Storytelling 101 — part six

Stories, we humans need them for many reasons.   They make us feel better about contradictions that are otherwise impossible to reconcile.   They bolster our ideals, confirm our worst doubts, or clinch the deal on the things we already know.  They cause us to walk forward, united with brothers and sisters, millions of them, not alone in a terrifyingly cold universe.   We do not live random, meaningless lives that end in inevitable death, we are part of a larger story, connected to our ancestors, our living loved ones, our lives nurturing the lives of those who come after us.  There is great comfort in a good story.

It was a bit of a shock to hear the story today, three weeks after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, told by the dictatorial leader of Turkey, speaking to his parliament and the world beyond.   Erdogan announced unequivocally that the journalist had been the victim of premeditated murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.   He asked pointedly where the body of the murdered man is.    

Our president has been very coy about this whole affair involving our cherished Saudi allies, telling Americans that we have to wait for the Saudi investigation into the alleged murder to be complete, so that we have all the facts.    Meanwhile, he dispatched the U.S. Secretary of State, and more recently the Secretary of the Treasury, to Riyadh and CIA Director Gina Haspel to Istanbul.    

It may be an odd thing, to some of us, that the president was waiting for the alleged murderer to finish investigating whether they had committed a murder, but in the rush of ongoing chaotic events, there hasn’t been much time for most people to even consider this troubling story.   Besides, POTUS reminded us, the sacred democratic presumption of innocence was once again being discarded by people rushing to find someone they don’t like guilty until proven innocent.   Very unfair!   It’s not like the Saudi royal family is in any way comparable to the hoards of Mexican rapists surging toward our own borders.  

The president compared this lynch mob mentality of those who feel the Saudis should be accountable for their crimes (including, of course, massive war crimes against the poorest nation in the Middle East) to the people who insisted there should be a full investigation into the multiple terrible allegations against innocent choir boy Brett Kavanaugh, or at least into the most credibly detailed of them.  A mob, a violent angry mob, motivated by tribal bloodlust, satisfied with nothing but the fatal lynching of a good man, a good tribal monarchy, presumed guilty until proven innocent, in the president’s telling.

The president was not wrong to make the connection between the aftermaths of the murder of Khashoggi and the allegations against Kavanaugh.   There were credible stories in both cases to check out and investigations to be concluded.  In Kavanaugh’s case a quick investigation proved he was innocent, at least to the satisfaction of these who mattered in the 51-49 vote.   In the murder of Khashoggi, after a few weeks of thorough investigation, the Saudi story was that the chubby sixty year-old journalist and critic of the thirty-three year old Crown Prince got pugnacious and decided to take on the fifteen armed men who were tasked with merely ‘interrogating’ him.   He resisted, starting a fist fight, and was, unfortunately, well, he died during the altercation.  

Subtle, but valuable, that passive voice.   In law school we were actually instructed about the only proper situation for a lawyer to use the passive voice.   If your client’s knife, in your client’s hand, was plunged into the heart of the now dead man, you can’t deny it, exactly, but you can soften it with the passive voice.   The knife, admittedly belonging to my client, was plunged into the heart of the victim.   Sounds so much better than the active voice since it highlights not the act itself, but facts that are not in dispute, facts that appear to damn your client.   So in the belated Saudi spin on Khashoggi’s last moments alive, it’s not that he was killed, so much, as that he, unfortunately, died.  Why wait more than two weeks to admit that the journalist was dead?   We had to investigate everything very, very thoroughly.  Where is the body?   No fucking idea.

Stories rule, in every situation we can think of.  Whose story do we believe?  Which story makes more sense?   Which story moves us more?   I was practicing my writing with a new nib last night and decided to copy Lincoln’s famous 272 word Gettysburg Address.    The poor Irish immigrants who were drafted into the slaughter to reluctantly fight for the Union — and die gruesome deaths, by the thousands–  were transformed in Lincoln’s immortal rhetoric into ‘honored dead’ devoted to that cause ‘to which they gave the last full measure of their devotion’. That their sacrifice not be in vain, Lincoln said in his marvelous short speech, should be our work going forward as we pursue Liberty in the nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  

He gave that moving speech, appealing to the better angels of our nature [1], almost 155 years ago (it’ll be 155 years exactly on November 19th).   We have come very far since then in becoming a land honestly and tirelessly devoted to true liberty and equality for all.   Or we have come a few halting steps, and taken many more steps backwards.   Which is the more inspiring story?   Not much of a contest, I’d say.

It is, of course, like this in personal life too.  A man who has a long history of lying, stealing and committing fraud, a man who made death threats against his own wife and children in a moment of rage– well, your view of him will depend on which story you believe, based on your relationship to him.   He has a warm, loving side too, is a supremely sensitive reader of the moods and needs of everyone around him, he has a good heart.   He is a loving father, the death threats were a one time thing, he was very desperate!   The story becomes tricky only if you try to reconcile the two indisputable yet jarringly contradictory sides of this fellow.   For his part, the man will never admit he did anything wrong.   Either you have love in your heart or you’re a vicious asshole, is his position.    

The facts, we often think, matter.  This turns out to be a quaint belief.  The story is the only thing that matters.   Was Lincoln lying about the heroic dead who so nobly gave their lives that we might have a more just nation?   He was telling the story that needed to be told so that we did not conclude the massive number of American dead and dismembered had been merely a sickening instance of the intransigent, inhuman greed of a powerful few unleashing a river of American blood to protect their right to have complete control of their way of making a living, a way that makes most of us shudder today.

Likewise, if you put your friend in an unfair, untenable, even vicious situation, forcing him to convince you that he did not deliberately, or thoughtlessly, jeopardize your most sacred relationship, there is a way to put it that sounds infinitely better than that.  “That thing in the car” you can call it, if you confronted him in a car.  Now then, it was referred to directly.  It was a thing, like many other things.   Then you fucking overreacted and blew it up into this huge justification of why you can never fucking forgive me, you judgmental fucking piece of shit!   You’re dead!   You’re fucking dead!!!

As always, it’s all in how the story is told, my friends.


[1]  “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”    source

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