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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Texture of Memory Is Corduroy

[Jackrabbit is nearing the home stretch on her field exam!  In the meantime, here's part two of that conversation regarding cognitive literary studies and The Laramie  Project.  If I have any brains left after the exam, I'll rejoin you shortly.]  

So, in my last post I shared a personal anecdote that created a little doubt about Jed Schultz's version of events regarding his parents' ambivalence to his acting career in The Laramie Project.  He claims that his duet from Angels in America was the first time his parents hadn't come to support him, but my friend "Andie" can remember lots of times that they didn't come to events because of scheduling conflicts.  So, whom do I believe?  Now that we're almost ten years down the road...  I believe them both.  Perhaps I don't believe that they both represent objective reality.  But I do believe that both versions have story truth, and without any way to determine the objective facts, that's what I have to settle for.

Here's what I mean: I thoroughly believe that this moment was the first time Jed felt disappointment in his parents; it's also the first time he had to break away from their authority and suffer the consequences.  I believe that his dismay and disappointment is real.  And, as for "Andie?"  I believe that her memory accurately represents her childhood recollections of paling around at school and church together with Jed because both of them had extremely busy parents.  Now that the objective truth can't be discovered, I have to settle for story truth.   He remembers the disappointment.  She remembers the strength of their childhood relationship in the face of parents who couldn't always be there.

So, story truth isn't the same as objective truth, but it has value nonetheless.   It's not a distinction we're normally willing to make, but it's an important one for understanding how we should approach the truth of The Laramie Project.  If we treat this play as only forensic, verifiable fact, two things will happen.  One is that people will discover that a lot of it's not "true"  and want to reject what it has to tell us.  The other is that they won't understand the depth and complexity that this play has to offer.  We have to understand that the texture of memory is uneven and full of gaps, layers and crevices.  We have to feel the textures of memory more like it's corduroy than silk.

For instance, when the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission were charged with defining the terms  under which they would operate, they ultimately defined "truth" in four different ways.  Let's deal with just two of those right now:

  1. Factual or "forensic" truth: "The familiar legal or scientific notion of bringing to light factual, corroborated evidence, of obtaining accurate information through reliable (impartial, objective) procedures, featured prominently in the Commission’s findings process."  (111-112)
  2. Personal, or "narrative" truth:  in the Commission's words, the TRC "sought to contribute to the process of reconciliation by ensuring that the truth about the past included the validation of the individual subjective experiences of people who had previously been silenced or voiceless. The Commission sought, too, to capture the widest possible record of people’s perceptions, stories, myths and experiences."  (1:112-113) 

What the TRC recognized when they sought to create a comprehensive memory of Apartheid was that the word "Truth" had too many legitimate meanings to be just one thing, so they looked at different "facets" of what the truth contained to get a better idea of the whole.  So they realize that the truth has different objectives, values and social utility depending on how they approach it.  But what they may or may not realize (and this is unclear from what I've read of the TRC report) is that those different facets of truth might contradict one another.  (You get some idea of this in Wynand Malan's minority position, but it gets shot down by the rest of the committee.  Antjie Krog, however, explores this problem in her book Country of My Skull with a lot of complexity.)  Those textures of memory we talked about earlier-- those that lead to factual truth and story truth-- creates a rough pattern that doesn't merge in with the whole.  In this case, the texture (truth) of memory is rough and uneven.  Its cords don't mesh together to make one clean, even fabric of truth.  It's truth with a knap. 

