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Stories Based On True Events: How Much Truth Do They Tell?

Updated on January 8, 2018
Rafa Baxa profile image

Rafael Baxa is a budding writer who likes to write about psychology, social behaviour and everything weird.

One of the latest sports biopic to grace the big screen was I, Tonya, where Margot Robbie, as Tonya Harding, proclaims that "Truth is bullshit!". I am not about to write anything on the movie or the actual incident that it’s based on. The movie merely brought some questions to my mind. The biggest question being, “How much of what we read or see in a biography or an autobiography actually true?” This is not something new. It’s a question that frequently gets asked about books and movies that are based on true events. It’s a well-known fact that biography can include a lot of false information. A biography is an account of someone else’s life, and when we write something about someone else, we only write what we see in them. It’s all we can write. We can interview the person, talk to their friends and family. We can devote our entire life to learn more about them, but in the end, we have no idea how they actually lived their life.

A person’s narrative is always based on their thoughts and their experiences with the person they are writing about. It might not be intentional. We could try to force ourselves to be unbiased, but no matter how much we try to suppress it, a bit of it always remains, and this bit always shows. This becomes a problem when it comes to biographical books and movies, where we are only shown one side of the story. Can we trust such a story? This "truth" that we get to see is only one person's narration, their allegations and their truth. What do we know about their perspective? How could we trust them? One doesn’t have to be a liar or insane to tell a false story. People's narration could be skewed by their perspective and their memory.

The same question applies to autobiographies too. On one hand, we have a person who is purposely lying in his autobiography. He might add some false details to his story, or remove some to fit his needs. He can distort the entire narration to the point it can no longer be called truth. This kind of author knows the truth, but is feeding us lies on purpose. When this autobiography comes out, the unassuming people might believe everything that’s written. A few people who notice the lies might come forward with the truth, but more often than not, they lose the fight. On the other hand, we have those who tell the story to the best of their memory. No lies and no secrets. So, this autobiography should tell nothing but the truth, right? No, not really. In a perfect world, it should. But as I said before, they tell their story to “the best of their memory”. Too bad our memory is not as reliable as we might think.

It is said that each time we think of a past event, we lose a few details. Our brain notices these gaps and fills them up with our thoughts of what happened and what could have happened. Sometimes our mind just reconstructs the entire incident from scratch using the parts it finds in our memory. So, each time we remember something, we don’t actually remember the incident, we only remember our previous memory of it. The memory which was not accurate to begin with. Fact and fiction combines in our mind to give us something that is akin to the incident, but still not entirely true.

These are only some reasons why a biography might not be genuine. It could be from the point of view of a person whose own thoughts and preconceptions might influence how he perceives things that are happening around him. Or it could be written by a person who is intentionally deceiving us by adding bogus information to the story. Then comes our unreliable brain which twists our memory and adds details to it, just so it could be complete. But this isn’t all. There is one other thing that makes a biography filled with more lies than an actual fictional story. It’s money. This might sound like a cliché, but it’s true. Money plays a huge part in everything, especially in movie-making and publishing. Almost all movies based on true stories add a few elements to them that would make them fare a little better in the box office. A story about someone’s life? Better give them a love interest. A story about a person achieving great things? Better give them a painful and tragic past. The same thing happens with books. The publishers might force the authors to add details that they don’t really want to. But if they want the story to be published, they would have to comply.

In the end, what you get is less than a quarter of the real story and a whole lot of fiction. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just a huge lie with smalls contributions from everyone involved. What you hear is not necessarily what happened. What you tell someone, isn’t necessarily what you saw or experienced. As time goes by, what you remember may not actually be your life. If you ever choose to tell your story, you have to understand that what you tell is as much fiction as it is real, even if you don’t intend it to be. And if you choose to watch or read a story based on true events, take everything you see or read with a grain of salt, and don’t base your judgments on the people involved based on what you’re told, for the truth might be far from it.


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