Tara Westover, Northeastern University 2019

“The Un-Instagramable Self”

Northeastern Commencement Address 2019

Hello and good morning. President Aoun, members of the board, faculty, staff, and of course, graduates: it’s an honor to be with you this morning to celebrate this milestone. This huge achievement. For you graduates, it’s a celebration of the last several years and all the work you put in. For your parents, it’s a celebration of work put in your whole lives. Maybe even before your lives. Let’s take a moment, and thank them for that.

First, I’d just like to say, that my being awarded this degree for a few minutes of public speaking in no way diminishes the many years of hard work that you had to put in to get yours.

Actually, I’ve never given a commencement speech before. In fact, this is the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to, by about ten times. You can imagine, then, that I was a little tense about it. I’m not all that much older than you, ten years maybe, and this is a scary gig. So what I did is, I looked up last year’s commencement speaker to see how I would measure up. I’m a published author, with a book on the New York Times list, so, you know, I thought would measure up pretty well.

Welll….Here is what I found. Last year’s speaker was an Emmy-nominated actor. Okay, that’s okay I thought. Then I kept reading. She is also a sprinter, who broke several world records. Wait for it. She is also a double-below-the-knee amputee (just wait, there’s more) who pioneered the technology for her own prosthesis. Which of course is now the international standard for prosthetics. It also casually mentioned that she’s a runway model and was recently inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

If I were going to tailor-make a nightmare act to follow, she would be it.

I, in contrast, am not a model. I’ve overcome no major surgeries, and I’ve developed no technology to help others. My athletic abilities are pitiable, but probably better than my acting skills. Still, here I am. And you’re stuck with me for the next 15 minutes. 

So. Looking out at you all in your black caps and gowns, I’m reminded of my own graduation, which wasn’t that long ago. I was twenty-one years old. I remember that back then I was an avid Facebook user, and that like everyone, when the ceremony ended, I uploaded photos to my page. Specifically, I uploaded three photos. One of me, standing alone, in my cap and gown. Another of me with my mother, and a third of me with both my mother and father.

There was nothing unusual about the photos. In them we were smiling, or near enough to it. In them I was just another happy graduate full of promise, embracing my happy parents. But this was a fiction, and I knew it. In fact, it was because the photos were untrue, and not in spite of it, that I wanted them online. Because they showed my life as I wanted it to be, rather than as it was. 

Here are four things that I remember about that day. Four things you can’t see in the photos, but that tell the real story.

Number one. That it was my first graduation ceremony. That unlike my classmates, I had neither a high-school diploma, nor a GED. I’d been raised in the mountains of Idaho by parents whose radicals beliefs meant that I had never been allowed to go to school. (I was sort of the equivalent of a kindergarten dropout.) It was a miracle that I’d made it to that university at all, let alone that I was leaving with a degree.

Number two. That although I was graduating from a Mormon university, I no longer believed in Mormonism. All of the previous year, I had struggled to hold on to the beliefs of my childhood—to the faith I shared with my parents as well as with every other person I cared about, every brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin. I was, at the moment I walked across the stage to get my diploma, still wondering what the loss of my faith would mean. Could I be a good person, even without my faith? It sounds strange now, but I really did think that without Mormonism, I might turn out to be an ass.

Number three. That I was alone. Although my parents are standing next to me in the picture, they had not been at the graduation ceremony. At least, I don’t think they were there. I had quarreled with my father some weeks before on some point of ideology, and he had declared that he wasn’t coming. That morning he had changed his mind, and he and my mother had raced down from Idaho, but they were too late. They missed the ceremony, and were, in fact, only present for the photo.

Number four. That my apartment was empty. I’d been up all of the previous night packing every item I owned either into boxes for storage or suitcases, which now sat packed by the door. I was leaving that night for the University of Cambridge in England, a country about which I knew very little.

Adding these four things together, I don’t believe there was any part of my life that I felt secure in, or proud of. The prospect of Cambridge terrified me. I’d grown up in a junkyard; I felt deeply that I didn’t belong in that place.

Faith was the rock I’d built my life on, and now that rock was turning to sand before my eyes.

