In The Lifespan of a Fact (Norton 2012), John D'Agata and James Fingal have produced a wonderfully bizarre book with an interesting psychological angle. Here are the particulars. D'Agata wrote an article about a Las Vegas teenager who leapt from the Stratosphere Hotel and pinwheeled one thousand feet to the concrete below. Harper's Magazine rejected the article over rampant inaccuracies. D'Agata then offered the essay to a literary magazine called the Believer. That magazine's fact-checker-James Fingal-was astonished to find warped or invented facts in most of the article's sentences. D'Agata, a writing professor at the University of Iowa, told Fingal that he was an artist, not a reporter, and artists sometimes had to lie to get to the truth (at one point, D'Agata tells his fussy fact checker to back off, saying, "It's called art, d---head."). Fingal countered that D'Agata's piece read like journalism, so he owed his readers accuracy, or at least a disclaimer. After literally years of debate, the two men decided to turn their argument into a book, with D'Agata's orginal essay printed on the center of each page, and with excerpts from their testy email exchanges cramming the margins.
D'Agata's radical defense of an essayist's right--or obligation--to re-sculpt mundane truth in the service of artistic truth, has been greeted with bewilderment and anger. The response faintly echoes the outrage accompanying the memoir scandals of James Frey (A Million Little Pieces
), Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea
), and others ("faintly" because D'Agata, unlike the sham memoirists, has made no secret of his views, and because he defends them with mad vigor; D'Agata won't be rolling over-Frey-style-to get spanked by Oprah or anyone else).
But before we stone D'Agata or Frey for the way they tell their stories, we should look more closely at the way we tell our own. We all spend our lives crafting a story that makes us the noble-if flawed-protagonist of a first-person drama. A life story is about who we are deep down, where we come from and how we got this way. They are our identity. But how would your own life story hold up to the scrutiny of a relentless fact checker like James Fingal? Probably not very well. As I describe in my forthcoming book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, fact-checking psychologist have demonstrated that our life stories--like D'Agata's essays--are only based on true stories.
Page view from The Lifespan of a Fact
Memory is the foundation of identity, and researchers like Beth Loftus have discovered that the memory system is alarmingly prone to inaccuracies. We are constantly-and confidently-misremembering the details of our lives, small and large. Moreover, as the psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson point out, we misremember with an agenda: "[memory is an] unreliable, self-serving historian...pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened." This egocentric bias isn't limited to memory, it extends to nearly all of our self-assessments. Most of us are deeply prone to The Lake Woebegone Effect: we think we are above average when it comes to just about any positive quality a psychologist can name--even immunity to the Lake Woebegone Effect.
This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between the way ordinary people embroider their life stories and the way some writers purposefully mislead readers. Ordinary people fictionalize their stories mainly to deceive themselves, not others. According to the psychologist Shelly Taylor, a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy. Why? Because, without self-aggrandizement we might find it hard to live with the bleakness of the truth: most of us are not that special.
This may be why, even in the age of Prozac and Zoloft, one of the most common ways of dealing with depression is by talking with a psychotherapist. According to the psychologist Michelle Crossley, depression frequently stems from an "incoherent story," an "inadequate narrative account of oneself," or "a life story gone awry." A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps a patient revise his life story so he can play the role of protagonist again-a suffering and flawed protagonist, sure, but a protagonist who is moving toward the light.
Crossley, Michele. Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma, and the Construction of
Meaning. Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000.
Tavris, Carol, and Eliot Aronson. Mistakes were Made but Not By Me: Why we Justify Foolish
Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. New York: Harcourt, 2007.
Taylor, Shelley. Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. New
York: Basic Books, 1991.