It is interesting to note just how little we know about the people in our lives. When we think back to a particular place or time, we do not remember the individuals who shared those moments with us as much as the roles they played.
We remember how they made us feel. We remember how they helped us, hurt us, or impacted our personal narratives in other ways. We do not see into their minds. Even their words are subject to interpretation. Meanings can be misconstrued or overlooked entirely, intentions warped or conflated, a problem compounded by time.
When our perceptions are challenged, we are forced to reconcile the role we’ve crafted for others in our minds with the individual as they were. This can occur when conflicting information about a friend or family member, a beloved teacher, or revered icon comes to light. We are forced to distinguish between reality and a conceptualization, coming to grasps with the difficult realization that we spend more time in the company of shadows than we do other human beings.
Winston Churchill once quipped that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” On a larger scale, our histories are nothing more than the compilation of countless stories–the shadows that persist through generations. Westover’s own interest in the individuals who craft these stories, defining crucial moments for generations to come, undoubtedly stemmed from her own experiences as a child. Her parent’s strict censorship of information served as a microcosm of this process (albeit an extreme one).
The fallibility of memory she witnessed in conflicting accounts of critical moments (Luke and her father’s injuries) and its susceptibility to selectivity (the family’s refusal to address Shawn’s behavior) prompts the deeper question regarding how our collective knowledge is handled. If history is a compilation of personal stories on a significantly larger scale, who “watches the watchmen?” Who policies veracity? How do they adjudicate between conflicting accounts?
Historical discrepancies are not uncommon. They can be the fuel for family feuds and wars between nations. But at their core, they speak to a deeper curiosity in every individual to know who they are and where they come from–a quest impeded by a competing desire to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories.