When Tara Westover graduated a decade ago from Brigham Young University, she posted on Facebook three smiling photographs, one where she stood alongside her mother and father.
“In them, I was just another happy graduate full of promise, standing next to my happy parents,” Westover told the graduates, their families, and friends at Northeastern’s Commencement at TD Garden on Friday. “But this was a fiction, and I knew it.
“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.”
Westover’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Educated, recounts her resilient ascent from the isolated and dysfunctional world in which she was raised: at the foot of a mountain in rural Idaho, working in a junkyard for a father who kept his seven children from school, medical care, and many other elements of mainstream society.
The message of her commencement address was to warn the graduates that they should look beyond the facile images that define them on social media.
The most important things that you will achieve will not be Instagram-worthy, she told the graduates.
“Everything of any significance that you will do in your life will be done by your un-Instagrammable self,” she insisted. “It is, for example, your un-Instagrammable self who is graduating today. I’ve yet to see a Facebook or Instagram account which is devoted to photos of someone studying or attending lectures or writing essays.”
The night before Commencement, at a dinner for the honorary degree recipients, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun had asked Westover to sing, impromptu, based on the stories she had recounted in Educated of her singing career as a girl in Idaho. He repeated the request the following day, before the Commencement crowd.
“Nothing like a cappella in front of how many people? Twenty thousand,” Westover joked to the audience from the Commencement stage.
Then, with no sign of nerves, she sang a beautiful rendition of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art.”
In her speech, she explained that her own graduation ceremony was the first she had ever experienced.
“I’d been raised in the mountains of Idaho by survivalist parents who had a particular set of beliefs that meant that I was never allowed to go to school,” Westover said from the TD Garden podium. “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 able to leave it with a degree.”
The painful exercise of writing her book helped Westover discern the narrative beneath the surface. There was much more to her than she ever could have imagined.
“We humans have always struggled with two identities,” Westover said, “with who we are when we are with ourselves and who we are when we are with others.
But now we have a
third identity, this third self: the virtual avatar we create and share with the world.”
The public photos of our “beautiful, unblemished lives” can be a form of self-sabotage, she said: They are posted online at the expense of the less attractive but authentic everyday images that reveal us as we really are.
“Sometimes I think that when we deny what is worst about ourselves, we also deny what is best,” Westover said. “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, not our avatar, who creates things, and reconsiders, and forgives, and shows mercy.”
The story of Educated is of Westover’s victory over those ignorances and faults—even as she expresses forgiveness and mercy for the family members who very nearly forestalled her desire for a formal education.
Sharing a self online is not the same as having a self, said Westover, quoting the writer Zadie Smith.
“Like most lies that we tell, the worst danger isn’t that others will believe it, but that we will come to believe it ourselves,” Westover said, “that we will come to identify more with our virtual self—who looks so beguiling in photographs, whose life is bright and free and literally filtered.”
When Westover posted misleading, smiling images after her own graduation ceremony, she was engaging in a kind of self-rejection, she acknowledged.
“Because what you are saying to yourself is, ‘I’m not good enough the way I am,’” she said.
“So, today, I would like to pause for just a moment to appreciate the parts of you that you don’t put online,” Westover said. “I would like to mount a rigorous defense of your boring, internal, book-reading, dish-washing, thought-having life. It’s a concept that I’m going to call ‘the un-Instagrammable self.’”
The capacity crowd responded to Westover’s insights and encouragement throughout her speech.
“So, class of 2019, march up here, and claim your degree, and give the camera your absolute best smile,” Westover concluded. “And tonight, as you upload that photo, take a moment to check in with your un-Instagrammable self—and thank them for getting you this far and for taking you the rest of the way.”