To Tell the Truth

Lately I’ve been immersed in binge-watching The Affair, a Showtime TV series about (you won’t be shocked to learn) an affair. As is often the case, this affair is between two people who are inconveniently married to others when they meet and become enraptured by each other.

There are a lot of subplots and interweaving stories that I won’t spoil, but one of the most interesting elements of the show is that each episode is divided into two parts, one weaving the narrative from the man’s perspective and the other from the woman’s. The most fascinating part of that for me is when the narratives intersect, and the viewer is shown the same part of the story from each of their two points of view.

Sometimes the differences in the perspectives are subtle. For example, in the depiction of how they meet and begin the affair the man paints the woman as a sultry and predatory femme fatale while remembering himself as a more passive victim of circumstance; in turn, the woman remembers him as the pursuer, and depicts herself more sympathetically. At other times their narratives are completely divergent so that the same elements (a farmhouse, a gun, an altercation) are spun into two vastly different scenes.

Wherein lies the truth?

When I’m working with couples, whether an affair is part of the narrative or not, disagreements about the ‘truth’ of an event are almost always present. Memory is a construction. Among other ingredients, the recipe for a memory includes images of the salient moments in an experience, our thoughts and feelings at the time, our expectations and predictions about what was said/not said, done/not done, the outcomes that resulted from the experience, and the cohesive story we’ve told ourselves about what happened.

By the time we are relaying that story to someone else, we are naming and experiencing it as the ‘truth,’ long losing sight of the fact that the other people inhabiting our memory will have their own truth.

I’m often caught by surprise when a client starts a sentence with “It’s like you said last week,” and follows that with something I have no recollection of saying (and sometimes no desire to claim as something I ever would have said!) Fortunately, in the context of therapy this is something we can explore, comparing what each of us thought was salient in forming our experience of the ‘truth’ and coming out of that conversation with (hopefully) a stronger sense of connection and mutual understanding.

Outside the context of therapy, finding that someone else remembers the truth differently than we do usually leads to an argument. We fight about whose truth is truer, try to persuade the other to remember it our way, and each consequently become more entrenched in the rightness of our own point of view.

We now have the ability to memorialize events in a way we never would have 20 years ago. We have conversations over text rather than in person or by phone, and most of us carry devices that double as cameras, voice and video recorders on our person at all times.

Perhaps we will soon outpace the need for constructed memory, but I fear that focusing on the content – being able to definitively answer the question of what was said and done and by whom – will take away from the process: acknowledging that we all have our own perspectives and therefore our own claim to the ‘truth’.

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