The trick of memory + Dan Chaon’s “Ill Will”

When I was about 8 or 9 I asked my Mom asked my mom about a memory. It was a specific day, but I didn’t remember any pictures of it (or home movie), but the day was seared into my memories.

I was young, wearing a yellow dress. We were at a parking lot carnival with a petting zoo. We visited the ponies, and the goats, and a cow. We rode a small train, and I got to ride a pony! I told my mom all about it, and she looked at me slightly agog.

Then she told me that was on my second birthday. We traveled down the road to a mall in North Denver (we lived in Northern Colorado). Once there, she realized she had forgotten the camera. But yes, I had on a little yellow dress. And we did all those other things as well.

But I was only 2! I wasn’t supposed to remember those moments. I was too young. The problem with that is that I did remember that day clearly. Very clearly.

I’ve wondered about that for years. I think maybe it was because it was such a happy moment in my life. Just my mom and I on a clear August day, doing things a two year old loves to do. It was before my brother came along, so it was truly just her and I having a fabulous day.

In that instance, she remembered it also as a good day. But she remembered being upset she forgot the camera, and was flustered for the first part of the day because she wasn’t capturing my birthday fun.

Memory is a funny thing. Looking at the day from my point-of-view, it was the happiest of days. For my mom, it wasn’t as great, at least at first, because she was so worried about not doing it perfectly.

Looking at it from other points of view, it may have been different depending on our personalities. My mom could have been angry, and hated the August bright sun. I could have been a cranky 2 year-old (from all accounts, I was a pretty easy going kid), making the day miserable for all.

If it had been a family story (rather than a random memory), it could have been a memory I just THOUGHT I remembered, placed there inadvertently by family retelling the story over and over again.

It’s incredible the power memory holds, considering its subjective and suggestive nature. Memories can fill us with peace or happiness or terror, and much of that depends on our point-of-view, our inner natures or our moods, or even the stories built around the memory. It’s kind of amazing that we take ‘eye-witness’ accounts so seriously, when you think about it.

It’s memory and it’s subjective, suggestive qualities that make Dan Chaon’s Ill Will so engrossing.

“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?

A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his 40s when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries – and putting his own family in harm’s way.

Ill Will is dark and twisted, playing with memory and stories — lies and truths — that get all mixed up as the years drag on. The very flawed protagonist, Dustin Tillman, is a lost soul only getting more lost after his wife, who seemed to be his anchor, dies.

Readers get the story from many points of view, from Dustin to his children, his cousins, Rusty, even his suggestive patient. We have a front row seat to Dustin’s obsession and inevitable unraveling.

I love that this man is a psychologist. After he put the death of his parents in a box and shut the lid, Dustin’s denial of his wife’s cancer, her impending death, and the out-of-control nature of his one son is inevitable. His other son’s need to escape is understandable.

I remember the hysteria of Satanic cults. A teen in the 80’s, it freaked me out. We were sure, in Colorado, that there were cults in the mountains, or the woods, or out in the plains. In spaces just beyond where we could see, in the shadows of every corner. And those older kids listening to REAL heavy metal (not hair bands, but the really dark stuff), well, they were probably into devil worship. Or that’s what our 14 year old minds believed.

It was all hype and hysteria, and this was all before the internet. Word of mouth hysteria, which seemed to make it worse.

Ill Will is a true thriller, giving readers suspense on all sides. From Dustin’s past, to Rusty’s impending release, to the deaths of college kids at colleges throughout Ohio (and the fact that a few of them are in my backyard was just crazy!). All of the stories hinge on lies and false memories, and finding the truth is part of the mystery, with the thrill and suspense along for the ride.

Chaon’s written a truly dark literary thriller, exploring so many aspects of the mind, especially a suggestible mind. This is not a quick, easy read; instead, its one that will stretch your mind and make you question what you remember.

 

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