Buried Lives and Divided Selves: An Interview with Debra Gwartney
By DJ Lee
Every memoir I love and admire does the same essential work—examining the interior of the person called ‘I’ with one central aim: increased self-awareness.
When I was a child of eight, my parents took me to Waiilatpu, near Walla Walla, Washington, where the Whitman Mission National Historic Site stands today amidst endless vistas of central Washington grasslands. A four-foot section of an adobe house was on display deep in the ground. It had been dug out and a cement wall built around it for stability. Today, the wall has been reburied for preservation purposes. But I’ll never forget the feeling I had, as I peered into the earth at the strange artifact with the February wind ripping through my thin coat, that I was witnessing a relic of a tragic, buried past.
Indeed, I was. In 1836 Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and her husband Marcus traveled as Presbyterian missionaries from upstate New York to Waiilatpu, where they built a compound on Cayuse land. The Cayuse rejected white religion and tensions flared. In 1847 during a measles epidemic, a group of Cayuse killed Marcus, Narcissa and 12 other white people. The attack lasted only hours but its effects are felt to this day; proponents of settler-colonial westward expansion used it to defend Native American displacement and genocide.
Debra Gwartney’s 2019 book I Am A Stranger Here Myself, winner of the 2018 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize judged by Gretel Ehrlich, is her memoir of growing up in the rural West, interwoven with the story of Narcissa, reputedly the first Caucasian women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Short chapters move quickly between the present and the past: the book opens with a story of a man tailgating Gwartney as she drives a lonely road in Idaho toward her hometown in Salmon; then unfolds into the story of Narcissa’s conflicts at Waiilatpu, not far from Salmon. Debra’s uneasy homecoming and Narcissa’s troubled relationship to the American West overlap, intersect, and develop in unexpected ways.
I first met Gwartney at a book reading where we discovered our lives had unknowingly intersected many times. We both come from Idaho families, studied at the same university, and even worked with the same teachers. It has struck me since that uncanny intersections form the most important implication of I Am A Stranger Here Myself: all Americans have crossed paths with the legacy of the Whitmans.
The bloody death of this attractive, rather sophisticated Eastern-bred and religious woman propelled change in the region probably faster than any other act of violence could have.
DJ Lee: At one of your readings I attended, someone quoted you as saying that with memoir, you must write against a version of yourself. Am I getting that right?
Debra Gwartney: I like your “against a version of yourself” language, which I might have to adopt. When I was studying at the University of Arizona—and probably passed you, who knows, a dozen times on that long meandering walkway—I started taking classes from Vivian Gornick, who was there as a visiting professor and writer. I’d not heard the term “memoir” before her courses, so I learned a tremendous amount about the genre from her. I left her tutelage with the understanding that although the “I” on the page likely experiences conflicts with forces or people in the world outside of herself, the primary conflict in a memoir is with the self. It’s got to be that way to tap the principal of personal narrative. “The two halves of the self in conflict,” as Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.
I’ve been poking at that notion and wondering how I might fluidly (ugh, so hard) apply it to my own prose for, geez, 30 years now. My language for this aspect of memoir writing is “the divided self.” I want/I don’t want; the walking contradiction of the human experience. The way we are constantly negotiating with ourselves and deceiving ourselves in the same moment. No surprise that Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, is one of the very best models of exactly this kind of interrogation. Every memoir I love and admire does the same essential work—examining the interior of the person called “I” with one central aim: increased self-awareness.
DJ Lee: The idea of human experience as a walking contradiction really resonates with me. I’m wondering how weaving Narcissa Whitman’s story with your own helped with the divided self and led you to increased self-awareness.
Debra Gwartney: I knew when I landed on Narcissa Whitman as a kind of lynchpin for my book—at least she supplies the necessary pivot points through the narrative—I had to find a way to discover myself through her. That is, if this was going to be a memoir—and I wanted it to be a memoir—all paths had to lead to self-awareness. In this way, and for all my years of writing this book (seven? eight?), I thought of her as a kind of pry bar. When I discovered some troubling, difficult, confounding aspect of her character, her decisions or behaviors, my job was to turn that back on myself in some way. Not to self-flagellate—because of course self-blame is as tedious and off-putting to the reader as blaming another character, such as the mother, the boyfriend, the boss, etc.—but to self-excavate. Narcissa made me see myself in a way I hadn’t before, and forced me to face up to many buried-deep patterns that I’ve avoided.
