“Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” says the headline in The New York Times. The newscaster “apologized Wednesday for mistakenly claiming he had been on a helicopter that was shot down.” A decade-and-a-half ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis apologized for having claimed in his classrooms to have served in combat in Vietnam when he had not done so.
Neither of these incidents is unusual. People exaggerate their experiences all the time. Our stories get better as time goes on, often until they have little relation to the truth—as happened in both of these cases. What is unusual is that both have high profiles in the media, where such deviations tend to get noticed.
I’ve an exercise I use each time I teach a writing course, one on authority and honesty. I tell the story of an incident in Togo when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Looked at dispassionately, it seems like it couldn’t be true.
The truncated version is this: Only the morning of August 2, 1990, while I was drinking coffee under an awning outside my house, listening to the BBC about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, I saw an elephant approaching. It would pass near me on its way back to the Fosse aux lions, the game preserve whose border was just across the road. I wanted to take its picture, so I grabbed my camera bag and the radio and walked to the top of a small rise the elephant would likely pass by. It was just about dawn: I pulled out my light meter and two cameras, checked my settings and waited for the elephant, which was following a path between bean fields. When it was as close as I dared stay, I snapped two pictures and prepared to slowly back down the little hill and return home.
But the elephant had other ideas: Without raising its trunk or flapping its ears, usual warnings, it charged straight at me. I ran, but fell, losing my sandals as I slid to the wet ground and turning to face the elephant, wanting to see what was going to kill me.
It didn’t, obviously, but stopped a few meters from me and stared at me. Slowly, I removed the straps from cameras, the meter and the bag from around my neck—they’d been flopping around as I ran. Next to me, speaker in the mud, the radio babbled. The elephant turned, looking at me sideways. I scramble up and sprinted past it, heading the opposite way it was facing. Stopping eventually, I turned to see it go over to my cameras and radio, pick each piece up with its trunk, taste it and drop it. Finally, it swung my camera bag by the strap and threw it—then turned and walked into the Fosse. I collected my scattered belongings and returned home.
Over the years, I’ve written about this in numerous fashions—even as fiction—starting with a recounting in the little PCV newsletter we had. I try to keep as close to the truth as I can but a quarter of a century has passed and I sometimes wonder if I haven’t changed the tale in the writing. There are versions, I know, that are not quite accurate: In one, I write of telling the story to other PCVs who had arrived at a restaurant in a nearby town on motorcycles. They hadn’t. They had arrived in a Peace Corps vehicle, having stopped by my village and having already heard the story from people there who had witnessed it.
Anyhow, when I tell the story to my students, I warn them that they should be careful of what a person in authority says, for it is too easy to believe—but that they should not be completely skeptical, either. I then give them a few days to think about the story, to research what they can, and to come to a determination about its truth. When they do, and I have collected their writings, they always want me to tell them which it is, fact or fiction.
“Should you believe me, one way or another?” I respond. That stumps them.