My family was a tangle of love and radicalism and what I now suspect was mental illness. The love was real, but so were the other things, and I didn’t yet know how I was going to navigate them.

That was who I was, but that is not who I uploaded to Facebook. I uploaded a happy woman, a woman who was all joy and smiles. Who was “fun.” Even though I was terrified. Even though I spent most of that day just trying to get through it, and wishing it was over.

Something strange happened in the weeks and years that followed my graduation. Something bizarre. Which is that I came to think of my graduation photos as my graduation. I came to identify more with the woman in those pictures than I did with my actual self.

We humans have always struggled with two identities. There has always been a difference between who we are when we are with ourselves and who we are when we are with others. But now we have a third self: The virtual avatar we create and share with the world. 

For most people, “sharing themselves” online means carefully curating an identity that exaggerates some qualities while repressing others that they consider to be undesirable. Online, no one has acne or dark circles or a temper; no one washes dishes, does laundry or scrubs toilets. Mostly, we brunch. And we take exotic, rarified vacations. We pet sea turtles. We throw ourselves from airplanes.

They are beautiful, unblemished lives. But sometimes I think that when we deny what is worst about ourselves, we also deny what is best. We repress our ignorance, and thus we deny our capacity to learn. We repress our faults, and thus we deny our capacity to change. We forget that it is our flawed human self, and not our avatar, who creates things and reconsiders and forgives and shows mercy.

But ultimately the real problem, as the writer Zadie Smith has pointed out, is that sharing a self is not the same thing as having a self. Your avatar isn’t real. It’s a projection. It’s not terribly far from a lie. And like all of the lies that we tell, the real danger isn’t that others will believe it but that we will come to believe it ourselves. That we will come to identify with our virtual self (who looks so beguiling in photographs, whose life is bright and free and literally filtered).  

In this way we become alien to ourselves. Who is this person who spends so much time studying? Washing dishes? Taking care of grandma? This is not how I see myself.

I learned at my own graduation that over identifying with your idealized self is a deeply alienating experience. It is a form of self-rejection. Because what you are saying to yourself is: I’m not good enough the way I am.

So today, I would like to pause for a moment to appreciate the parts of you that you don’t put online. I would like to mount a defense of them. Of your boring, internal, book-reading, dishwashing, thought-having life. Of the parts of you that can’t be captured by any technological medium. It’s a concept that I’m going to call “the un-instagramable self.”

Here’s something I truly believe: everything of any significance that you will do in your life will be done by your un-instagramable self. It is, for example, your un-instagramable self who is graduating today. I say this with confidence because I’ve yet to see a Facebook or Instagram account which is dedicated to photos of someone studying or attending lectures or writing essays.

All of the most substantive experiences that you will have in your life will be had by the boorish slob you are trying to edit out of existence. The you who falls in love at your dingy entry-level job will not be the glamorous and airbrushed you who will appear in your wedding photos. And parenting will be nothing like you will represent it to be online. For one thing, there will a lot more actual shit than you will ever post on Instagram. There will be sleep deprivation and petty standoffs and moments of self-doubt. But the moments of love and tenderness and belonging will touch you more deeply than anything you will find in the virtual world.

You will look wonderful in the photos you will post of you and your children. You will look wonderful because you will make sure that you look wonderful, and you will delete the ones in which you look harassed and depleted because your five-year-old woke screaming from a nightmare at 3am. You will not look wonderful as you crouch on your hall floor in stretched-out pajamas and rock your child back to sleep. You will look like hell. But you will remember the weight of your son on your chest long after the perfectly staged portraits have faded from all relevance.

And in twenty-five or thirty years, when your daughter graduates from a university, and she is sitting where you are now, and some random commencement speaker tells her to thank her Mom and Dad, she will not be thinking of your avatar—of the carefully chosen cover photo that obscures the lines in your face and the grey in your hair. She will be thinking of you. Creased and sweaty, with thinning hair and warts and liver spots and whatever other signs of decay that you’ve got going on by then.

So. Class of 2019. March up here, and claim your degree, and give the camera your best smile. But tonight, as you upload that photograph, take a moment to check in with your un-instagramable self—and thank them for getting you this far, and for taking you the rest of the way.

Thank you.