Your True Personal Story is About 60% Horseshit

Your True Personal Story is About 60% Horseshit

By Don Hall

Many in the storytelling scene tout the fact that the stories are true, personal narratives. Some talk an awful lot about telling their Truth as if that is somehow more authentic or truish than truth. The fact is, they're all (mostly) lying. Or maybe not lying but at least unaware that their truth is likely to be fiction.

I expected some deficiencies of memory — partly because the events I was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; and partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters and notebooks that I started to keep, assiduously, from the age of eighteen or so. 

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial — were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not. 

Oliver Sacks holding his own brain (at least that's what he told us...)

Oliver Sacks holding his own brain (at least that's what he told us...)

A striking example of this, the first that came to my notice, arose in relation to the two bomb incidents that I described in Uncle Tungsten, both of which occurred in the winter of 1940–1941, when London was bombarded in the Blitz: 

One night, a thousand-pound bomb fell into the garden next to ours, but fortunately it failed to explode. All of us, the entire street, it seemed, crept away that night (my family to a cousin’s flat) — many of us in our pajamas — walking as softly as we could (might vibration set the thing off?). The streets were pitch dark, for the blackout was in force, and we all carried electric torches dimmed with red crêpe paper. We had no idea if our houses would still be standing in the morning. 

On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire — indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions

A few months after the book was published, I spoke of these bombing incidents to my brother Michael. Michael is five years my senior, and had been with me at Braefield, the boarding school to which we had been evacuated at the beginning of the war (and in which I was to spend four miserable years, beset by bullying schoolmates and a sadistic headmaster). My brother immediately confirmed the first bombing incident, saying, “I remember it exactly as you described it.” But regarding the second bombing, he said, “You never saw it. You weren’t there.” 

I was staggered by Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law, and had never doubted as real? “What do you mean?” I objected. “I can see the bomb in my mind’s eye now, Pa with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn’t there?” 

“You never saw it,” Michael repeated. “We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it.” 

Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David’s words, and then appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own. 

— Oliver Sacks


As much as I know that my memory is far more malleable than I think it is, all of the science behind memory indicates that, not only is memory imperfect, it is constantly reforming itself every time we recollect a specific event. It's like retracing a picture with a big crayola over and over until the picture no longer even resembles its original state.

Neurologists long ago demonstrated how erroneous and unreliable eyewitness testimony is and yet we place most of the weight of jury verdicts on exactly that. Most religious texts were written as first hand anecdotes and most were written decades after these first hand accounts occurred, yet many people swear to the absolute truth of these stories. We simply refuse to believe what empirical evidence shows us — our memories are like Silly Putty and are constantly changing what we see as Objective to wholly Subjective.

When I go to a live lit night and hear a story of a horrible break up, I know that it is likely at least 60 percent complete horseshit. Not necessarily intentional horseshit or even the standard "He Said/She Said" Rashomon horseshit but total fiction. More disconcerting is the fact that it is highly (as in statistically probable) likely that 60 percent of my own stories are horseshit as well. That in the prism of the liquid memory pool, primordial and without concrete shape, my very own experiences have somehow transmorphed from the Objective Facts to the ramblings of an old woman who swears she saw that specific young man shoot that other young man from her fourth story window in the rain.

Now add these inconvenient facts to the practice of the Call Out. If most of our personal recollections are fiction, how can we legitimately believe 60 percent of the accusations or defenses of pretty much everyone? Without hard evidence to back it up, are we willing to take it on faith alone? In cases like Cosby or Weinstein (when scores of accusers corroborate the narrative), I think we're safe to believe the tale but when it's a one-on-one situation?

"But it happened to me, too!" you rail. Are you sure? Is there any corroboration from others? Do you have any kind of hard evidence? Dr. Sacks published his account as fact in a book that was written, re-written, edited, re-edited, printed en masse and sent out into the world and it decidedly did not happen to him. His account, I'll add, was not completely stained with the emotional reaction of trauma, either.

I'm not trying to suggest that we should not "believe her." I am suggesting that belief without prosecution, investigation and skepticism is a blind and stupid approach.

The Big Existential Question begged then is "What is Truth and How Can We Tell Who's Telling It?" If we're all merely sort of making it up as we go along, aren't we all just a bunch of Alzheimer patients passing the time with fictionalized hyperbole designed to make us look heroic or victimized? If we're all shifting and changing our truth, what does it say about someone when they tell a true story about how marginalized they are or how impeachable?

And if we're all just lying our ass's off, does Trump & Co. get a pass?

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