So, aside from Jed and "Andie's" personal recollections, are there any other places in The Laramie Project where we can see that "narrative" truth, the one that includes "individual, subjective experiences" doesn't agree with the forensic truth?  You bet.  Here's a list of a few other places where you can see storytelling clashing with objective truth in The Laramie Project:
  • You remember Doc talking about that limousine ride down to Fort Collins?  Turns out there was another passenger in that car that night-- Tina LaBrie.  According to the early reports, she and Matt were friends, and she tagged along down to Fort Collins so they could chat while Matt visited that gay bar.  You'd never know it listening to Doc, however.  Was Doc the cheerful listener of the eavesdropper on that trip?  
  • Oh, and another thing:  Doc also claimed in news interviews to be extremely well acquainted with both McKinney and Kristen Price.  Yet, you don't get any real sense of that listening to his story in TLP, do you?  Instead we hear all about his relationship (such as it was) with Matt. 
  • As I've pointed out before, Stephen Mead Johnson's recollection of going out to see the fence makes it sound like Matt was left in the middle of nowhere, but that characterization ignores the fact that Matt was left on a road next to a house under construction.  That fence marked the property line.  It's a big property, granted...
  • Although it's a pretty clear example of slander, we should also consider Sherry Johnson's portrayal of Matthew Shepard in the play which she had created from scraps of forensic truth about Matt: she believes he's a lush, a flaming, flaunting homosexual, a spreader of HIV. 
And there are a few other things that, while not captured in the text, the forensic truth gets masked by the story truth:
  • In the original Tectonic Theater performance that I watched, the meeting between Amanda Gronich and The Baptist Minister was staged as a face-to-face meeting.  Yet, the text makes it pretty clear it was a phone conversation. Why is this important?  Because in the performance, Gronich offers her hand to The Baptist Minister and he refuses to shake it.  She wanted to make it clear that The Baptist Minister was rejecting her, so they staged the meeting as far more personal, and his rejection as much more physical.  
  • As Stephen Wangh has pointed out in one of his articles, Kaufman directed the actor playing Dennis Shepard in the film to break down a little as he was reading his statement.  Wangh points out that this did not factually take place, as far as any of the other actors he talked to could remember of the proceedings.  As Wangh makes clear, Kaufman wanted to make this a turning point, where the Shepards say goodbye to their son, an important part of the forgiveness process.    Yet, if you read that statement...  how much forgiveness do you read in it? I just don't see it, especially at the line "I will never forgive you for that."   
  • Amy Tigner makes an interesting point about Aaron Kriefels in her article on American pastoral and The Laramie Project: in the course of their interview with the boy on the bike, he made some homophobic statements that don't make it into the actual text of the play.   When asked about this, actress Mercedes Herrero said that they didn't want to make him sound "out of line" (qtd. in Tigner 145). Tigner takes that phrase "out of line" to mean "out of character." 
  • In the second act of The Laramie Project, Katherine Connolly expresses her horror at the reading of the charges at McKinney and Henderson's arraignment, claiming that the last thing said was the line, "Said defendants left the victim begging for his life." Actually, when you read through the criminal complaint against all four of the defendants, that statement is actually closer to the middle, which makes sense; in the timeline of events, the theft of his belongings and intent to burglarize his apartment were their final criminal activities. 
If we take each of these details and consider them only from the perspective of forensic truth, you get the impression that The Laramie Project is potentially riddled with half-truths, personal bias, and bad memories.  And if you only look at forensic truth, you'd probably be right.  But most of these other moments hide an interesting kernel of narrative truth behind them, if we just take the time to "validat[e]... the individual subjective experiences of people" within the play.  Those stories, and not necessarily forensic truth, are the driving force of the play. 

To take the most biased example, let's look Sherry Johnson.  When we talk about credible versus non-credible witnesses in The Laramie Project in my class, Sherry's view on Matthew Shepard's character always comes up:

Now, I didn't know him, but...  there's just so many things about him that I found out that I just, it's scary.  Know know about his character and spreading AIDS and a few other things, you know, being the kind of person he was.  He was, he was just a barfly, you know.  And I think he pushed himself around.  I think he flaunted it.

Everybody's got problems.  But why they exemplified him I don't know.  What's the difference if you're gay?  A hate crime is a hate crime.  If you murder somebody you hate 'em.  It has nothing to do with if you're gay or a prostitute or whatever.

I don't understand.  I don't understand.  (64-65) 

When I ask my students whether or not they think Johnson is a reliable witness, I always get a resounding "no."  My students point out things like, "Come on, Jackrabbit.  She didn't even know him, and look what she's saying about this guy.  She's spewing gossip."  Or, "How can I believe somebody who says something as awful as that?"
"Okay, that's fair," I tell them, "I think she has the factual truth about Matt Shepard wrong, too.  But do you think she's at least sincere?"  
"Well... yeah.  I think she's totally being honest," a student once said.  "I mean, she has to know how this sounds to these theater guys, right?  This sounds horrible, but she says it anyway." 
"So, you think Sherry Johnson is incorrect," I observe, "but you think she's sincere.  What's the difference here between those two ideas?" 
We usually get into some interesting conversations at this point.  If you look at Sherry Johnson's story carefully, you can see a clear case of what Schachter might call "the sin of bias."  Her story is based on at least some factual, forensic truth:  Matt was openly gay.  He was HIV positive.  He was in a bar the night he was beaten.  And he did in fact leave the bar with two other men.  But Sherry has no other way to put this information into a sensible narrative other than to take the worst connotation of everything.  To be openly gay is to "flaunt it."  To be HIV positive means you must be "spreading AIDS."  To be both of those things and in a bar at the same time makes that person a "barfly."  We can see how her story truth-- a narrative that can assume no good of an openly gay man-- obscures the forensic truth of Matt Shepard.

Sherry Johnson is someone whose voice isn't normally taken seriously.  And at the same time, we shouldn't discount her narrative truth.  If you put her distasteful opinions about Shepard to the side, you see a real person sincerely trying to make sense of something that doesn't fit her view of the world.  She's trying to understand why some stories of tragedy get remembered and why some, those that have wounded her personally, are so easily forgotten by everyone else.  She's struggling with the notion that all people are morally responsible beings and that should account for who's remembered and who's not, but that notion doesn't seem to be true anymore.  She can't make her traditional views of a just world fit around the Shepard case, and she doesn't understand why.

