It is extremely hard to recreate a period exactly in fiction. Movies scenes are full of objects that shouldn’t be there. But fiction by definition was never intended to be factually accurate. Biographies, and especially autobiographies, are very vulnerable to this error, yet they are supposed to be fact.
My recently deceased brother-in-law was a biographer and understood this problem well. He would compile loose leaf binders of great length in order to create a factual timeline around which to hang the material gathered in interviews. This sometimes aroused the impatience of his publisher. But he argued it was necessary, because the timeline was the only solid hook on reality you have. It tells you who was where, and when. Memory, relied on by itself, was too uncertain.
A framework of facts is necessary because in the very literal sense we don’t really remember who we are. We make up our own self-image as we go along. The larger point of of Tim Stanley’s article in the Telegraph was not whether Barack Obama really ate a dog, but why the press never bothered to build up the framework of facts in which to understand the man. They took the candidate Obama’s account at face value. They never built up their timeline. Everything he said was true — even, perhaps, when it wasn’t.
But given the mainstream media’s intense study of Romney’s life and its constant regurgitation of its many errors, it’s odd that this shaggy dog story slipped through — especially given that Dreams from My Father has been gathering dust on the bookshelves since 1995. Where did it come from when it finally broke on Tuesday night? The Romney campaign and the conservative site Daily Caller. That’s right: Republicans have to break and publicise stories themselves if they want to get them heard. The mainstream media either ignores a lot of anti-Obama stuff or dismisses it as inconsequential.
But is it really inconsequential? Or is perhaps that they really didn’t really want to know? Memory plays tricks on us and we don’t question it much when it tells us we are wonderful. When it tell us something bad about our past, we’d rather forget it. In the movie Memento, the protagonist has no short-term memory so he writes things down, takes pictures, and tattoos himself to remember things. The way you preserve the unpleasant truth about your condition is to write it down.
Memory hold the door. But what might come in through that door should give us pause. Misremembered things are not always the autobiographer’s or biographer’s fault. But it is the duty of the “fact checkers” to set up the timeline, to check the collateral, to get at that most elusive of things, the truth. Did Barack Obama eat a dog? Did he bring a calculator to 5th grade in 1971? Who knows? Worse, who in the media really cared?