“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien was the first person to make me consider that a reshaped version of the truth could be more important to tell than the “factual truth.” Art almost always reflects this concept — think of The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Although these pieces are both works of historical fiction, they elicit emotional intensity that is appropriate to the severity of the subject at hand. They are certainly important, influential versions of the truth which shape people’s perceptions of the Holocaust and the broader world in which we live. But they are not non-fiction. They are not the “factual truth.”
Tim O’Brien alters the “factual truth” a bit differently by crafting a fictional self and fictional narrative to communicate real events in an emotionally poignant display. This slightly-altered retelling of “the truth” is much more effective than simply stating the facts and emotions of what actually happened, even if it isn’t completely “honest.” But—could this new narrative be more honest?
If the goal of communication is to persuade, why does the “factual truth” matter so long as the recipient reaches the right conclusion? People are influenced by emotion over facts and logic. (Ironically enough, that’s a fact. There have been studies on this.) So if an altered version of the truth solicits stronger, more accurate thoughts and feelings to what the writer intends, might they be better suited than the “factual truth” of an event?
In this context, we must create a distinction between the truth and The Truth. Consider these two truths: “I have cancer” and “I am depressed.” The Truth that rules over these two truths is, “I need your support and empathy.” Now consider this scenario: a high school girl who had depression and endured long-term child abuse tells her apathetic friends, “I have cancer.” She lied, but she effectively conveyed The Truth. She needed support and empathy.
Maybe someone in such a position fears the repercussions of stigma regarding mental illness, while physical illness yields an abundance of outreach, sympathy and empathy. There are certainly some ethical considerations at play here. We must consider the emotion trauma we inflict on others by such severe deceit. Surely, this is an ethical middle ground at best.
Truth telling is considered ethical, virtuous and necessary across cultures to create functional societies—and for good reason. But truth can only exist in a closed system. If we are constantly reshaping facts to meet our pre-existing conceptions of reality, and that reality is largely perspective-based, is it outrageous to consider this? A thoughtfully-constructed mistruth sometimes is a better story than reality to convey The Truth and elicit an empathetic response.