“People Kill Themselves Over False Memories”

William Todd Schultz, who wrote a psychobiography of Truman Capote, muses on the difficulty in discerning facts from our experience and remembrance of them – and the near impossibility of knowing the "real" truth of another human being's life:

Take, for instance, Capote’s very first memory, the sort of thing psychobiographers routinely single out and seize on. He says he was locked in a hotel room at age two, left alone by his parents as they cavorted about town. The effect was emotional devastation. The episode crystallized a lifelong pattern of abandonment followed by rejection sensitivity. Or did it? The trouble is, every time Capote told this tale — and he did so incessantly — he altered it. Sometimes he was older than two.  Sometimes it was his mother who locked him in, not both parents. The location even changed. The question then becomes: Did the incident occur at all? And more to the point, does it matter?

My answer to the first question is: who knows? My answer to the second: no, it doesn’t.

Now, this might seem cavalier. Aren’t psychobiographers supposed to care about the facts? Yes, facts are crucial. Facts are the instruments of revelation. I love facts. But the reality is, remembered life is itself fiction, a constantly evolving construction. That being so, the raw material one works with is best approached as a "faction" — a composite of artful narrative and quantifiable life-history. And given the unreliability of memory, especially in someone like Capote, who saw his past as perfectible, all one can do is dive into the messy blurriness.

His striking conclusion:

In some ways the lie is more important than the truth. The lie is fantasy, and fantasy is creative product, yet another work of art to dissect and interpret. People kill themselves over false memories. That fact alone makes it clear that false is anything but. It’s a question of the value of the memory, not its accuracy.