How to avoid misrepresenting the past

How do we avoid or minimize the risk of  misrepresenting the past as we tell our own and family stories? What exactly is our burden of due diligence when it comes to determining the accuracy of our narratives?

This isn’t my normal soap box about truth versus accuracy. Or at least not entirely.

The truth of our experience often comes down to our unique memory of it. Our memory is our truth whether or not a sibling thinks it was a Pepsi and not a Coke. We’re not talking about that type of accuracy.

Can we avoid misrepresenting the past?

Depending on whether you’re a historian, memoirist, or family historian, your answer will vary. But regardless, to say something of measure about a person or event of the past, in my opinion, means taking on some risk of misrepresentation.

Accuracy is terrific, but it doesn’t always speak to the story behind the facts. What’s the old joke? “She or he is like an accounting statement. Perfectly accurate, but says nothing.” (Apologies to my accountant friends!)

Of course you don’t want to perpetuate total untruths, but if you stick with only the provable facts, you’ll have a lot of dates, footnotes, and sources. Your ability to touch other lives with a narrative of what happened will be limited.

The trick is to minimize the risk of misrepresenting the past.

Misrepresenting the past and preventing myths

How do keep those myths at bay? How do you avoid misrepresenting the past?

Due Diligence aka Common Sense

Memory is a very fallible faculty. But a lot of times, it’s all we’ve got.

Common sense can help us out. No one can verify whether or not my sister played pranks on me in the backseat of the car during our seemingly interminable childhood car rides to Virginia. (Note: She’ll confess, but let’s pretend that’s not the case.) Besides the fact that I’m pretty confident of my memory of this point, saying that a 7-year-old would tease a 5-year-old sibling isn’t going too far out on a limb.

For family stories, we also often have multiple sources that can verify the broad facts. Cite them. In addition to lending accuracy, it’s fun for future readers to see who in the family contributed what.

Do No Harm.

When you’re repeating family stories–especially ones that don’t present someone in a favorable light, the burden of research falls in your court. Is there any supporting evidence for the veracity of the story? Is there another side of the story? Is it a story that needs to be told? (See “What about the Ugly?” in Memories of Me.)

Understand the Common Myths around the Time Period You’re Writing About.

A little research into the traditions versus facts of the setting of your story can prevent you from misrepresenting the past. For instance, most of us have heard the “fact” of Ellis Island personnel changing immigrants’ names at will. Most of us (I hope) have also heard that “fact” vehemently disputed by genealogists. (See Smithsonian Magazine’s Ellis Island isn’t to Blame for your Family’s Name Change.)

If you’re aware of a controversy, you can avoid the misrepresentation pitfall. You can research the ship manifests and determine when the name changed, or simply state that it was changed without assuming it happened at Ellis Island.

Don’t Revise History

History is always seen through filters, so to write completely free of revisionist tendencies might be nigh to impossible. (See Writing through Glasses: How Personality Filters Stories) One way to avoid misrepresenting the past is to be aware of your own motivations.

No one really wants to portray colonist ancestors (or our grandpas, if we’re honest) as part and parcel of slavery or bigotry, but chances are, they were products of their time. It’s one thing to gloss over “ugly” periods of a person’s life. It’s another thing to completely deny the facts.

Your Turn:

How to Avoid misrepresenting the past What do you do to avoid misrepresenting the past as you write your stories? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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