As for weaving Narcissa’s story with my own—that’s certainly why this book took so many years to write. It required another try and another and another to figure out where the two separate strands touched, resonated with each other. I finally realized that I was overthinking it, that I had to rely more on gut instinct, and once I gave in to gut, it began to gel at last. At least I hope there’s a sense of gel! The theme that probably spoke to me the most was loneliness, her loneliness and mine. I could see her mostly clearly as a real person right there in her most forlorn and alone moments. Also, when I gave the finished manuscript to my daughter Mollie, who is part of the last scene, she said she thought it was a book about two women trying to please their fathers, Narcissa’s Heavenly Father and my earthly dad. That fascinated me.
DJ Lee: Two women and their “fathers.” I can see that. I also like your term “self-excavate” because I was fascinated by how Narcissa herself has been excavated. Not just her story, but strands of her hair and other relics are archived around the U.S. and continue to have lives. Why do people keep revisiting and even inventing these Whitman objects?
Debra Gwartney: I’m not sure I can land on any kind of complete answer to your question, but I am super interested in how she—one person among the many who died in the frontier West—has remained an icon. She seems to agitate people (for various reasons and to this day). Right after she died, she was used as a pawn for others to shape the new West with the tenets of Manifest Destiny. That is, the bloody death of this attractive, rather sophisticated Eastern-bred and religious woman—a story that was embellished and dramatized—propelled change in the region, probably faster than any other act of violence could have. Within months after the attack on Waiilatpu, Oregon was deemed a territory, a legislature was formed, law enforcement officers were assigned. Convenient that her death made it acceptable, even desirable, to expedite the removal of Native people so the onslaught of white settlers would continue unimpeded. Narcissa’s violent end provided excuses for chasing off or killing indigenous people. The more she was fetishized, the easier it was to condemn those who killed her, or those who looked anything like those who killed her. This idealization of Narcissa hit a plateau, of course, though every kid in the West was taught over the decades that she was the ultimate martyr, the “angel of mercy” who made it possible for the rest of us to thrive in the West.
DJ Lee: The way the Whitman murders were used to hasten and justify white settler culture was one of the big recognitions of your book for me. At the same time, you portrayed Narcissa as an individual, partly responsible for but also partly a product of larger forces.
Debra Gwartney: Obviously, she had little sense of those “larger forces.” The ways in which she was trapped by her missionary persona, and by the expectations set upon her by her church, her mother, her community, interest me. I’m convinced she had no opportunity to know her own mind, or to even truly discern her own purpose. She got caught up in a monumental shift and played a part in it that she could not have predicted. First she was heroized for that role, but now, in the past few years, the pendulum has done its big swing, so the students at Whitman College (well, a faction of students) are seeking to separate the school entirely from the eponymous Marcus and Narcissa. I’ve been hearing of incidents—the school mascot being changed from the “missionaries” (awful!) to the “blues” (after the Blue Mountains, I guess). They want building names to be altered, and the school newspaper not long ago got a new title. A portrait of Narcissa (though I read in several sources that it is not her, but instead a niece of Marcus) was marred—the face painted black—and the statue of Marcus on the edge of campus, near downtown, has been damaged and effaced over and over again. Most recently: a toilet over his head. A similar fervor, the then and the now, with both ignoring (or so it seems to me) the real woman she was. The very complicated and troubled person she was.
DJ Lee: Complicated and troubled. Yes. Maybe that’s why, although your main subject is Narcissa Whitman, I got the feeling that it was Narcissa’s adopted daughter Catharine Sager you felt closest to as you were researching. Am I getting that right?
