I finally saw North Country the other night. The film starts with an announcement that it is based on a true story. That set me thinking about the ethics of telling the truth – which today seems more complicated than I had previously supposed.
There are three kinds of stories: true, fictive, and a combination of the two. But already I’ve oversimplified the matter, for every “true” story is only partly true. It selectively represents the author’s point of view. Other persons who are depicted would usually give different accounts. Every storyteller is biased, some more than others. And, no matter how biased, stories may profoundly affect the fate of others. For example, the testimony of a witness under oath may send another person to prison for a lifetime.
And on the other hand, fiction is always based to some extent on reality. Every storyteller draws upon life in creating a character or a plot. So actually, instead of three kinds of story, there is only one: those that are a combination of truth and fiction. Some, such as North Country, are actually labeled: “based on a true story.” But the audience will not know which of its elements are true and which are not, so problems arise involving a tension between ethics and good manners.
Gratuitous truth telling is sometimes brave and sometimes vulgar. Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for deciding which disclosures are appropriate and which are not. Like the legendary judge who supposedly said, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it,” I have to trust my own sensibilities regarding the proper amount of frankness for each occasion. There are people on TV (e.g. on Jerry Springer’s show) who tell the whole world sordid facts about their own lives when they need not do so. Surely, such truths, blabbed recklessly, soil the reputations of the speaker and those whom he “outs” against their wishes.
On the other hand, if summoned to a court of law, the witness must answer questions fully, even when there will be serious consequences. Even in such instances, however, witnesses occasionally refuse to answer, on the basis of some notion of propriety. (For example, if I had been President Clinton, I would have refused to answer questions about my sexual activities, on the grounds that the woman in question had accused me of nothing and hence deserved my discreet silence.)
North Country, on the other hand, includes a dramatic confrontation in court between a woman and the man who raped and impregnated her. The lawyer who called on everyone present to “stand up and tell the truth” was announcing the moral of the story. Without doubt, this was a redemptive call to a community of miners who had allowed brutality to continue by simply failing to behave with integrity. On this occasion, truth was the only honorable response. That scene gave me gooseflesh: the exultant thrill of witnessing truth spoken to power.
But there are other occasions when it seems unfair to tell facts that hurt another person or her reputation. For example, after one of the participants is dead or incapacitated, he cannot refute intimate secrets disclosed in print or onscreen. If a writer is to tell the story at all, he may label it as fiction or as “based on a true story,” with various details such as names changed to retain a little privacy.
Is that the best solution? Usually. But there are possible exceptions. For example, some monstrous individuals fully deserve to have their reputations ruined. For example, a new book about Mao does a great service by revealing that he was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 70 million persons. We thank Jung Chang for revealing those terrible truths.
Writers may have to take account of several considerations when deciding whether to label a story as fiction or non-fiction. On the one hand, they may feel that they are unfairly capitalizing on the problems of another, less powerful, person. John Bayley, for example, increased his fame by writing a non-fiction book revealing intimate aspects of his marriage with Iris Murdoch, who died of Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, Michael Ignatieff offended relatives by writing a fictionalized account of his mother’s Alzheimer’s, a disclosure that they considered inherently disrespectful.
On the other hand, facts sometimes need to be known publicly, as a kind of evidence about a wider social problem. For example, I am familiar with an accurate, but fictionalized, account of a deceased pedophile. The author decided against labeling it as true to protect the feelings of surviving family members. However, had the novel been identified as true, it would have become objective evidence about the characteristics of sex offenders. The publicity would also have boosted sales of the book: a factor that may have weighed against it in the author’s mind.
In short, one can decide against telling the whole truth from quite different motivations: either from civility and consideration or from cowardice. In North Country, if not in every existential situation, it was clear what the true motives were. Redemption came only to those who finally decided to “stand up and tell the truth!”