Our minds do the most magical of things with our memories. We suppress, we embrace, we mold truth into something more tenable, we exaggerate, we deify, we villainize. Memory is a tricky thing, and we are not to be trusted.
So how do we find the truth in our memories? How do we distinguish between actual events as they occurred and the reality we’ve created? Or do we bother?
Memory is a tricky thing. We all know that. And if it is how I remember it, even if it’s not as it happened, isn’t that “true” enough?
I recently read a memoir that left me pondering the flaws in memories and questioning the reliability of a narrator. And after the A Million Little Pieces fiasco, questioning the reliability of a non-fiction author left me quite uncomfortable. That uncomfortableness made for an uneasy reading. Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction, but I’ve never read a memoir in which I distrusted the narrator. Until now.
Tara Westover’s debut novel Educated was published earlier this year and was promptly lauded with praise. Every book club forced it upon their members. Every list of 2018 ‘must reads’ proudly listed it, including President Obama’s. Its cover was EVERYWHERE. (Allow me a brief tangent to discuss the cover. I know. I know. I know. Don’t judge a book by the cover. But this was published by Random House – it had an entire TEAM of people to get it right, yet the cover did not fit the memoir. Yes, the memoir is titled Educated. But the type of educated Ms. Westover becomes throughout the course of regurgitating her memories isn’t the pencil on paper kind of educated. I can’t help but wonder if the cover designer was even given a plot summary of the work.)
Boiled down to its roots of a young woman escaping her fundamentalist Mormon family and finding a home and a family in an education, the memoir is heartbreakingly beautiful. But there are parts that are hard to swallow as complete truth. Tara wasn’t kept from the “outside” world – she took dance classes, she starred in the small town’s musical, she went on dates (unchaperoned!) with boys to the movies, she wore makeup, had access to the internet, etc. She didn’t grow up 1800s Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite certain aspects of the memoir that would beg you to believe otherwise.
Her early childhood memories, told with such certainty, are unreliable as the memories of a child retold through the lenses of an adult. Memory is funny. She’s retelling a story she was told, not one she remembers. Of that I am certain.
As she recounts stories of her teenage years, memories that would rest like scars on the skin, I still held her at arm’s length. She didn’t sound honest. It didn’t read true. I was so unsettled by the feeling of not being able to trust the narrator of a memoir that I did my own research upon completing the novel.
The Preston Citizen has archives online. There are many articles concerning the Westover family. For an off-the-grid family, Val and LaRee and their brood show up quite a bit in the newspaper. Reading the archives shows a much-loved family of Clifton. Not only does the paper cover some of the Worm Creek Opera House plays (where Tara and her siblings act and serve as stage managers and stage hands) there is also a brief snippet regarding “Shawn’s” fall – it’s a brief statement that seems to make light of the seriousness of his injuries. (Shawn is Travis Westover. Audrey is Valaree. Why Tara changed those two names, I have no idea. It’s not like it’s hard to figure out.) You can also read about her father’s run for mayor, her mother’s BOOMING essential oil business, Richard’s mission trip to California, Lucas’s mission to Australia, Tara’s first place victory in a fine arts competition in 2003 and 2002, the duet she sang with her brother, birth announcements, wedding announcements, and so on. A brief glance at the archives puts me further at odds with the memoir.
The Westover family is also on social media. There is a picture of Val from Christmas 2009. I could not see what Tara describes as scarring that makes people look twice. “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 an angle that was almost skeletal. His right hand, which he often raised to point at some feature or other, was knotted and twisted…” There is indeed some scarring, but not as Tara seems to remember. The picture was taken in 2009. The description provided by Tara was from 2010 when her parents visited her at Harvard.
The interview with Val and LaRee’s attorney is also telling. He calls the book “libelous” but continues to say he has not been retained to bring suit.
I know social media lies. I know that there is plenty that goes on behind closed doors that people would never believe. I don’t doubt that Tara had a difficult upbringing, based in large part to her parent’s religious beliefs. I don’t even question that Tara suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her brother or that her family gaslighted her about it. But I am unsettled because I could drain pasta in this colander of a memoir.
I said before that memory is tricky – we create, mold, reimagine, and misremember as we see fit. We do it for a number of reasons. Self-preservation. Love. Justification. Attention. To sell books.