Today as I pottered around the house, I stumbled on a radio programme about memory: about how unreliable it is, how commonly we believe in memories that are false, and the ethical implications of manipulating others to create memories of events we know didn’t happen.
That got me wondering about the nature of memory and its relation to truth, and I turned to my notebook to explore my thoughts on the subject. It’s what I do to try to get my head round things, but truth is such a tricky subject and I’m no expert. So I wonder whether there’s any validity in the several pages of musings that now grace my desk.
Validity is so tied up in truth, and truth is so intangible. Memory, as the man on the radio tells us, has been demonstrated to be fallible, and so much of what we claim as truth depends on our memories of how things happened. And yet I have the nerve to claim Being Mrs Smith as a true story.
I stand by that, even though I’m open to the possibility that there are some factual inaccuracies. If memory is unreliable, then I’m in trouble. I wasn’t keeping a journal and, although I thought that the blog I was writing would be a useful resource when I came to draft the book, I ended up not using it at all. There are definitely errors of chronology, but in this case, they’re not important enough to impact on the validity of the story.
A few slight factual inaccuracies don’t concern me too much; I’m willing to be corrected if something turns out not to have happened in the way I say it did. It’s for the story that I claim validity, and my story is as valid as anyone else’s.
In both parts of the story as I tell it – the European part and the South American part – there are real-life characters who each have their own version of events, and if they told their stories too, theirs, like mine, would no doubt be influenced by the limitations and inventiveness of their memories. I sometimes wonder how I would appear as a character in their narratives. I suspect that some of the medical staff in Part 1 might remember me as someone they’d rather forget, and who knows how the impossibly exotic South American shamans might portray us ordinary Smiths?
Some, or maybe all, of these versions of events, will be open to dispute, but they will all have validity. Knowing that truth is always subjective, I’ve tried to stick to the facts as I experienced them – or as I remember experiencing them – but I am aware that in doing so I’ve shown some people in a positive light and others less so. Still, the truth as experienced by others may be different to mine: Some of those characters that I’ve drawn as less than sympathetic might be heroes in someone else’s eyes. Disagreement doesn’t imply that one version of events has less truth in it than another.
I think I have a pretty good handle on Mr Smith’s view of things, since I reckon I know him just about as well as anyone knows another human being, but though he wouldn’t dispute anything I’ve said, even his truths aren’t always in agreement with mine. It would make for a pretty boring relationship if they were.
I haven’t come to any conclusions on how memory, validity and truth are interrelated, or on how we can reconcile our different experiences of the same events. But I do know, and this is absolute truth, that every word of Being Mrs Smith is true. I know this because I lived it, and it is in the living of it, more than in the memory of it, that I make this claim.