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Our own truths

As soon as I read it, I knew Joan Didion's searing insight from her book “The White Album” was the perfect epigraph for mine: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live ...”

It resonated because that was precisely what I was doing in writing my memoir. I was trying to understand the facts of my life in a way that made sense to me as I embarked on the great, unknown rest of it.

I wanted to build context around the mystery and randomness of those facts and detail their enduring impact. I wanted to bring order to what Didion called “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

I'm reminded of that shifting phantasmagoria as I watch the trial of Alex Murdaugh, hunkered down as I am here in South Carolina, scene of the murders, and awash in the news. To recap, via Reuters:

Richard “Alex” Murdaugh, the disbarred South Carolina lawyer on trial for the murder of his wife and son, said on (Feb. 24, 2023) that he believed someone angry about a deadly boating accident had committed the crimes, floating an alternative theory for the jury as two days of dramatic testimony came to a close. Murdaugh offered the theory, for which he acknowledged he had no evidence, after hours of cross examination during which a prosecutor laid out a string of lies told by the defendant, including about his alibi on the night of the killings.

I think Murdaugh has come to believe what he is saying, enveloped in what Niall Williams (in his book “This is Happiness”) calls “the prodigious mythology of himself...The flawless clarity with which we see stories of our own construction.”

That condition is much easier to diagnose in others than in ourselves, of course, so luckily in this case the truth is for the jury to decide. There is danger in stories that unwind far from reality, so we tellers do well to keep that top-of-mind as we develop our interpretations of what happens to us.

Interpreting events so we can survive them, and interpreting them so we can evade punishment, are two very different things, of course. But they stem from the fact that we all create and live in our own stories because we have to – in order to endure the suffering, in order to survive.


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