The Essence of Truth

in Memory

Memoirist Alice Siebold claims that she writes the "essence" of truth. That's all anyone can do. Some people get stymied while writing lifestories in an attempt to ensure all the details are accurate, but when they talk to family members or other people involved in a remembered episode, nobody agrees. How can this be, and how does it affect the validity of your stories?

In 1984 I was on the staff of a Rotary leadership camp for young adults held north of Spokane. The junior staff members staged a mock crime that was witnessed by the unsuspecting campers and used as material for a mock trial held to demonstrate the workings of the justice system. To everyone's amazement, no two witnesses gave the same testimony. Elena swore she'd heard gunfire. Quentin claimed the driver had been swigging from a bottle of beer. Ted insisted the Jeep stopped mere inches from human bodies.

When the testimony was compared with actual evidence, the gunfire would have had to come from a water pistol. The bottle contained root beer. The documented distance between the Jeep and the nearest person was over six feet. How could these disparities occur? During the ensuing discussion, we learned that Elena experienced a flashback to a recent bank robbery she had witnessed. Quentin saw what made sense to him under the circumstances, and Ted's senses were distorted by fear. Obviously no two could agree, because no two saw the same crime.

Similar circumstances explain how it is that two siblings growing up in the house, with the same physical parents, during the same time frame, can grow up in two entirely different families, with little overlap in memory.

So, who is right? What is true?

The answer to that question is as fuzzy as the circumstances that generated it. In the trial, we had documented, empirically verifiable evidence. For legal purposes that evidence is defined as Truth. That doesn't mean that Elena's experience wasn't real and true. In his book, White Gloves How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, psychologist John Kotre explains that memory results from perception, and conversely, perception is shaped by memories. There are no equations, because every person has a unique way of looking at the world.

When all is said and done, our memories are the source of the meaning we ascribe to our lives. We rely on memory to define ourselves to ourselves.

"There is no truth, there is only perception." -- Gustave Flaubert

When you write your life story or memoir, you have a choice. You can write a consensus account of the family history everyone agrees on. Or you can write the story of your life, which means writing the essence of truth as you perceived and experienced it, and reflecting on the meaning the memory has for you - how it has influenced your life. If anyone disagrees, smile pleasantly and tell them, "This is my story, and I told it the way I remember it. Perhaps you should write your own."

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Sharon Lippincott has 1 articles online

Sharon Lippincott, author of the book, THE HEART AND CRAFT OF LIFE STORY WRITING is the go-to gal for anyone who aspires to leave a written legacy of their life for future generations, or to write about their life for fun and personal growth. She conducts classes and workshops on life story writing and coaches individuals by phone and e-mail. Contact her via her blog or website for further information about coaching services or an entertaining and enlightening program for your group or conference.

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The Essence of Truth

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This article was published on 2010/03/30