On Being An Unreliable Narrator

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The first friend I met in college I remember as wearing a bowtie. He was fresh out of Utah Mormon country, and stood out to me as exceptionally clean cut—as well as earnest, dry-witted, and able to see the world with unique perspicacity. “I’ve never worn a bow tie, Hil,” he says, to this day, “never even owned one.” But my mind tells a different story. Circa 1982, John is standing there in the unfortunate fluorescent lighting of a Freshman dorm dining hall, blue eyes dancing, wearing a bowtie.

As a girl, in school, I got in trouble quite a few times for insisting something happened that in fact did not. I wasn’t lying. I was clinging to the images in my mind that I experienced as true. Even though, it turned out more than once, they were not.  The most egregious of these examples was the time in fourth grade that I told my classmates my uncle had come to our house and was crazily trying to bite off the heads of our pet chickens. (We lived on what was called a “gentleman’s farm,” meaning we had a surfeit of pets, some of them true barnyard animals like goats and lambs, but we were not farmers. In fact, we were overwhelmed. At least, I was. It was the ‘70’s and my parents were winging it with the permissive parenting approach that their own parents had not used in the late-40’s-early-50’s, letting me Go For It with pet acquisition.) The tale of my unhinged uncle disturbed my classmates, which made its way to the teachers, who promptly sent me down the hall on a route I knew well to the school psychologist. Who picked up the phone and called my mother.

My mother, to her credit, came to the school and helped sort things out. Luckily, she was in graduate school becoming a family systems psycho-therapist, so she could translate what the eff I was saying to my friends. “Okay,” said my mom, in her Merimekko Minidress and long dark That Girl! hair. “Hilary’s uncle hasn’t tried to hurt any of our animals, but he is going something quite dramatic right now that has us all concerned.” She explained that the adults were talking fairly constantly behind closed doors about what was going on with my uncle, and how I on my own must have tried to connect the dots by creating my farfetched story. “So even though the facts are all wrong,” Mom told the school psychologist, “what Hilary is saying is emotionally true.”

I exhale deeply as I write this, forty-plus years later—feeling so grateful to my mom, not only for bailing me out in the shrink’s office, but helping me to understand myself.  

Memories are strange subjective animals.  How many times have you heard or said, “That is not how it happened.” “I never said that.”  “That’s not what she did.” Or something along those lines. “That big family meltdown did not take place on vacation! It happened in our kitchen!  At home!”  Or how about the good ole back and forth that goes: “I did not.” “Yes you did.” Or, “He did not.” “Yes he most certainly did.” There is an expression, posed as an inquiry: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?

Even though I know there is emotional truth to my memories—to the exaggerations and hyperboles I experience as true—I am also aware that it is highly likely my renditions do not line up with consensus reality. In experiments, run by both psychologists and teachers of memoir writing, groups of people asked to describe the exact same scenario witnessed en masse, describe it differently. The order of events varies from account to account, lines of dialogue alter, details such as hair color and clothing may swap from one person to another. There has to be such a thing as consensus reality, stuff we can all agree on, but the emotional margins are subject to personal interpretation—to emotional truth, which is different for each of us.     

I’d like to think my inaccuracies are fairly benign: an added accessory here, a few punched up lines of dialogue there. My brother refers to my style as X+1, and I’ve learned to take responsibility for the +1 and be willing to jettison it when challenged. To be honest, though, I may go a round or two defending my memory. “Okay okay okay, so maybe that woman yelling at us in CVS didn’t—in fact—have a yapping dog in her purse with ribbons on its ears. But don’t you think she may as well have?” I try to defend the emotional truth of my brain’s symbolic additions. “Just grant me this: if that woman were a dog, she’d live in a purse with ribbons on her ears, right?” 

14 thoughts on “On Being An Unreliable Narrator”

  1. Something being “emotionally true” – what a great way to phrase the many family experiences that my siblings and I have remembered very differently. That is a much safer (and more thoughtful) phrase than one of us telling another why s/he remembers it a certain way (potentially in an officious, imperious tone). A useful approach as we head into the holiday season of family togetherness. Many thanks for bringing peace to families far and wide!

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    1. I love how you link this to family gatherings — especially with the holiday season coming up. Making room for everyone’s subjective memories and impressions… if we COULD ALL do that it might lead to PEACE ON EARTH??

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  2. …and all this time I believed your stories! Never stop that +1..in fact think of upping it to +3. Our narratives are way too boring to be heard without the spicy sauce. Lived the piece. Thank you!!

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  3. There was a review of a new movie written by Greta Gerwig in the Chronicle today (also got a rave review from NY Times, looks to be worth seeing). The paragraph that stuck out:

    Gerwig’s warmth as an artist becomes important, because in “Lady Bird” she is dealing in what is often the most self-centered of forms, the coming-of-age story; particularly, the coming-of-age story based on the filmmaker’s own life. True, Gerwig has gone out of her way to say that “Lady Bird” is not factually autobiographical, but she admits that to some extent it’s emotionally autobiographical. And like the central character, Geriwg grew up in Sacramento and graduated high school early in the millennium.

    Full review if you’re interested: http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Gerwig-s-Lady-Bird-is-warm-and-inspired-12343275.php

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    1. Thank you so much for sending this review. I am really excited to see Lady Bird. I love the terminology “emotionally autobiographical” and love the kismet of this review and movie with my confession of being an unreliable narrator. THANK YOU.

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    1. It’s a gift, imagination. For me there has also had to be a learning process of discernment. What is real and what is imagination. When I play with kids, I notice they have no distinction. But as an adult, I have had to learn to discern. Take responsibility for cultivating discernment. Especially because now at the helm of our great nation we have someone who does not seem to possess or even value that discerenment, and i see the very real seemingly careless danger in that.

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  4. absolutely she’d live in a purse with ribbons on her ears and tinsel ‘tween her toes !!! and oh I’d much rather hear the emotional memory from you than the actual event any day —

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