“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” – Mark Twain
One of the most basic ways we deal with life and find meaning is to create stories – in the form of philosophies, fantasies and memories – that can be positive or destructive, truthful [more or less] or not so much.
Depth psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz [considered the foremost student of C. G. Jung] thinks “Fantasy is not just whimsical ego-nonsense but comes really from the depths; it constellates symbolic situations which give life a deeper meaning and a deeper realization.”
In the emotionally complex movie The Upside of Anger (2005), Joan Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a wife and mother of four daughters, living with a constant rage and sense of being a victim after her husband disappears, presumably having fled with his secretary to begin a new life in Sweden.
That “story” is supported by some fairly strong evidence, at least to Terry, and it fuels her sense of outrage (“He’s a vile, selfish pig”) and her identity as a victim.
She gains the sympathy of her neighbor, ex baseball star Denny Davies (Kevin Costner):
Terry Wolfmeyer: [of her broken heart] It’s not the kind of thing that ever heals.
Denny Davies: Yeah, it does. It heals. It just heals funny. You know, you more or less walk… with a limp.
But, as it turns out, her broken heart and rage are based on a false story – her husband actually disappeared for a totally different reason than she imagined, and not by choice.
Another form of false story is distorted or untrue memories.
In their article True Stories of False Memories [an excerpt from their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)], social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe how false memories “allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives.”
One example they cite is writer Mary Karr, who “had harbored the memory of how, as an innocent teenager, she had been abandoned by her father. That memory allowed her to feel like a heroic survivor of her father’s neglect.
“But when she sat down to write her memoirs, she faced the realization that the story could not have been true.”
Many people of course have very real histories of trauma and abuse, and may even transmute that history into great art — see the page Healing & art.
Pursuing the truth of our lives, rather than living by false stories, is what really supports our personal growth.