ALWAYS REMEMEMBER: Malleable Memory in Dan Chaon's Ill Will

RUSTY TILLMAN LOOKS like a man who’s done time. He has a jailhouse tattoo on his neck and it marks him like a cattle brand. The tattoo was supposed to say REMEMBER, but he wasn’t paying much attention when his cellmate was at work, so what it actually says is REMEMEMBER. That tattoo gives us Dan Chaon’s wicked new literary thriller, Ill Will, in a nutshell. Rusty was convicted for murdering both his adoptive parents, an aunt and an uncle, but, after decades in prison, he’s been exonerated and released. Everything everyone knows about the man had been undermined. What’s clearly remembered isn’t necessarily true.

Recent work by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus demonstrates how malleable can be. What we remember vividly, clearly and consistently may not be what happened. And if our identities are defined by our experiences—or rather how we remember those experiences—what happens if we loose faith in memory?

Welcome to the unsettling world of Ill Will, where we follow a handful of characters in the present who are trying to grapple with what they think they know about the past. Thirty years ago, an adopted son—Rusty—was convicted of killing the adults in his family while the children slept in a driveway camper. Each surviving character has his or her own clear memory of what happened, but when the convicted killer is exonerated, all those versions of the past are called into question. 

Dustin Tillman, especially, is pulled into his own rabbit hole of recollection. As a kid he was instrumental in convicting his older brother, but now—a clinical psychologist practicing on the fringes—his version of the past is demonstrably untrue. All his default assumptions about the world are undermined, so he flails about for any sense of certainty. But there’s no solid ground underfoot, no matter where he runs. 

“[T]here have been fragments of things,” Dustin at one point muses. “Contradictory images. The truth—my real memories—had been infected by fantasies or daydreams; the two things kept flipping, shifting, so I had never been certain what was being recalled and what was being imagined.” Ultimately, he’s sucked into one of his patient’s elaborate conspiracy theories.

Once or twice in my life, I’ve had what I can only described as a pleasant nightmare—an unsettling and pulse-quickening dream that I’d be happy to return to. Somehow Chaon has found that sweet spot with Ill Will. It’s a nightmarish mash up of the Satanic Panic of the 80s, the Smiley Face Killer conspiracy theory, the myth of recovered memory and a host of other pop-culture vestiges of the X-Files. It’s a heady, creepy read that blurs many lines—including the one between genre fiction and serious literature.