Debra Gwartney: Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t know if it’s Catharine in particular who gets to me. I do feel deeply for all seven of the Sagers. Isn’t their story the true story of the West—they’ve got this get-rich-quick father, Henry, who was convinced that transporting the family out to the Willamette Valley (an unlikely proposition from the beginning) would guarantee the family a piece of paradise, except the death of both parents on the road left these children alone, and caused the seven nearly-starved orphans to be taken in by religious zealots. The children were not treated well at the Whitman compound, but at least had a roof over their heads, food, and some measure of care (plus, they were together, which had to feel like a gift) and then, boom, an attack by hostile Cayuse kills three of them and leaves the other four basically abandoned. Those four Sager daughters had to endure unbelievable odds to move forward into adulthood and old age—three of them got there (the fourth daughter shot to death in a bar). Why hasn’t someone made a good movie out of this Sager tale? A Netflix series? The story goes on and on with twists and turns and it’s so anguishing! And, yep, that’s what the West was made of.
DJ Lee: So true! The Sager women’s hardship and grief portrays the West so much more than John Wayne movies. In your telling, there are also so many tender moments. A couple stand out for me—one, when your great-grandfather tries to revive his wife Hazel as she lies in the casket. Another, when Grandpa Bob retreats to his bedroom to talk to Grandma Lois’s ashes. And another, when your family throws Grandpa Bob’s ashes in the wind while telling stories. For me, these moments reflect the 1897 exhumation of the human remains at Waiilatpu, the ways we hold on to and let go of what is gone.
Debra Gwartney: I like how you build a bridge of sorts from my memories of family moments to the truly heartbreaking experience of the three Sager daughters during the 50-year-anniversary exhumation. With each of those episodes, I’d say (though I wasn’t consciously thinking about this when actively writing), I was doing my best to employ Ellen Bass’s excellent advice to tap sentiment without tipping into sentimentality. It’s pretty easy to fall into sentimentality when writing about the death of a loved one, so I wanted to find actions between or among characters that would convey emotion so I didn’t have to “tell” it.
Also, one of my most trusted readers, a novelist named Miriam Gershow, reminded me way back regarding an early draft of the book that the death of a grandparent is inherently undramatic. We expect old people to die. I thought about that a lot and knew I had to come at their deaths from a different angle. So while my great-grandmother’s death isn’t unexpected (though the cause of her death was fairly strange), the reader probably doesn’t expect a scene of her elderly husband trying to pull her out of the casket. I suppose I started thinking about how the people closest to my dead relatives responded to each loss—like my grandfather putting my grandmother’s ashes in front of the TV so she could watch The Price is Right. These two—grandmother and grandfather—didn’t have much of a marriage, so the moment of tenderness was quite striking to me and when I ran across it in my notes I was sure it had to be included.
As for the 50th anniversary of the attack in 1897, I weighed carefully what needed to go into the book. The rather nasty responses to the Sager sisters from authorities and newspaper editors fit my themes best. Yet another faction (of men) telling the story they wanted to tell and becoming hard and hostile toward anyone (women) with a story of her own. Nevermind that the Sagers had been there during the attack, and nevermind that they watched the Whitmans and two of their brothers and a sister die (as well as so many other awful deaths and incidents of brutality). The women weren’t going along with the program, so they were rejected. That seems to me a theme that crops up often in the history of the West—and in current-day politics.
The women weren’t going along with the program, so they were rejected. That seems to me a theme that crops up often in the history of the West—and in current-day politics.
DJ Lee: I’d like to pick up on this idea of narrative ownership, or, as you say, people “telling the story they wanted to tell,” because in the book you talk about who owns Narcissa’s story. I loved the section where you encounter the wretched movie Seven Alone, the book On to Oregon!, and even the version told by the vintner who created the wine, Narcissa Red. You’ve read so many books and documents and have talked to so many people, and yet even you wonder about your right to tell her story.
Debra Gwartney: I appreciate that you see this as a theme throughout the book—I realized as I went along that it was something I wanted to tease out. What is history? Nothing but stories that certain privileged and well-placed people (men) decide to record and document. What I hadn’t realized—should have, but hadn’t—was how this applies to personal history as well as civic/public history.
I was pretty shocked to realize that much of what I’d learned as a child concerning the history of my region was a flat-out lie or exaggeration, and equally shocked to discover hidden or reshaped stories in my family, which mostly protected the men. Narcissa’s story was told—from her mother and church’s version in the early days to the vintner’s version in contemporary times—to suit a particular agenda, to promote a folklore. What I wanted to admit to in the book, and hope I managed to convey, was how easy it would be to slip into being one of those who slanted the story just-so to promote my own version of Western expansion—even while I was judging others who did the same. Who knows what’s true about history? (Was Narcissa the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains, for instance? Or was she the first woman that those in power, seeking an American presence in Oregon Territory, sanctioned as the symbol of pioneer womanhood?)
