The Unknowable: The Unfathomable

The Unknowable: The Unfathomable

June 14, 2014

Most of what George wants you to know about him is that he rides a Harley. George is the real deal, leather jacket, open face helmet, leather boots and gloves and belongs to a motorcycle club. George has had eight accident on his Harley, most involving his right leg and has spent years in rehab. His right leg is scarred from hip to toe, bowed with little ankle movement but some movement of his knee. He walks with a marked limp and will not use a crutch. His most recent accident involved him coming off his bike and skidding on the road surface on his face! More pain, more skin grafting and more time in rehab. When I saw him he was back riding his Harley and denied any fears about riding. After all, all his mates ride Harleys and if he didn’t get on the bike and go riding with them he would not have any friends. I asked him “after this last accident involving your face do you wear a full face helmet?” George looked at me in astonishment and said “of course not, I ride a Harley!” Go figure, as they say.

Have you interviewed individually members of a family about an accident involving a family member? It is the Rashomonon effect writ large. The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the movie Rashomon, where four witnesses’ accounts of a rape and murder are all different. According to Wikipedia ‘The idea of contradicting interpretations has been around for a long time and has implications for ethics in journalism. It is studied in the context of understanding the nature of truth(s) and truth-telling in journalism.” You could substitute psychiatry for journalism.

Every member of the family gives a different version of the same story. One remembers that an ambulance arrived, another remembers that the police arrived but no ambulance, another remembers what the family were told by the doctors, another has no memory of that. The wife remembers the meeting at which organ donation was discussed, the parents have no memory of that and deny it occurred.

I was 18 years old and staying with my family at a holiday house down the coast. My father had just bought a Mercedes of which he was inordinately proud. My sister, then aged 21 had borrowed the car to go for a drive with her boyfriend. At about 1 o’clock in the morning I awoke to hear screaming and rushed out to see my sister being carried into the house. The story that emerged was that they were parked on a clifftop “talking” when the handbrake was inadvertently released and the car rolled forward and down part of the cliff.

The next morning my father and I went in a tow truck to retrieve the car. Fortunately it was undamaged, it was about 3 m from the precipitous edge of the cliff on a sloping grass verge.

My sister has been living in Los Angeles for many years. When I was last there I mentioned this incident. She said “what are you talking about? That never happened!” So, either I made up the whole story or she had “repressed it” or, for whatever reason she did not want to even acknowledge that it occurred. I have no idea about her motivation but I am still certain that the incident occurred. What was going on?

I have always been interested in people’s stories and motivations. I look back on some reports I wrote 20 years ago and I am surprised at how lacking in substance they are. Over the years I seem to accumulate more and more information, my interviews have become longer and longer and yet I never feel I get to the heart of the matter.

I was reading a comment made by Agnes Varda, a French film director now 86 years old. She said “I have the feeling that whatever in life, whatever we are trying to capture, whatever we are trying to understand – including another person – we face the fact that pieces of the puzzle are missing.” I guess I have to accept that.


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