest where, according to Joseph Smith, God had appeared and commanded him to found the true church. We rented a car and six hours later entered Palmyra. Near the grove, off the highway, there was a shimmering temple topped by a golden statue of the angel Moroni. Dad pulled over and asked me to cross the temple grounds. “Touch the temple,” he said. “Its power will cleanse you.”
I studied his face. His expression was stretched—earnest, desperate. With all that was in him, he was willing me to touch the temple and be saved.
My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs. And yet, triumphant. I remembered the words of Sancho Panza: An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.
When I reflect on that moment now, the image blurs, reconstituting itself into that of a zealous knight astride a steed, charging into an imaginary battle, striking at shadows, hacking into thin air. His jaw is set, his back straight. His eyes blaze with conviction, throwing sparks that burn where they lay. My mother gives me a pale, disbelieving look, but when he turns his gaze on her they become of one mind, then they are both tilting at windmills.
I crossed the grounds and held my palm to the temple stone. I closed my eyes and tried to believe that this simple act could bring the miracle my parents prayed for. That all I had to do was touch this relic and, by the power of the Almighty, all would be put right. But I felt nothing. Just cold rock.
I returned to the car. “Let’s go,” I said.
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?
In the days that followed, I wrote that passage everywhere—unconsciously, compulsively. I find it now in books I was reading, in my lecture notes, in the margins of my journal. Its recitation was a mantra. I willed myself to believe it—to believe there was no real difference between what I knew to be true and what I knew to be false. To convince myself that there was some dignity in what I planned to do, in surrendering my own perceptions of right and wrong, of reality, of sanity itself, to earn the love of my parents. For them I believed I could don armor and charge at giants, even if I saw only windmills.
We entered the Sacred Grove. I walked ahead and found a bench beneath a canopy of trees. It was a lovely wood, heavy with history. It was the reason my ancestors had come to America. A twig snapped, my parents appeared. They sat, one on either side of me.
My father spoke for two hours. He testified that he had beheld angels and demons. He had seen physical manifestations of evil, and had been visited by the Lord Jesus Christ, like the prophets of old, like Joseph Smith had been in this very grove. His faith was no longer a faith, he said, but a perfect knowledge.
“You have been taken by Lucifer,” he whispered, his hand on my shoulder. “I could feel it the moment I entered your room.”
I thought of my dorm room—of the murky walls and frigid tiles, but also of the sunflowers Drew had sent, and of the textile wall hanging a friend from Zimbabwe had brought from his village.
Mother said nothing. She stared at the dirt, her eyes glossy, her lips pursed. Dad prodded me for a response. I searched myself, reaching deep, groping for the words he needed to hear. But they were not in me, not yet.
Before we returned to Harvard, I convinced my parents to take a detour to Niagara Falls. The mood in the car was heavy, and at first I regretted having suggested the diversion, but the moment Dad saw the falls he was transformed, elated. I had a camera. Dad had always hated cameras but when he saw mine his eyes shone with excitement. “Tara! Tara!” he shouted, running ahead of me and Mother. “Get yourself a picture of this angle. Ain’t that pretty!” It was as if he realized we were making a memory, something beautiful we might need later. Or perhaps I’m projecting, because that was how I felt. There are some photos from today that might help me forget the grove, I wrote in my journal. There’s a picture of me and Dad happy, together. Proof that’s possible.
WHEN WE RETURNED TO HARVARD, I offered to pay for a hotel. They refused to go. For a week we stumbled over one another in my dorm room. Every morning my father trudged up a flight of stairs to the communal shower in nothing but a small white towel. This would have humiliated me at BYU, but at Harvard I shrugged. I had transcended embarrassment. What did it matter who saw him, or what he said to them, or how shocked they were? It was his opinion I cared about; he was the one I was losing.
Then it was their last night, and still I had not been reborn.