Narcissa is most real to me in her letters, where she pours out her loneliness and lets at least some of her doubt seep onto the page. For so long she was forced to convey a belief in a particular version of the divine, of God. But did she believe it? Right to her last excruciating breath, did she believe what her mother and church told her to believe? She had to realize on some level that her zealotry was part of the tremendous trouble between the mission and the tribe. I wonder.
DJ Lee: What you’re saying reminds me of your fearlessness in uncovering Narcissa’s character and also your own. For me, your encounters with the truck driver who tailgates you and the National Park Service employee at Waiilatpu echo your relationship with your father. I loved these passages because they reveal your complex humanity. They feel familiar. How did you eventually learn to see that complex humanity in Narcissa?
Debra Gwartney: Not from her journals—which are really quite tedious. I had the feeling she wrote in her journal, especially during the five months of the journey west, with an audience in mind. She must have known that these would be shared documents because she rarely, rarely lets down her guard. There’s a tone of fundraising in the pages, if you ask me. I realize how uncharitable that sounds, but she perfected the voice of stalwart, unwavering-in-her-faith Christian apostle, and her intriguing descriptions of the new, strange, and dark lands seem to come with a bid for support from those who’d probably never venture far from their own front doors.
So Narcissa came to life for me in two ways. First, her letters home, as I mentioned earlier. She does allow herself—though still not often—to complain, to cajole, to admit to abject loneliness when she’s writing her sisters (especially). She desperately wanted her sister Jane to move out to Waiilatpu. It’s hard to read through the pure rawness of Narcissa’s pleading, begging, for this to happen. This loneliness made her more human to me than just about anything else—especially her anguish (over the death of her child) and doubt after the death of her only biological child.
Second, survivors’ accounts, which describe her from a slight distance, or sometimes from a cool remove, brought her into focus for me. Narcissa was an enigmatic figure, I’d say, to nearly everyone who knew her, almost impossible to befriend though she demanded, in her own way, to be admired and cared for. It’s in those oh-so-human contradictions that I found her to be most relatable, and where I could find empathy for her.
DJ Lee: Those “oh-so-human contradictions” are there in your own character-on-the-page as well. For instance, throughout the book, you struggle with your assertiveness and your silence, which made me curious about the role silence plays in the lives of women of the West. Does silence speak in ways that words cannot?
Debra Gwartney: I agree that sometimes silence speaks in ways that words cannot, as you eloquently put it. I don’t know if this leans into your question, but I’ve been a wreck over these past few years, while writing, about how my father would react to this book. I truly don’t think I demonize him in it, or call myself out as victim (goodness, I hope not), but he’s described as a barrier to my younger self’s desire to be known. Anyway, it’s been, what, ten months since publication, and ten months since I sent him a copy, and he’s not said a word. I suffered over that for a while, then recently I realized that, oh yes, that’s exactly how it should play out between the two of us. Because that’s how it’s always been between the two of us. I didn’t write the book to force him into being someone he’s not. I wrote the book to understand myself better and my role in my family, and maybe being okay with our mutual code of silence is part of that acceptance and self-awareness.
DJ Lee: No, you don’t portray your father or anyone, for that matter, as a victim. There’s an unflinching honesty to all of the relationships. I wonder if your book’s unique structure played a part in giving the narrative such candor. How did you find a way to tell alternating narratives without creating an overly-predictable pattern?
Debra Gwartney: This was a massive challenge for me. And exactly why it took a ridiculous number of years to call it “finished” (is any book actually ever finished?). I started over at Word One probably eight times. At least. I finally decided to trust my own instinct on the structure that eluded me for so long. I wrote and wrote and wrote until (and I had to believe this would happen or I would give up) the two major threads—the one about my own life and the one about Narcissa’s—started talking to each other. It was a meld beyond my conscious mind and I had to hope to hell that someone else besides me was convinced that the two threads belonged together, one informing the other.
DJ Lee: The alternating threads make the book a page-turner, and the juxtapositions also offer startling insights. For example, there are a lot of graves and graveyards in this book, in the Whitman story and in your own, and yet your voice is so alive and situated in the present. How did you balance those tensions as you were researching and writing?
