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In his novel The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien distinguishes between two kinds of truth: story-truth and happening-truth. Happening-truth is the indisputable black-and-white reality of "at such and such a time this happened, and then this, and then that." Story-truth is the colorized version, breathing luminous life into the inert shell of the past, waking up the dead, sparking emotion, inspiring a search for meaning.
Making up stories about the past is "a way of bringing body and soul back together or a way of making new bodies for the souls to inhabit," O'Brien explains. Writing about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, he offers two versions, both "true," of his past.
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about
twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His
jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.
I killed him.
Stories make the past come alive. We can reimagine our younger selves, feel the emotions we once felt (or were afraid to feel), battle the demons we could only run from because we were too frightened, too young, or too helpless, dream a new ending, even bring the dead back to life.
But there is a hitch. As we put meat and muscle on the bare bones of the happening-truth, we can get caught up-captured if you will-within our own stories. We become confused about where the happening-truth leaves off and the story-truth begins, because the story-truth, which is so much more vivid, detailed and real than the happening-truth, becomes our reality. We begin to live our own stories.
I remember a summer many years ago. I was fourteen years old. My mother, my aunt Pearl, and I were on vacation, visiting my uncle Joe in Pennsylvania. One bright sunny morning I woke up and my mother was dead, drowned in the swimming pool.
That is the happening-truth. The story-truth is something quite different. In my mind I've returned to that scene many times, and each time the memory gains weight and substance. I can see the cool pine trees, smell their fresh tarry breath, feel the lake's algae-green water on my skin, taste Uncle Joe's iced tea with fresh-squeezed lemon. But the death itself was always vague and unfocused. I never saw my mother's body, and I could not imagme her dead. The last memory I have of my mother Was her tiptoed visit the evening before her death, the quick hug, the whispered "I love you."
Thirty years later, at Uncle Joe's ninetieth birthday party, a relative in one who found my mother in the pool. After the initial shock-No, it was Aunt Pearl, I was asleep, I have no memory the memories began to drift back; slow and unpredictable like the crisp, piney smoke from the evening 'campfires. I could see myself, a thin, dark-haired girl, looking into the flickering blue-and-white pool. My mother, dressed in her nightgown, is floating face down. "Mom? Mom?" I ask the question several times, my voice rising in terror. I start screaming. I remember the police cars, their lights flashing, and the stretcher with the clean, white blanket tucked in around the edges of the body.
Of course. It all made sense. No wonder I was always haunted by the circumstances of my mother's death ... the memory had been there all along, but I just couldn't reach it. Now, with this new info mation everything fit together. Perhaps this memory, could explain my obsession with memory distortion,, my compulsive workaholism, my unfulfilled yearning for security and unconditional love.
For three days my memory expanded and swelled. Then, early one morning, my brother called to tell me that my uncle had checked his facts O and realized he'd made a mistake: His memory, it turned out, had temporarily failed him. Now he remembered (and other relatives confirmed) that Aunt Pearl found my mother's body in the swimming pool.
that phone call I was left with my shrunken memory, pinpricked and deflated,
and a sense of wonder at the inherent credulity of even a skeptical mind. All
it took was a suggestion, casually planted, and off I went on an internal snipe-hunt,
eagerly searching for supporting information. When my memory was revealed as a
false creation, I experienced a strange yearning for the crisp colors and narrative
drive of my invented story-truth. That elaborate but completely fabricated memory
comforted me with its detail and precision, its utter lack of ambiguity. At least
I knew what happened that day; at least my memory had a beginning, a middle, and
an end; at least it all hung together. When it was gone, all I had left were a
few somber details a lot of empty spaces and an aching, endless grief.
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