To Tell the Truth

The way a narrative unfolds can offer insight beyond its facts

Rue Oberkampf: There is something deeply uncomfortable about assuming nothing
(Photo by Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko via Flickr)

DURING THE SUMMER of 2006, when I was 22, I flew to Paris. I knew virtually no one, and I spent the first week or two walking the city, buying bread in halting French, reading and smoking cigarettes I rolled myself to save money and pass time.

One evening I went to dinner at the flat of a family friend, an American journalist who had for years lived abroad, working for Reuters in Moscow in the 1980s, and later for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. It was a warm night and we ate on the balcony. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I can still see her measure tablespoons of oil and vinegar into a wooden salad bowl, and taste the frisée she tossed and served at the end of the meal. I went home carrying a slim book from the shelves that lined one wall of the apartment – Paul Auster’s “The Invention of Solitude” – which I read with my feet propped on the edge of the tall casement windows in the tiny room I rented on Rue Oberkampf, just off the Parmentier stop in the 11th Arrondissement.

Auster is an observer of coincidence. His fiction borrows heavily from fact, building stories from his collection of examples of real-world strangeness. He tells of one in “The Invention of Solitude” – a summer in which he encountered two pianos, miles apart, somehow missing the same key. “It was at that moment, perhaps, that A. realized the world would go on eluding him forever.”

All of this is true. I was in Paris. I ate that salad. I read that book in that window of the room with two hot plates and a bathroom with a shower so small one had to climb in sideways. But I begin here not only because it is true, but because the details – that a journalist gave me that book that I would later think of as I tried to become a journalist myself – offer a place to begin.

What does it mean to tell true stories? Get your facts right. Don’t lie. But it goes further. To try to tell the truth, rather than to just tell the truth, is to operate on the belief that the way a narrative unravels can offer insight beyond the who, what, when and where.

I thought about that as I wrote “Unfair Fate” for this magazine, the story of Diana Newton Wood, Daryl Whitley and the murder case that engulfed both of their lives. I was in graduate school when I began investigating the case. I had not been reporting for very long, and this story had its difficulties. The catalyzing event had occurred nearly 30 years prior – before, in fact, I was born. One of the key characters – Detective Jerry Giorgio – told me in our single, brief conversation that he would not talk to me again.

Exploring coincidence
(Photo by Ines Bebea)

My first effort at a narrative was a series of illustrative missteps interrupted by occasional successes. I ferreted out every article written about the story over 28 years. I read transcripts of the trial. I went down to the clerk’s office at 100 Center Street and shoved quarter after quarter into the rickety Xerox machine to copy the case file. I read every article, and book, that mentioned Jerry Giorgio, and bought the “Law and Order” movie on so I could watch his TV-cop cameo. I went to speak with Daryl Whitley in prison, and Diana Newton Wood and her son at her home in Massachusetts. It was a process of piecing together conflicting facts and faulty memories, filling some holes and finding that others must necessarily be left empty.

To be a working reporter is to have the privilege to wonder at the world for pay. But with that comes responsibility – to avoid making too much of things, to walk the line between being brave enough to ask the hard questions, and acknowledging that some won’t have answers.

I cringe when I think of questions that I did not ask, or asked in the wrong way, at the wrong time and place. But I came away with a sense that true stories, well told, may pose questions as well as answer them. One can begin with a question of what happened that night in November 1981, and end by asking what exactly does justice mean?

Maybe when it comes to true stories, the dangling threads are the point.

“If a novelist had used these little incidents of broken piano keys,” Auster writes, “the reader would be forced to take note, to assume the novelist was trying to make some point about his characters in the world. … In a work of fiction, one assumes there is a conscious mind behind the words on the page. In the presence of happenings in the so-called real world, one assumes nothing.”

There is something deeply uncomfortable about assuming nothing. It requires one to ask stupid questions, to keep one’s mouth shut, to take copious notes on facial tics and the color of wallpaper. To be a reader of happenings, which is, in essence, a journalist’s work, is to be tasked with making something of the little incidents. It is also always to risk making too much of them, to misread the ultimate meaning. One of the reasons true stories do not work the same way as novels is that they have no fixed beginning, middle or end.

So we look for the moments in which the real world reflects itself not to say, Here is the key, but because part of the reason to tell true stories is precisely to remind ourselves that the world will go on eluding us forever.

This past Thanksgiving, a draft into this essay and six years after I returned from Paris, I was in a bar on New York City’s Lower East Side. A group of friends from journalism school had gathered. Friends of ours, now living abroad, were back for the holidays. One woman is now living in Paris, working for a TV station there. We sat at wooden tables in the dark bar, and she told me she had the week before moved to a new apartment, one big enough to have people stay, and that I should visit. I asked her where it was.

Off the Parmentier stop, she said, on Rue Oberkampf.■


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