Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

2 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators”

  1. …the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

    Some theories of psychology suggest it’s more likely to be the other way around: that every time we remember something, it becomes slightly less objectively “true” and slightly more a fiction based on how we feel about it; so, the you that diaried shortly after the event is potentially more reliable as a source of “fact” than the you that has had many years of unconscious revisions to their memories.

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    1. I think I must’ve misphrased things a bit given your response. No doubt that the original diary entries were more accurate in their statement of what happened compared to my current memory of those same events.

      But reading those entries and my at-that-time interpretation of events I can see now, with twenty-five years of additional life experience, that my interpretations weren’t always the right ones. Or that I just missed things.

      In essence, I was very self-centered and naive back then and filtered events through that lens. For example, reading those entries now I can see how at least two times that year I probably went out to dinner with someone who thought it was a date and I was completely oblivious to that fact. I can see that now given what I wrote then but it never occurred to back-then me that that’s what was going on.

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