My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it happened.
The very first lines of the book introduce the instability of memory, a theme that will crop up again and again over the course of the memoir. A child’s memory is particularly malleable—especially when the child in question grew up surrounded by violence, isolation, and trauma. Even more distressing will be the ongoing occurrences in which Tara re-contextualizes situations to minimize the abuse, only to realize the truth retroactively, causing her to doubt herself.
I think I heard him say that. And if he did, which surely he must have, Mother must have whispered a reply, or maybe she wasn’t able to whisper anything, I don’t know. I’ve always imagined that she asked to be taken home.
After Gene’s car accident, Tara desperately tries to convince herself that she heard her father ask if he should call for an ambulance. It’s an early and devastating example of Tara inventing a kinder version of reality, one that paints her family in the best possible light. Believing in this version would show her father cares—that when a large enough crisis occurs, he will do the right thing. Tara uses this as a coping mechanism to protect herself from the reality in which she suspects her father values his opposition to all things government more than his family’s safety and well-being.
I can’t picture what happens next, because nobody ever told me how Dad put out the fire on Luke’s leg. Then a memory surfaces — of Dad, that night in the kitchen, wincing as Mother slathers salve on his hands, which are red and blistering — and I know what he must have done.
Tara witnesses a host of horrific violence and accidents in her home. Luke’s leg injury is one that remains mysterious, with an editorial aside which mentions that she has spoken to Luke after the fact, and his account of the incident conflicts with hers. In her version, she administers the bottle of Rescue Remedy while Gene puts out the fire on the mountain, but in Luke’s version, Gene is the one who brings him home and helps him. Conceding that everyone’s memory of the situation is foggy, Tara emphasizes the fallibility of memory.
I remembered Dad saying it could just as easy be us. Dad was always saying that one day the Government would come after folks who resisted its brainwashing, who didn’t put their kids in school. For thirteen years, I’d assumed that this was why the Government had come for Randy: to force his children into school.
As Tara experiences more of life, she begins to see through the haze of her father’s teaching, realizing he had previously warped situations to suit his needs and generate fear and distrust of the government among his children, thereby assuming complete control. Further research reveals the truth to Tara, not just in terms of what really happened with the Weavers but in terms of her father’s deceptions and delusions.
After I read Audrey’s letter, the past shifted. It started with my memories of her. They transformed. When I recalled any part of our childhood together, moments of tenderness or humor, of the little girl who had been me with the little girl who had been her, the memory was immediately changed, blemished, turned to rot. The past became as ghastly as the present.
Tara initially responds to Audrey’s letter with laughter: the irony of being seen as the one who needs to be monitored, rather than Shawn, is absurd and speaks to the depths of the lies that Audrey has bought into. The absurdity, however, belies a great sadness. So often, Tara wants to believe that her family can change, or that certain among them are her allies. As she is cut out of Audrey’s life, she feels the past change; she sees Audrey not as an ally but as a stranger, their entire relationship transforming in her memory as if they had never been close at all.