On Being an Unreliable Narrator

July 6, 2018 § 10 Comments

illickBy Hilary Illick

The first friend I met in college I remember as wearing a bow tie. He was fresh out of Utah Mormon country, and stood out to me as exceptionally clean cut—as well as earnest, dry-witted, and able to see the world with unique perspicacity. “I’ve never worn a bow tie, Hil,” he says, to this day, “never even owned one.” But my mind tells a different story. Circa 1982, John is standing there in the unfortunate fluorescent lighting of a Freshman dorm dining hall, blue eyes dancing, wearing a bow tie.

As a girl, in school, I got in trouble quite a few times for insisting something happened that in fact did not. I wasn’t lying. I was clinging to the images in my mind that I experienced as true, even though it turned out more than once they were not.  The most egregious of these examples was the time in fourth grade that I told my classmates my uncle had come to our house and was crazily trying to bite off the heads of our pet chickens. (We lived on what was called a “gentleman’s farm,” meaning we had a surfeit of pets, some of them true barnyard animals like goats and lambs, but we were not farmers. In fact, we were overwhelmed. At least, I was. It was the ‘70’s and my parents were winging it with the permissive parenting approach that their own parents had not used in the late-40’s-early-50’s, letting me Go For It with pet acquisition.) The tale of my unhinged uncle disturbed my classmates, which made its way to the teachers, who promptly sent me down the hall on a route I knew well to the school psychologist. Who picked up the phone and called my mother.

My mother, to her credit, came to the school and helped sort things out. Luckily, she was in graduate school becoming a family systems psychotherapist, so she could translate what the eff I was saying to my friends. “Okay,” said my mom, in her Merimekko Minidress and long dark That Girl! hair. “Hilary’s uncle hasn’t tried to hurt any of our animals, but he is going something quite dramatic right now that has us all concerned.” She explained that the adults were talking fairly constantly behind closed doors about what was going on with my uncle, and how I on my own must have tried to connect the dots by creating my far-fetched story. “So even though the facts are all wrong,” Mom told the school psychologist, “what Hilary is saying is emotionally true.”

I exhale deeply as I write this, forty-plus years later—feeling so grateful to my mom, not only for bailing me out in the shrink’s office, but helping me to understand myself.

Memories are strange subjective animals.  How many times have you heard or said, “That is not how it happened.” “I never said that.”  “That’s not what she did.” Or something along those lines. “That big family meltdown did not take place on vacation! It happened in our kitchen!  At home!”  Or how about the good ole back and forth that goes: “I did not.” “Yes you did.” Or, “He did not.” “Yes he most certainly did.” There is an expression, posed as an inquiry: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?

Even though I know there is emotional truth to my memories—to the exaggerations and hyperboles I experience as true—I am also aware that it is highly likely my renditions do not line up with consensus reality. In experiments, run by both psychologists and teachers of memoir writing, groups of people asked to describe the exact same scenario witnessed en masse, describe it differently. The order of events varies from account to account, lines of dialogue alter, details such as hair color and clothing may swap from one person to another. There has to be such a thing as consensus reality, stuff we can all agree on, but the emotional margins are subject to personal interpretation—to emotional truth, which is different for each of us.

I’d like to think my inaccuracies are fairly benign: an added accessory here, a few punched up lines of dialogue there. My brother refers to my style as X+1, and I’ve learned to take responsibility for the +1 and be willing to jettison it when challenged. To be honest, though, I may go a round or two defending my memory. “Okay okay okay, so maybe that woman yelling at us in CVS didn’t—in fact—have a yapping dog in her purse with ribbons on its ears. But don’t you think she may as well have?” I try to defend the emotional truth of my brain’s symbolic additions. “Just grant me this: if that woman were a dog, she’d live in a purse with ribbons on her ears, right?”

Hilary Illick is an inspirational speaker, an Executive Coach, and a faculty member at the Hoffman Institute—as well as a writer and playwright.  Published in both France and the United States, Illick’s work has appeared on national television and off-Broadway.  She has won an Emmy Award for television writing and appeared on The Today Show for her autobiographical off-Broadway play on parenting — Eve-olution.  Her blog—Hilaryillick.com—offers wisdom gained from life coaching combined with personal confession.



§ 10 Responses to On Being an Unreliable Narrator

  • kapolojohannes says:

    I love your writting, it would be lovely to work on a project together 😊

    The story of the mormon boy reminds me of myself …

  • It’s often unsettling to talk to a sibling and learn a completely different interpretation of events. Or even your own child. This is one of the fun things about writing fiction – learning how to see a single event through multiple characters’ eyes. But yes, I think we’re all rather unreliable narrators.

  • Interesting–even if the title of the piece threw me off. I though we were going to be talking about narration of literature, not life. Even so, I enjoyed this. I have a terrible memory, except for food, and think it’s one of the reasons I became a fiction writer. I get into less trouble if I make it ALL up!

  • I find it fascinating how many writers I know who can summon up such childhood memories with great clarity. I wonder, do we connect more such dots in fabulist ways than other (read “normal”) people or do we just remember these events because, as children, we were already writers on training wheels?

  • This story is like home…

  • Brenda Fassie says:

    Amazing I must say

  • Yes! Having psychological mind bends to contend with exacerbates the memories. True? Maybe. Not true? Depends on who you ask.

  • This is genius. Thank you!

  • epmjd says:

    True, true, true just not real. That is my idea of the thought-emotion or feeling duality. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Ts. Eliot, “Murder in the Cathedral (I think I remember this correctly, perhaps not. Also see, e.g., Andy Clark, “Surfing Uncertainty”. This is a very difficult book by the Scottish philosopher and neuroscientist, but well worth study.

  • […] Illick writes about the blurry spaces she inhabited during her childhood, where the boundaries between fact and fiction were […]

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