When Truth Becomes Fiction

The memories of family.

By Joey Kennedy

These frustrating days of “fake news” and “alternative facts” aren’t just coming from a president who is a clear blight on our nation. That, by the way, isn’t fake news.

These weird anti-fact, anti-truth anomalies extend even to the family level, to the very core of personal relationships.

We can blame Donald Trump for this, sure, but we must admit that the issues were there even before Trump was inflicted upon us. Many of us simply don’t want to believe the truth when it is before us, to accept the truth as it is, whether good or bad, to deal with it as best we can, and so we create our own truths which, of course, are false.

My father died in 2009 at 79 years old. The killer was pneumonia, but he had health issues for much of his later life, including a stroke that left him wheelchair-bound. He was also shot in the chest by his third wife, Martha, when they were in a drunken argument. That’s another story.

I didn’t grieve for my father after his death, because I had already grieved from losing him to alcoholism and his abandoning his family many, many years before.

His memorial service at a Baptist church in Houma, Louisiana, was an eye-opener to my two sisters and me. I’ve written about this here before, three-and-a-half years ago. His memorial service was a small gathering of a few friends and remaining relatives.

In my B-Curious column in June 2015, I wrote: “Former coworkers and friends from his apartment complex talked about a man we didn’t know, a man who was there when they needed him. They talked about a kind and generous man who was always grateful for their help and their visits. They talked about a man they could depend on to come through when it counted. My sisters and I looked at each other, questioning our ears. Afterward, people came up to us, hugging us, offering condolences for this stranger who had been in our midst. We nodded at them, hugged them back, and left the church baffled. Our father was gone, and we knew him not.”

We did not know him, or at least, we didn’t know the man he became. We talked about that memorial service at length that evening, over dinner at a local seafood restaurant.

When I was preparing to write about my father more than three years ago, I called my sisters to test our memories. My older sister warned me to be “careful” and “nice” about what I wrote.

I’ll simply write the truth, I told her. But already, the truth was bothering her. And when I last visited her more than two years ago, she had already created an alternate memory of our father.

As I’m sure is true in many families, my sister and her fourth husband watch Fox News almost constantly. Or, at least they do when I visit. (In an alternative reality, I imagine them watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC when I’m not there, and just pulling that Fox thing on me as a joke.)

But I know that not to be true. My sister and her husband are fully converted, to such an extent that the last time I visited, I left in the middle of the night just to get away. Our Christmas greeting this past December went unanswered.

Then my younger sister and her youngest daughter broke contact with me last fall because I pointed out, absolutely factually and without judgment, that every direct member of my family had been divorced at least once.

I shouldn’t write about my family, I was told. But that’s what I do, and they’ve known that my entire adult life.

My wife, Veronica, and I celebrate our 39th anniversary this month. We’re the outliers in my family, but my younger sister and niece couldn’t handle that simple truth.

I’m curious: What is it about truth that scares so many?

There are ugly truths in my past: I smoked too much dope when I first started college in the mid-1970s, and my transcripts reflect that. It took me 14 years to finally earn a bachelor’s degree; that “F” in biology after six tries is still on my transcript.

I write nonfiction. Often, I write personal essays that involve my history, which is also my family’s history. My master’s thesis is a memoir about my relationship with my father. Both of my sisters read drafts of that memoir and, where possible, verified the memories. There was no pushback. They knew what I was doing.

But now, 17 years after that graduate thesis was affirmed, their memories have altered. They don’t want to know or to face the truths about our broken family. I suppose they want to imagine we were raised by wonderful parents who hugged all the time, who never fought, who never drank, who never hurt—themselves or us.

I don’t know.

But I do believe the unstable landscape the Trump era is leaving has a lasting impact.

We do not simply have to worry about the absurdity of “alternative facts,” but about the damage and pain of nonsensical “alternative memories” as well.

One Response to “When Truth Becomes Fiction”

  1. Rian Alexander says:

    Joey, I think this is what happens in all families. Always has, always will. I read somewhere in the past, that it’s an involuntary process in our brains, a protective one, to keep us relatively sane.
    It has become the fashion, for lack of a better word, to make a statement, to the effect that the family we meet and become part of in our adult lives, is sometimes more valid and loving than the one we are born into.
    I believe in both. Most of us need the love, stability and understanding of one or the other or both.
    And our handy brains, sugar coat the past to make trusting the future possible.

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