And, if you look at the wider context of the play, a lot of people were asking this same question-- not about the state trooper so much as about the Kristin Lamb case.   An 8 year-old girl was murdered about a month before Matt Shepard and her body was found in a landfill outside of town.  After the Shepard story broke, a lot of people had the same reaction as Johnson-- "wait a minute, why is he on the national news when Lamb was a clear innocent?"   (If you do a search for Lamb's name, it almost always appears next to Shepard's in anti-hate crime law press releases and right-wing organizations.) If we look at Johnson's narrative truth, we can see a major question  that was on the town's mind, one that the play does well not to try and answer too hastily, for the answer (I think) has more to do with the nature of narrative and collective memory than it does justice in a moral universe.

Say what you want about Sherry Johnson's plight.  But if we focus on her narrative truth as having value, then Sherry becomes more than just one distasteful opinion among many.  We see a woman confronted with the hard facts of memory and tragedy, and she's at a loss to make Matt's murder, and its aftermath, fit into her once coherent view of the world.  If we look at her from the perspective of her narrative truth, Sherry Johnson becomes a sympathetic figure.  And she becomes, in a weird sort of way, a success story.  The fact of Matt's murder has torn her careful view of the world apart, and she has to confront the possibility that she doesn't have everything figured out.  I just wish I knew whether that confusion and frustration led to positive growth or not.  I'd like to assume the best of her.  But knowing the depth to which these notions are often ingrained makes me think otherwise. 

You can do this with most of the other discrepancies in TLP if you want.  Catherine Connolly's belief that the reading of the criminal complaint against the murderers ended with Matt begging for his life has nothing to do with proper order of sentences.  It's about horror.  Those words resonate with the horror you feel when you hear the criminal complaint, and they're repeated twice.   And Gronich's decision to stage a face-to-face meeting with The Baptist Minister is the only way for her to physically demonstrate the degree of rejection she felt from his words.  It's a little unfair to TBM because it isn't forensic truth-- but it is accurate to Gronich's first-hand experience.  We have no choice but to see this "moment" from Gronich's eyes.  As for Connor?  To be honest, my students always focus on him as a witness of "questionable reliability," and I have to agree.  But it's also hard to tell whether those omissions were on his part or Tectonic Theater's.  (He does do the same thing in a Newsweek interview, however.)  Depending on who crafts that story, what kind of narrative truth can we find from Doc's story? I'll let you know when I figure that out. 

So, when it comes to the textures of individual memory in The Laramie Project, you can't just pick out the uneven, snarled threads as distracting or unimportant.  To do so is to destroy the fabric of the garment.  We have to have a clear understanding of how all these threads play a part-- how all of them matter-- and how they may occasionally snag on one another. 


1)  "Subway Style Mind Map," from sbpoet's Flickr Photostream.

2) "Corduroy and Blue," taken from pacbat's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3)  "Corduroy Waves, by Javier Velazquez-Muriel, via Flickr.  


Miller, Mark.  "The Final Days and Nights of a Gay Martyr."  Newsweek 21 Dec. 1998.  Web. 

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission South Africa Report, vol. 1.  1998.  Available online at  

Thernstrom, Melanie.  "The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard."  Vanity Fair, March 1999.   A non-authoritative edition available here.  

Tigner, Amy L. "The Laramie Project: Western Pastoral." Modern Drama 45.1 (2002): 138-186.

 Wangh, Stephen."Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming." Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.1 (2005): 1-16.

The State of Wyoming V. Aaron McKinney, criminal complaint.  Digital version viewable here. 

A short note:  

Okay, so why did I pick corduroy?  Somebody asks.  I'm almost ashamed to admit this...
When I was a kid in Montana, we studied Helen Keller so many times from second to seventh grade that we couldn't stand it.  Somebody in our school system loved that story so much that The Miracle Worker was part of the curriculum practically every year.  Because we were terrible, hateful (that is, normal) little children and we we bored to tears of the story, we especially liked to tell a lot of mean "Helen Keller" jokes making fun of deaf-mutes.  They're all pretty atrocious, but there's one that I still secretly love: 
Q:  What is Helen Keller's favorite color?
A: Corduroy. 
I am so sorry.  I normally hate Helen Keller jokes, but the synaesthetic trick that this joke relies on has always thrilled me.  So, when I started thinking about titles for "colored" memories for these posts, the first "color" that came to mind was corduroy.  And when it comes to studying memory, our normal instincts and ways of "seeing" the world can be pretty misleading, so maybe the analogy is a good one.  Perhaps the colored perspectives we should be looking for when we study memory are, in reality, textures.  I have thereby commandeered this horrible joke from the forces of evil for the purpose of good. 

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