The story is true

“Stories are the way we domesticate the world’s disorder.”

(Bruce Jackson, The Story is True)

My last entry emphasized the importance of story.  Since stories are essential to the experience of victims and offenders – and to all of us – I want to explore this topic a bit further here.

Our histories, our identities, our meanings for our lives are understood in and conveyed through our stories.  We often experience trauma when those stories are disrupted.  The process of transcending trauma requires us to “re-story” our lives.  This is true for those who are victimized but it is often true for those who offend as well.  As Shadd Maruna and Hans Toch’s suggest in Making Good, those who “desist” from offending behavior do so by re-storying their own lives in ways that preserve their self-respect and provide meaning for their new lives.

Judicial trials are also about story.  Jackson notes in The Story is True that trials are a competition between different ways to frame ambiguous material.  They are often more about winning more than about truth; the instrument is the development of a plausible story (p. 123).

Journalism – and especially television – presents events as stories; it utilizes stereotypical templates to impose a sense of order and completeness on information and the result is often incomplete and even misleading.

Jackson is an ethnographer who has done extensive work in prison and on death row.  He has used both still photography and film in this context.  Because of these interests, I have followed his work for years. (For researchers, and especially those working in prison, I also recommend his 1987 book, Fieldwork.)

Our lives, and most events, do not unfold in an orderly sequence. To make sense of them, to manage the disorder of the world, we create stories.   To quote one of Jackson’s students, “Our stories are the dots we use to connect the parts of our lives.”

Stories have to make sense, even when life often doesn’t. Like a photograph, stories are a way of framing things.  As with photographs, if we change the frame, a different story may emerge.

Our stories may or may not be true in a factual sense.  But unless we are involved in a forensic inquiry, what matters more in most cases are the meanings and perceptions they portray.

Jackson reminds us that our stories are created, then revised and fine-tuned over time, to serve various purposes:

  • Stories make sense and order of the world and of our identities. After significant events, including traumatic experiences, these stories may need to be revised.
  • Stories are told to fit the needs of the storyteller at a given time, needs that vary with the context: for example, we may want to court favor, present ourselves in a favorable light, bond with others, or help define who is “inside” and who is “outside.”
  • Stories are told to meet the needs of the listener or audience, so the listener is often part of the creative act.

Another factor shaping our stories is the nature of memory.  As I pointed out in an earlier entry (see Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Tavris & Aronson), our minds don’t like dissonance, so they tend to fill the gaps and create an order to things.  Some quotes from Jackson:  “Memory doesn’t like clutter.  It economizes….”  Memory is a process rather than a condition – “an artist, not a computer.”

Stories are important.  Are they “true?”  Jackson concludes that what is true is the fact that they are told, and that  they carry meaning for the teller.  I will end with a longer quotation:

“In time, how we tell our story depends not so much on what happened then, but on what we know of the world now.  And that is why the story of that time told in this moment means at least as much, and perhaps more, about this world now than that time then.  And that is why these stories we tell again and again remain forever new.” (p. 43)