How do you deal with the elusiveness of truth and accuracy in memories and family stories?
Truth versus Accuracy
Let’s first look at how truth and accuracy can differ.
I have two friends, Ann and Sandy. (Actually I have more, but my point is only relevant to two of them.) Ann recently recounted an adventure that she and Sandy shared. It’s a wonderful story, but Sandy has no memory of it happening.
Ann’s story may be accurate, but it’s not a truth that Sandy knows.
Other times, the accurate details of a story fail to contribute to an understanding of the truth. In The Difference Between Telling the Truth and Being Accurate, Four Leaf Public Relations gives an insightful anecdote of working with an environmental law firm.
… For one, working with attorneys brings a whole new perspective to what constitutes “accuracy.” For these legal minds, telling the truth about their firm and what they do meant having to give every detail, in chronological order, with many caveats including changing statements from “we did X” to “we helped with X.” And, in the process, the truth was too often lost…
No one has 20 minutes to hear the punchline. The truth of this organization is that they win – a lot. The accurate picture is that sometimes it takes them seven years and a trip to the Supreme Court to [do so].
The firm’s depth of accuracy obscured the truth.
Devil in the Details?
As writers, we don’t just have to question whether accurate details facilitate understanding. We evaluate their relevance to the truth.
My sister and I remember a story about our mother trying to open a milk carton. Whenever we’d retell it, Mom would protest that it was an orange juice carton, not a milk carton, that she was trying to open.
Does it matter? The essence of the story—and the part that you’d find funny if you had known our never-let-a-curse-word-out-of-my-mouth mother, doesn’t turn on the type of carton. The truth is that Mom, feeling cranky and stubborn, had trouble getting the beverage carton open. Despite helpful advice from her husband, daughters, and the carton’s “open other end” signage, she opened the more difficult side “because no damn milk [orange juice] carton was going dictate where she had to open it.”
Truth and Accuracy and Your Role as a Storyteller
Personal and family storytellers wear various hats and perform multiple roles. Which role you assume shapes your decisions on what is true and what is accurate, how you tell a story and what you include.
If you’re writing an account of your own experiences, you’re apt to weigh your own memory more heavily than that of other relatives or witnesses. It’s your truth that you’re telling. If it was your mother involved in the milk versus orange juice carton debate, and you remembered it as a milk carton, that’s the way you’d tell it.
Not every family historian is an impartial recorder. Sometimes we want to persuade—to highlight the situation of a relative or ancestor. Although we don’t want to stray from the truth, we may have a bias towards including details that highlight the social context of the times. If your grandmother was abandoned at twelve years old by her father, you might be tempted to let that bare fact stand alone. You might not delve to deeply in her father’s side of the story.
We also often want to preserve memories that have been lost to disease and age. My friend Sandy’s memory is intact, but were it not, her family would want to preserve Ann’s version of their adventures together.
Many family historians and storytellers want to preserve traditions, accurate or not. Rather than accepting tradition as truth, they annotate stories with sources, evidence, lack of substantiation, or varying versions of the same event. For instance, I grew up believing that my grandfather had polio as a young man, resulting in him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. However, my uncle Joe contests that story. (See An Oral History: Appendicitis in 1914.) As the family storyteller, my primary purpose is to tell the truth—that Grandpa suffered from an illness in his teens that left him permanently disabled. However, it’s also worth noting that family tradition holds that he suffered from polio.
Similarly, a family storyteller might put more weight on details that entertain and inform than on redundant details that attest to the accuracy of the story.
While a genealogist won’t ignore family tradition, there’s a heavier onus to provide accurate records that prove, support, or disprove the tradition. When there’s no evidence, genealogists often feel obligated to leave whatever breadcrumbs they can for future truth and accuracy hunters.
In the situation of my grandfather, when I wear my genealogy hat as I write, I note the absence of any medical records in the family that would prove or disprove the polio theory. I add the year of his illness and the place it was treated, as well as the fact that no polio outbreaks were recorded in Virginia that year.
You, as a writer, function as a filter through which others view and understand episodes of the past. Only you, the storyteller, can determine what is true and accurate and what details are important to include.