I thought long and hard whether I could classify the Where’s Merrill? saga by the commonly used phrase “based on a true story.” Then I started to question the accepted definitions of the word “true”. Simple defining statements such as “not false” or “real” are inadequate, and possibly misleading in certain contexts. The truth is something that is understood to be true, so we should start to define “true” with terms like “a condition believed to be not false.” After reflecting on the findings of this unique research project, I realized that it had become a study of perceived truth. This story proves that some people can deceive their associates and even their family members by twisting the truth so convincingly that the deception is rarely challenged, and, with the passing of time, the falsified facts can become accepted as gospel. This topic is thought-provoking and potentially very worrying. Is your close colleague really the person he or she claims to be?
I then started to think about the crucial last two words of that casually constructed phrase “based on a true story“. What genuinely constitutes a true story? In order to analyze that question, one has to break down the phrase even further; so firstly, the noun part – what is a story?
My personal definition of a story is a narrative, written or spoken, that links together certain facts or events. This is not a contentious definition. The facts or events in question could be any ridiculous things which start to make more sense when linked together.
However, if we prefix “story” with the key adjective “true”, then the fact or series of facts being narrated should be justifiable beyond all doubt to be reliable, real information, as far as the narrator is concerned. The listener or reader of the true story has a different dilemma. As a receiver of information, you, as a reader or listener, are left to make the distinction between a 100% true story, and a story based on the truth, or otherwise. It is a matter of perception and belief.
Let me give you an example which links back to how we perceive the people we associate with in our everyday lives. You might have a workmate, and you know (for certain) the following true facts:
- · Your friend has a baby boy.
- · This baby was born on May 2, 2011.
- · Today is the First of May, 2012.
Your friend says, “It’s my son’s first birthday tomorrow.” This alone is a very short true story. If your friend adds, “We’re having a party at my mother’s house. Her boyfriend is picking us up in his new car at 3pm,” then you might be being asked to accept a story based upon the truth. It would not be unreasonable for a first birthday party to be held at the grandmother’s house. Then again, if you had never met your friend’s mother, you are being asked to digest a lot of facts that you will never be able to prove or disprove at that moment in time. In the latter case, you would probably never have known that your friend’s mother was unmarried, and had a boyfriend. As for the bit about the “new car,” well, this could be a complete fabrication. Fiction. The friend could just be implying that her poor mom is doing alright for herself and has a rich boyfriend. Or, the car could be a newly purchased second-hand model. Maybe there isn’t even a party? How can you be sure? There are lots of optional interpretations.
But this hypothetical tale is all correct, in your mind. You trust your friend. So you believe that you have just listened to an expanded true story. In reality, you should be saying that you have listened to a story based upon the truth; a little bit of it might even be fiction. Get the gist?
My ‘birthday boy’ story is just trivial workplace chatter, but each day receivers of information from associates or the media are forced to make instantaneous decisions as to whether they are being told the truth. Invariably, we never question the information being subconsciously absorbed by our brains. As a result, it becomes accepted “fact“. Normally, this acceptance of all manner of subject matter has very little significance, but occasionally the consequences could be more serious, or even catastrophic. Several of Tim’s ancestors certainly had to deal with consequential catastrophes initiated by untruthfulness.
So, Where’s Merrill? has to be classed as a story based upon the truth, but as I said at the beginning, it is predominantly a story about genealogy—the tracing of one man’s lineage and a study of the associated families throughout history. The latter phrase is unquestionably true, but trusting and accepting that everything presented to you, orally or in writing, is undeniably true, just because it appears authentic, can create a potentially perilous state of affairs.
In a popular novel, the fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, once uttered the words, “You are so engrossed in the fact that you are oblivious to its environment.” This situation is all too common among amateur genealogists. A record provides evidence of fact, and we get so focused on the one piece of evidence that we fail to examine the context of it. This can throw off the conclusions we take from the evidence. When looking at any individual record, it is important to consider not only the information included, but the record itself. We must ask ourselves:
· Who created the record?
· Who provided the information recorded?
· Do we know when it was created?
· Is it the original document, or an original copy? Or something else?
· Are we certain of the answers to any of the above?
I was repeatedly forced to ask these questions when I dug deeper into the complicated hidden maternal ancestry of Tim. In effect, the Where’s Merrill? story revolves around a number of interlinked hidden truths.
One thing is undeniable: Where’s Merrill? is unique. I suppose you can argue that every story in the world is different, so all stories are unique to some degree. Even my hypothetical short tale about a child’s first birthday at the start of this passage is unique. However, this thriller is more unique, although such a term is grammatically unacceptable to linguistic purists.
Now that you have read the story, you are free to inquire how much is true by asking specific questions, if you so wish. Relevant (but disguised) public records can be made available to interested parties. As with a 100% factual book, you can complete the read and then refer to additional (but controlled) information sources to further your knowledge of the subject matter.
In this case, because it’s a story based heavily on the truth, you could propose or even eventually prove an alternative answer to that elusive question: Where’s Merrill?
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