I recently watched The Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s documentary of a family secret. I found it fascinating. It’s a cinematic exploration of one of the most complicated, controversial issues in literary nonfiction. Whose truth is the truth? What truth can be harvested from the blurred terrain between fiction and nonfiction?
Polley turns the camera on her siblings, her father, and family friends, in search of the truth about her real birth father. But the truth is more complicated than the result of a paternity test. It is woven with deeper questions about identity and family, the individual and the community, authorship and storytelling.
Turning these ideas over in my mind, I was drawn to a short radio spot on a recent documentary that explores similar themes: Steve Lickteig’s Open Secret.
“What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie?” Lickteig asks. “And everyone knew the truth except you?”
As a teen in a small town, Lickteig learns that the woman he thought was his older sister Joni was in fact his birth mother, and the woman he called Mom was actually his grandmother. Though he’s the main character in the story concerned, he’s the last to know.
What is it I find so compelling about Lickteig’s story, and Polley’s story? As a kid, I was equally fascinated by The Truman Show, for the way it seemed to capture, in fiction, something emotionally true about real life. I think we all hope, at an unconscious level, that one day something will explain what it is we’ve been missing. Perhaps growing up is about losing faith in the fantasy that wholeness can be found in a set of circumstances.
Lickteig’s and Polley’s stories are about family, and finding resolution. Through art, they describe their journey through pain and loss to forgiveness, healing, and understanding.
What if everything you thought you knew about yourself was a lie? This may seem like a stretch, but I think my personal fascination with this question has always been tied to faith. I see its persistence in my thoughts as a gift of restlessness, God leading me back to Him, like Herbert’s pulley.
Though the particulars are different, and the result worlds apart, there’s something in these stories that feels of a piece with the emotions I felt in conversion. There’s a paradigm shift that happens when we begin to conceive of ourselves in a new way. I began to look through new eyes at all I thought I knew about myself– the interests, preferences, accomplishments, and habits I thought made up my identity. Before, I used to hear language about “surrendering the self” and think only of loss. Instead, I’ve experienced an ever-deepening, widening freedom through serving God and knowing Jesus. It’s a path that has no end, that continues to show me more of myself in Christ and Christ in me. The more I let go of, the more I have to give.
I’m still fascinated by stories like these, and the relationship between story and identity. What about you?