The Truth in West Memphis

This year marks several notable anniversaries. It’s been a year since Lola was born. It’s been a year since the book came out. Four years of living with Amanda and the marriage that came with it. 15 years of reading comics. 20 years since the diagnosis. 33 years of living. 10 year anniversary of my college graduation.

And 10 years after West Memphis.

Of every incident in my life, there is none more nebulous than this one. I can give a clear answer to what really happened in virtually every instance of my life, at least to the best of my abilities. But this one? It feels vague and amorphous to me. I don’t have any clear answers.

The basic facts are this. I had a phone interview for a job in West Memphis while still in college. I got the job. I moved to West Memphis, fast finding an apartment. I got set up over a weekend, and then the following things happened, as described in this excerpt from my memoir.

I went to work on time [on my first day], my first actual in person appearance at the job. I’d never interviewed in person which felt immediately like a mistake. I was given very icy treatment by the editors. My attempts at trying to make myself heard were ignored.

The day went slowly. I filled out paperwork and was put at a desk. I did a bit of work based on an assignment. I wasn’t very good at it, not having done very many like it. There were a few more minor tasks to get accomplished. Then I went home.

The next day I went to work. I had no assignments to work on so I waited for work.

Fifteen minutes later, I woke up. To my utter horror I’d drifted off to, if not sleep, unconsciousness. This was something I’d done all too often in class but sadly did in the real world for the first time. I was ashamed and highly apologetic as I faced my editor, taking the blame like an adult. I was promptly sent home to get my needed sleep.

I went back after a quick nap where I talked to the editor. We came to a mutual agreement I shouldn’t be there. At least that was the polite way to put it. In truth she chewed me out and accused me of being a liar on my resume, which I wasn’t. She excoriated me for mistakes I’d made on a story the day before. She made me feel small, like the very person I was afraid I’d prove to be in the “adult” world.

With thought, I might view that moment different. I might see what an unethical bind I was put in. I might see how they were wrong to ever hire me without a proper interview. I might see that I was put in a no win situation. I might believe I was setup to fail.

None of that mattered in the moment and it certainly didn’t sitting on the floor of the Kroger where I used a payphone to seek my mom’s advice. Hers was simple: flee. I hadn’t exactly quit but I could so I did. If I returned, and it was made clear they didn’t want me back, I couldn’t redeem myself.

This is how I described the incident in the book. It’s a perfectly workable version of the event. It has the facts. You could ace a test on my life based on it. I don’t even think anybody there could dispute it.

Yet I kind of do. That’s the weird thing about it. I actually reread the book upon the one year anniversary and a few errors aside I found it rather bracingly honest except for this section. Reading it feels evasive. Sure I describe the thing I did wrong but do I ever admit fault? I don’t think I do.

Instead I craft a narrative that makes me look good. I made a mistake but they were mean to me. What I don’t put in there is how utterly scared I was to be there. I don’t admit that I had no idea how to adult. I don’t note that I had zero preparation for the situation. The universe had always helped me before and it wasn’t going to be there now.

There is indeed an alternate version of this story. In that version, I’m an arrogant student who felt entitled to a decent job fresh out of college, resting on laurels others wouldn’t be impressed by. I took a job in a city connected to a big city because I thought I deserved it. I went in with no preparation and showed how completely unqualified I was. I was shown up with an epic mistake and returned home to face reality.

That version is true too. At least it’s true from another point of view. So which version is truly the truth?

Before I answer that, I want to talk about a film I just saw, Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece A Separation. In the film there is a fight that seems to lead to a miscarriage. Much of the narrative consists of the question of intent and of facts that are unknowable. The characters debate endlessly but there is never a clear answer. The truth, Farhadi implies, is impossible to know because it is colored by our perceptions and our biases.

Memory is a lie. It’s colored by retellings. It’s heavily suggestible. It’s altered by what we come to believe. I like to refer to my book as my personal historical fiction. It’s what I think was true but there are inaccuracies there. In the end unless I had video of a moment, all I can ever know is a variant of the truth.

That’s the likely truth here. I can debate in my head endlessly what happened in this moment and I will go to my grave not truly knowing. All I will ever know is what what happened did happen.

But there is definitely an answer I can live with. Which version of what happened? A version that combines all 3.

In this version I was naive and a bit arrogant as I pursued my career. I took a job despite clear warning signs they were just settling on me. I went into it with no idea what I was really doing which exacerbated my anxiety. I found myself in a hostile environment and my behavior didn’t make anything better. I made a grievous error but one which was almost inevitable in light of the situation. The situation ended in failure. It was one which was inevitable from the start.

In the end, nobody acted right. I was too naive and proud of myself. They ran a bad business. It happened.

I can live with that. It’s a truth somewhere in the middle. It’s cliched but the truth of a situation almost always winds up there. Even the lies are true.

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