* For the record *
“‘Dr. X’: Your story has one thing wrong—but it really doesn’t matter much. I have a photo album that shows that your 4th birthday cake was a Mickey Mouse cake…. But oh well, so stories go. Did you REALLY ask for a spanking?!?!”
-Dr. Why’s Mother, Dec. 2016
In Getting to Know Why #22, Dr. Why remembers his mother making an ice-cream cake for his fourth birthday. But his mother wrote recently to say that she really made a “Mickey Mouse” cake that year.
What’s going on here, Dr. Why? Have you been lying to us?
Y: My mother wasn’t suggesting that, Dr. X.
X: Really? Judging by how she addressed me, she doesn’t even believe you have a co-author. She evidently thinks you’re Dr. X.
Y: It isn’t that she thinks I’m dishonest. It’s that she’s misinformed.
X: She’s got photographic evidence, Why.
Y: About the cake, yes. But that sort of detail “doesn’t matter much,” as she says, and—
X: Facts matter in an auto/biography, Why.
Y: —and—I was going to say—and I may have encouraged her misunderstanding to help protect your identity.
X: So she doesn’t think you’re dishonest, she’s merely misinformed because you lied to her?
Y: “Encouraged her misunderstanding,” I said. And I don’t know why you should object to that. You yourself warned that GTKW is written with “poetic license” in our very first installment—though that’s perhaps not the best term for what occurred in misreporting the cake.
X: What would you call it?
Y: I wasn’t terribly concerned about what sort of cake I had for my fourth birthday—
X: Because you think the facts are unimportant?
Y: —because the sort of cake I had isn’t important, because it’s beside the point I wanted to make. Besides, ice-cream cake fit the story well enough.
X: So you just made it up?
Y: I remember an ice-cream cake from my early childhood and find that the dialogue I produced about it has an authentic ring—authentic enough to persuade me that there’s a lot of memory in it—even if I am unsure which birthday to associate it with.
X: Your lack of concern for accuracy here is a little disturbing, Why.
Y: I was four, X.
X: Not when you had the ice-cream cake you weren’t!
Y: Ok, then I was five. Or six. Nevertheless, the memory of the bit about the spanking is from my fourth birthday.
X: You’re certain of this?
Y: Unless I dreamed the whole thing, yes.
X: The real story is the spanking then? Everything else is irrelevant details?
Y: The real story is—I’m not sure how to say exactly. After publishing two nice memories of my father, I wanted to share one or two of my mother.
Y: Those installments are all rather as I remember them. I don’t have memories that correspond with their every detail, of course. But they’re true in the sense that imprecisely remembered real events lie behind them: I really did go fishing a lot with my father and little brother, really did struggle with the ethics of filleting fish my first time at it, really did throw a fit over turning four and insist on being spanked for it.
X: And how should our readers separate impressionism and false memories from what really happened?
Y: Why should they have to?
X: Because you think your life story significantly warrants belief in your inclusive vision of reality—even for other people.
Y: Yes, I do think that.
X: So can you offer any general principles that might help readers determine the real life these stories are based in?
Y: I can think of a few. First, since I’m not making anything up just to make it up—
X: But not even your mother believes that.
Y: On the subject of your existence, perhaps. But not on the subject of ice-cream cake. She knows she made ice-cream cake for me when I was quite young and probably finds my account of the wonderment I experienced over it fully believable. I merely misremembered the date of it—an insignificant detail.
X: I’m no insignificant detail.
Y: You’re certainly not, X. Nevertheless, I suppose my mother won’t be the only reader to imagine that I’m having a conversation with myself here. Some might think you’re a sort of literary device, an attempt to obscure my identity, a personification of the academy or the modern scientific worldview or some such.
X: That would make the whole of my account of our first meeting pure fiction! But minus the knock-knock joke at the beginning—which is almost true to life—#13 is just as I remember it.
Y: Come on, X; no it isn’t. You exaggerated my behavior for comic effect.
X: I’m afraid that isn’t so, Why—though for all our readers know, of course, I invented your neurotic symptoms entirely out of thin air and you along with them as a literary device; an attempt to obscure my identity; a personification of the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectualist underbelly of modern Western society.
Y: Let’s not encourage this interpretation, X; it could ruin the series entirely. And I won’t be part of it if it’s going to be read as naturalistic propaganda.
X: All the more reason to answer my question: What criteria might our readers use to separate fact from fiction in the vignettes you’re writing?
Y: Yes, ok. My aim is to communicate key moments of my development in the form of entertaining or otherwise engaging stories. The events are reported as I remember them except where the facts are misleading or distracting or aesthetically unsatisfying. Where I lack memory—and my memory really isn’t very good that far back—I aim at plausible reconstruction. So “Mom” says the sort of things Mom would have said, at least, and the details of the events I report at least suit the personalities of the people involved, where we lived, what was happening, etc. Occasionally, I entirely fabricate a moment to round out an installment and/or to communicate something true that can’t otherwise be put briefly. For example, “Grandma and The King” has me return to my room after my argument with Grandma to listen to Elvis sing church songs on my turntable. That certainly didn’t happen—because I never had the turntable in my room and don’t recall ever developing much affection for Elvis’ hymns—but it does bring the piece to a neat and ironic close, and it communicates something of the sense of relief I felt at having successfully saved my hero from Grandma’s condemnation by appealing the music he published.
X: And the other pieces?
Y: Well, I don’t really know what Bible passage my father read on the day I first planted evidence of swinishness under my brother’s side of the table, but it could have been the story of the prodigal son, and “On Lima Beans” knits together nicely if I suppose it was. Besides, including a reference to that story gives me a window through which readers can witness the sort of religious education I received as a child.
Y: Those installments are as true as brevity allows, though of course #14 includes some obvious metaphor.
X: You’ve asserted several times that I give an exaggerated account in #13 of how you behaved the day I met first met you. But did you at least tell me honestly back then how your habits originated, whatever their true extent?
Y: Exaggeration aside, your recollection in #16 of the account I gave of their origin both rings true and gets the details I remember right—though I’m sure I never referenced a “tire-man god.”
X: No, that’s a gloss of my own.
Y: Made because it suits your ingenious dedication to the piece, no doubt.
Y: To round it out and make it more aesthetically pleasing? Perhaps even to say something you think is true that can’t be said briefly if you stick to just the facts?
Y: Perhaps indeed. So what criteria should readers use to sort fact from fiction in your pieces?
X: Don’t be smug, Why.
Y: Don’t criticize me for something you do yourself, X.
X: My concern is that you’re being a bit too loose with the facts. But of course I have to admit to indulging in a bit of poetic license myself, and I suppose the criteria you’ve given for your short pieces will help our readers recognize it in my pieces also. We have other goals for the installments you’re now writing considered altogether, of course, but we can address those another time. And perhaps it doesn’t make much difference in the end if I’m read as yet another figment of your imagination, as my overall aim is largely therapeutic.
Y: I certainly don’t want you to be interpreted as any mere figment, X. But “therapeutic”?
X: Thank you, Why. And I meant to say diagnostic: my goal is to call readers in to help us determine what to make of the radically inclusive theory of reality you’re developing—which we’ve merely hinted at so far.
Y: That and to have a little fun, right?
X: That’s right. And I certainly do hope you’re enjoying it as much as we are, dear readers. Please join us again next month!