True Lies

For the past couple of days my inbox has been full of, “Have you heard this, yet?” and, “Check this out!” and, “OMG, Mike Daisey!” The storytellers of the world are abuzz with this latest scandal, in which the much-lauded monologuist Mike Daisey is called out by This American Life for fabricating aspects of the story he told on the show, which was culled from his latest theater piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Now, I really respect Mike Daisey and he has a few monologues that I love- particularly the one he does about PT Barnum (ironically). I will tell you something that all storytellers know: some of every story is fiction. Every time you tell a story, you are further from the the actual event. Every time you tell a story, you are really telling a story about the story as you last told it. This is how stories live and breathe and transform. I would argue that this is how stories become MORE truthful, not less. But they often become less accurate. Truth is a slippery thing. There’s room for slipperiness in stories, just not in journalism.

And I believe that’s where Mike Daisey got into trouble- when he presented the story as journalism, which was probably never his intention. I can imagine that things just snowballed on him. The story blew up. Things got out of hand. And I suspect he rationalized his lies to himself by saying that there was so much good being done as a result. The story he told was about the genuinely terrible conditions of the workers in the Apple factory in China. Mike’s voice had a hand in those conditions changing. I sympathize with Mike, but at the same time I think his intentionally misleading people is inexcusable, regardless of the result.

I will also say that I saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs months ago, and it left a funny taste in my mouth. I didn’t much like it. Not because I doubted its veracity, but because I thought that Mike was so clearly manipulating the emotions of the audience for political reasons- in order to inspire action on their part that would facilitate a change that Mike wanted to see happen. In my opinion, that’s where art starts to turn into propaganda. At which point, I get a little less interested and a lot more guarded, regardless of how righteous the cause. So my complaint wasn’t that the piece was a lie, but rather that it was generally condescending and coercive.

As for lies, I’m going to tell some tonight.

I’m about to go stand on a stage tonight and tell a story about something that happened to me nearly twenty years ago. And I will look the audience members in the eye and I will say this line…

I stood at the bar and calculated that in two hours I had made exactly fifteen dollars.

And I will probably be lying. I have no idea if it was seventeen dollars or if it was twenty or if it was twelve. I will also say I bought a neon pink bikini, when the truth is that I can’t remember the color. Or I think that I can remember it, but I’m probably just remembering the last time I told the story. Tricky stuff, stories. Twisted stuff, memory.

But I will be telling the story of a girl who transformed herself into someone new overnight by simply imagining it to be true. And I will tell the story of how she only later realized that she should have been more careful about what she imagined. And that story, friends, is dead true.

3 thoughts on “True Lies

  1. I had a similar reaction when I first heard this on TAL. I’ve enjoyed Mike Daisey’s segments on The Moth and This American Life before, and when I initially heard this segment, I was appalled at the treatment of the workers; later, when I listened to it again, I began to feel like I (as a listener) was being manipulated, and I began to question his methods. As he said, he isn’t a trained investigative journalist, and his methods of gathering his facts weren’t entirely scientific. There are two sides to every story, and his presentation is very one-sided and is told in such a way to tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Much of the story was too pat.

    I don’t necessarily feel vindicated by the TAL retraction, but it does prove as a powerful reminder to be careful when choosing what to believe.

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