Mother and I shuffled around the shared kitchen making a beef and potato casserole, which we brought into the room on trays. My father studied his plate quietly, as if he were alone. Mother made a few observations about the food, then she laughed nervously and was silent.
When we’d finished, Dad said he had a gift for me. “It’s why I came,” he said. “To offer you a priesthood blessing.”
In Mormonism, the priesthood is God’s power to act on earth—to advise, to counsel, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. It is given to men. This was the moment: if I accepted the blessing, he would cleanse me. He would lay his hands on my head and cast out the evil thing that had made me say what I had said, that had made me unwelcome in my own family. All I had to do was yield, and in five minutes it would be over.
I heard myself say no.
Dad gaped at me in disbelief, then he began to testify—not about God, but about Mother. The herbs, he said, were a divine calling from the Lord. Everything that happened to our family, every injury, every near death, was because we had been chosen, we were special. God had orchestrated all of it so we could denounce the Medical Establishment and testify of His power.
“Remember when Luke burned his leg?” Dad said, as if I could forget. “That was the Lord’s plan. It was a curriculum. For your mother. So she would be ready for what would happen to me.”
The explosion, the burn. It was the highest of spiritual honors, he said, to be made a living testament of God’s power. Dad held my hands in his mangled fingers and told me that his disfiguration had been foreordained. That it was a tender mercy, that it had brought souls to God.
Mother added her testimony in low, reverent whispers. She said she could stop a stroke by adjusting a chakra; that she could halt heart attacks using only energy; that she could cure cancer if people had faith. She herself had had breast cancer, she said, and she had cured it.
My head snapped up. “You have cancer?” I said. “You’re sure? You had it tested?”
“I didn’t need to have it tested,” she said. “I muscle-tested it. It was cancer. I cured it.”
“We could have cured Grandma, too,” Dad said. “But she turned away from Christ. She lacked faith and that’s why she’s dead. God won’t heal the faithless.”
Mother nodded but never looked up.
“Grandma’s sin was serious,” Dad said. “But your sins are more serious still, because you were given the truth and have turned from it.”
The room was quiet except for the dull hum of traffic on Oxford Street.
Dad’s eyes were fixed on me. It was the gaze of a seer, of a holy oracle whose power and authority were drawn from the very universe. I wanted to meet it head-on, to prove I could withstand its weight, but after a few seconds something in me buckled, some inner force gave way, and my eyes dropped to the floor.
“I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” Dad said. “It is coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility. And when you are there, when you are lying broken, you will call on the Divine Father for mercy.” Dad’s voice, which had risen to fever pitch, now fell to a murmur. “And He will not hear you.”
I met his gaze. He was burning with conviction; I could almost feel the heat rolling off him. He leaned forward so that his face was nearly touching mine and said, “But I will.”
The silence settled, undisturbed, oppressive.
“I will offer, one final time, to give you a blessing,” he said.
The blessing was a mercy. He was offering me the same terms of surrender he had offered my sister. I imagined what a relief it must have been for her, to realize she could trade her reality—the one she shared with me—for his. How grateful she must have felt to pay such a modest price. I could not judge her for her choice, but in that moment I knew I could not choose it for myself. Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.
Dad reached into his pocket and withdrew a vial of consecrated oil, which he placed in my palm. I studied it. This oil was the only thing needed to perform the ritual, that and the holy authority resting in my father’s misshapen hands. I imagined my surrender, imagined closing my eyes and recanting my blasphemies. I imagined how I would describe my change, my divine transformation, what words of gratitude I would shout. The words were ready, fully formed and waiting to leave my lips.
But when my mouth opened they vanished.
“I love you,” I said. “But I can’t. I’m sorry, Dad.”
My father stood abruptly.
He said again there was an evil presence in my room, that he couldn’t stay another night. Their flight was not until morning, but Dad said it was better to sleep on a bench than with the devil.
My mother bustled about the room, shoveling shirts and socks into their suitcase. Five minutes later, they were gone.