Truthiness

Listening to the This American Life RETRACTION show, because that’s what I do when I’m painting fairly jolly narrative pictures. It’s all about balance.

Thinking a lot about fact and fiction (not fact vs. fiction — an important distinction I think).

It’s something I meant to look into more carefully at the time that I first heard this story, but I haven’t yet. It’s something my brain lazily plays with every day as I move through the world and do my work.

One of the biggest advantages of illustration, I think, is that you can explore all the things that a person cannot photograph (or photograph beautifully). This includes concrete things (like internal organs or microbes interacting with enzymes) and non-concrete things (like feelings and impulses and what a song might taste like.)

I am very drawn to reportage — it’s what happens when you grow up blogging, I think — and most of what I’ve been doing this week is pulling together my emails and notes from my trip to LA so I can tell you all about them. I don’t know that I’m going to give you the complete day-by-day rundown, but I saw some great things, and the reason I saw those things is a great story on its own, so I am trying to frame the story around that. Because when I present what I saw to strangers, that’s what it becomes: a story.

As I do this I am also making some quickies to go with the story. Many of those things are simply drawing the things that wouldn’t photographs well. Concrete things. The patio I enjoyed so much at my AirBnB. The big aquarium at Union Station.

Within that, of course, there are many tweaks in the “reality” fabric, which is why they’ll work better as illustrations, for my purposes. Angles that are impossible in real life without special equipment, that can bring in important elements like the spanish style red tile roof.

The other reason I am compelled to share my trip is how neatly it seemed to fall into place. There are things that happened on my trip which worked out so well that it seem seemed, frankly, paranormal. These things did happen, though at times they will seem like I am doctoring them up for spice.

One thing in particular — a circle of transit hell I was plunged into for several hours one late late night — will not have unblinking absolute accuracy because I was a little drunk and when you’re exhausted in a strange city it’s really hard to keep North and South straight. The trains were allegedly arriving on incorrect tracks, heading in wrong directions, and I wasn’t fact checking the trains for the first hour that I waited. But the gist is real. It’s a story that I will tell, here, because as a story it will work out just fine. However, if I were to draft a terse letter to LA Transit — which I am still considering — I’d want my facts clearer before I began pointing fingers.

He said / she said is not really something the illustrator usually needs to struggle with, it would seem. Who really cares if it was the red or the purple line I was waiting for?

But integrity and truthfulness and trustworthiness suddenly matter a great deal when an INCIDENT occurs. A man is beaten by police, and eye witness manages to catch it on videotape. Who do we believe more? The uniformed officers who all back up one another’s story that the INCIDENT did not occur? Or the anonymous guy who might look borderline — and who does not manage win the hearts and minds of the white jury — but who nevertheless was able to capture video footage of the INCIDENT occurring.

Which story is true?

That story was told to us, a smallish audience on May 2nd — the second official day of Manifest:Justice — in a dreamy remix-y monologue brilliantly by Roger Guenveur Smith, who for three years has been performing a one man show about Rodney King.

(This is an excerpt from a different performance of the same show, just to give you a taste. More about this piece here.)

He tells the story in a different way every time — it has footholds, but is essentially improv — and so there was never a bracket around his performance that claimed to be true, or false. The actual beat-by-beat story of what really happened has maybe never seen the light of day, because of who got to tell it in the end. It was like looking through murky water, a negative-space drawing of an INCIDENT, rather than a photograph or even a clear line drawing.

In this performance the performer never said: this happened, then this, then this.

But the story unfolded, crafted carefully, speaking as an outsider ABOUT Rodney King but never AS Rodney King. The feelings we were left with were raw, intense, sad, as though we had just lived a story rather than seen it second hand. There was no distance between us and what might have happened. It was powerful, and a woman who lived in the neighborhood — that is to say, who very probably lived this story — stood up and said to him: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Whereas, Mike Daisey puts together a show, writing as one might write an essay, and performs it as though it were fact. Tight line drawings and focused (albeit carefully cropped) photographs. And we also feel something, but because it is in first person, because he says I saw this, then this, then this — we feel betrayed when we find out it was crafted carefully to twist our emotions a certain way.

Documentary does this — particularly political documentaries that have an agenda.

Radiolab faced this with a story I still cannot listen to because of how upset the interviewee became, and how upset it all made me. In that case, all I could think was: who cares what is true. It does not give you the right to be so cold to this woman, and to her family, and to the generations of people who have lived under the shadow of this. Your “reporting” has turned you into monsters. Human decency in this case urges you to back down. (More about the fallout from this here and here.)

I recently read “How It Went Down” by Kekla Magoon, a good one for this troubled time, and does a nice job of presenting the problem with truths and witnesses and the clash of culture that seems to rise up when we start to try and get the story straight. What time I caught my Uber to the bookstore is not that important. Whether the boy was holding a candy bar or a gun might not be that important, since it doesn’t change the fact that the boy is dead. Particularly if you know that boy and that boy looks like your own boy at home, or the boys you see playing outside your home. But to the people who don’t look like that boy, what he was carrying seems to matter a great deal, because it changes how we feel about him, and whether or not we deem his life was worth justice. (And THAT ugly truth is one that is very hard to look at indeed.)

Whether we convict the man who shot him is something I think is very important. And the people who decide that are handed not a straight yarn, but rather a big box of tangled strings that represents each witness’s version of the story. It seems truth becomes very, very important in this case. But whose truth? Which one?

All these things rattle in my brain when I pull together stories.

I have no answers to these things, but they bubble up and I think about them a lot as I work out what to mention, when to mention, what to paint and what to skip.

I will leave you with one last thing. It was something I first heard on another This American Life episode, Studs Terkel pointing out something very nuanced about oral histories. I will copy from the transcript here but I also encourage you to listen to the segment, as it is well put together and the moment I am referencing here is not long into the piece.

“…Are they telling the truth, these oral historians? The question is as academic as the day Pontius Pilate asked it, his philosophy not quite washing out his guilt.

It’s the question Pa Joad asked of Preacher Casy, when the ragged man, in a tranchant camp poured out his California agony in the novel Grapes of Wrath. Pa said, “Suppose he’s telling the truth, that fellow?” The preacher answered, “He’s telling the truth, all right. The truth for him. He wasn’t making nothing up.” “How about us?” Tom Joad demanded. “Is that the truth for us?” “I don’t know,” said Casy. I suspect the preacher spoke for those whose voices you hear, in their rememberings are their truths. The precise fact, or the precise date, is of small consequence. It’s simply an attempt to get the story of a holocaust, known as the Great Depression, from an improvised battalion of survivors.”