Debra Gwartney: I hadn’t even thought about all the graves and graveyards. One dimension that interested me is this: how the story of someone’s life is told one way while she/he is living and a different way (sometimes quite a different way) when he/she is dead. I obviously wasn’t consciously considering the image of graves, since you had to point it out, but I was aware at some point that I was writing about the silencing of women—to get back to your earlier question. In my family, in my culture, women were taught to stuff, to bury. My mother’s mother said not one word to me about her four dead babies, though we were extremely close. No one talked about that loss and I think we’ve all paid for our generations of silence. Then there’s Grandma Lois, my father’s mother, who was well known around town for being a loudmouth. Many people were turned off by her. What I remember most about her is how she yelled. She was so often shouting, yelling, chewing someone out. My sister and I would hide in the back well of her car, terribly embarrassed that she was yelling at the A&W clerk for cold French fries, or yelling at the butcher for selling her the wrong kind of meat. But, boy, the minute my grandfather walked in the door at noon for his lunch and a nap, she was dead silent. All of us were as long as he was in the house.
At the end of her life, when she told me the story about her stillborn daughter—the child taken from her before she came out of the ridiculous ether cloud women in labor were forced to endure back then—it finally occurred to me that here was the source of much of her anger, though I think she was also angry at being stuck in a small town with a seasoned philanderer (he was charming and handsome and women adored him), and of course never given the opportunity to realize her own potential. She was brilliant and funny and far too expansive to be stuck, but she was stuck (as was Narcissa). Back to the burying of the baby girl: how dare my grandfather do that to her. Put that infant in the ground without telling his wife, without a word spoken about the child’s remains, so that she spent years silently believing he’d given the girl to another family because he didn’t trust her as a mother. It infuriates me on her behalf, and it also strikes me as the ultimate metaphor of my family.
What is history? Nothing but stories that certain privileged and well-placed people (men) decide to record and document.
DJ Lee: This feeling of being stuck comes up at the end of the book. You and your daughter Mollie witness a buck free itself from a closed-in porch and bound into the night, an event that releases something in you. It’s such a beautiful moment. I’m wondering if the writing process itself, telling your story and retelling a story of another Western woman, helped you begin to feel at home.
Debra Gwartney: Thanks for your kind words about the final scene—one reviewer called it cliché, which sort of surprised me because at the time it struck me as unusual to be that close to a trapped, furious animal. But back to your question: absolutely the writing of this book and the surging up of memory has helped me understand myself better, and the long, careful study of Narcissa’s life has also aided in that process, for sure. I think that’s why, when my most trusted writer/reader friends suggested that I leave the Narcissa story behind and write strictly about my own childhood in Idaho, I stuck to my guns. Both narrative threads or neither. This is the book I had to write, whether it turns out to be popular/commercial successful or not.
I love that it’s Mollie, my youngest daughter, who was with me that night of the buck-in-the-patio. She’s the one, after my first book was finished, who came to me and said, “Why didn’t you just tell us all of this?” I said, “I didn’t know any of it until I wrote it.” The writing took many years. So many years! At least for me—it is a hugely challenging thing to interrogate the self and I have found that if my insights are going to feel genuine, to myself and to the reader, I have to be incredibly patient and also honor the contemplative period that’s necessary for good writing. Lots and lots of thinking and musing and note taking before I commit a single word to the page.
DJ Lee: After such an uncommon and intense project, I’m curious about what you’re working on next.
Debra Gwartney: I’m back to stand-alone memoir pieces. Essay length, but memoir in form. I’m close to having enough for a book and I hope to push through these next months and start shopping a collection. My latest piece in The New York Times is a poignant memory of driving with my grandparents down a road in Idaho.
DJ Leeis Regents Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Washington State University and hold a PhD from the University of Arizona and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her creative work includes the hybrid memoir-history Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots(2020) and over 40 award-winning nonfiction pieces in magazines and anthologies. She also has published eight books on literature, history, and the environment, most recently the 2017 collection The Land Speaks: New Voices at the Intersection of Oral and Environmental History. Lee is the director of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness History Project and a scholar-fellow at the Black Earth Institute.