Kelty Walker grew up in an isolated trailer house in the woods outside Blanchard, Idaho.
“We took five dirt roads to get to the trailer,” she said. “It was out there.”
And in that trailer, her father did all he could to block out the world. Kelty and her sister barely left the house. On rare trips to town, they had to wait in the car or stay within three feet of their dad. They never attended school. No one came over. Their mother left to work in town and their father schooled them in the things he thought were important: calculus and the supremacy of white people.
Kelty would read anthologies of English literature and American literature – “He’d tear out all the pages about the Civil War” – and the volumes of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. If she disobeyed her father – or if he just thought she had – he’d become violent. He was careful not to leave a bruise. The house was full of guns, and her father prepared them for the day when armed foes would arrive.
“He trained us what to do if we ever saw laser dots on the wall,” she said. “That’s paranoid.”
Kelty – now 21 and studying for her master’s degree at the University of Idaho in Coeur d’Alene – has left the woods of Blanchard far behind. But you get the sense her story is far from over.
She said her dad was violent and domineering, but he also suffered from Huntington’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder whose symptoms include antisocial behavior, hallucinations and irritability, as well as motor-skill deterioration. An intelligent man who had become disaffected and angry after a run-in over some unspecified “political incorrectness” at the University of Washington, he had moved his family to Coeur d’Alene, and then Blanchard, to be near the Aryan Nations around 1990.
“I think he imagined finding husbands for us who were Aryan and having us live next door for all our lives or something – I don’t know,” Kelty said.
At night, Kelty said, her mother quietly, subversively told her daughters that there was more to life than their father’s views of the world. Somehow – through reading, through her mother’s whispered urging, through personal strength – Kelty knew at a young age that she wanted to resist.
For two years, around ages 12 and 13, she stayed virtually silent in rebellion. At other times, she defied her father – sometimes directly, sometimes in roundabout ways. As he got sicker, he became more aggressive. Conflict and anger drifted constantly through the atmosphere. Finally, one day when Kelty was 16 and her little sister was 13, their father became irate and grabbed them by the necks, pinning them hard against a wall.
“That was the first time I felt that if he didn’t let go I would have stopped breathing,” she said. “I was very freaked out.”
For Kelty, that was the end. She feared her father would kill her or her sister – or that she’d kill him in self-defense. Soon, she and her mother were planning an escape at nights in her room.
“It was very fun at that time,” Kelty said. “Very exciting. I couldn’t sleep because it was so exciting. We were going to leave, finally.”
One early morning in June 2006, she and her mother and sister sneaked out the back door while her father slept in a sleeping bag near the front door. They took few belongings, a little food. A neighbor gave them a ride into Sandpoint, where they entered the women’s shelter.
Kelty knew she wanted to go to school. She was smart and tough and had done a lot of reading, but in many ways society was a mystery to her.
“I didn’t know how to fill a tank of gas, or how to go through a checkout stand at a store,” she said.
By January 2007, Kelty had enrolled in North Idaho College courses offered in Sandpoint, under a dual enrollment program that allowed high school students to earn college credit. In her first semester – suffering “culture shock” but loving it – she earned almost straight As. By that November, she had her GED and was working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Her father’s health deteriorated, and he wound up in an assisted-living center. He never came after them, though Kelty says her mother lived in fear of that for years. They worked odd jobs, found a place to live, moved forward.
When she turned 18, she moved to Coeur d’Alene on her own. In December 2010, she finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology and began working on a master’s. She plans to earn a Ph.D. and is interested in researching psychopathy and musicology.
“I want to research the scariest thing I can think of and the most beautiful thing,” she said.
Which is an amazing way to look at things. And is but one of the amazing things about Kelty Walker. She’s smart and funny and diverse – her hobbies include karate and working under the hood of her VW – and she has a straight, tough take on her dire childhood. When she talks about it, she chuckles at the bleakest moments.
“If I didn’t find humor in all of this, I wouldn’t be able to revisit it,” she said.
She’s done things that a lot of others might have never done. And yet she gives a lot of credit to the Sandpoint women’s shelter – now closed – and to an array of social services, public education programs and professors for helping her along the way.
Her mom and sister live in Sandpoint. Since Kelty fled her father’s home, she’s seen him just once. He now lives in a Sandpoint nursing home, and she went to see him a few months ago. She is unsentimental about the visit – “I was just curious,” she said.
“It was a very surreal and grotesque experience,” she said. “The last time I’d seen him, he was domineering and violent. … I went in and he’s all hunched up and skeletonlike. He can’t see and he can’t move (very much), because he’s on anti-psychotics.”
The drugs control his tremors but also limit his motion, she said. He was ingratiating and tried to be affectionate.
“He said he’d been wanting to see me for a long time and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to see him.”
She told him about her plans to earn a doctorate.
“Then he started the Aryanism spout,” she said. “Then I left.”