In writing a life story, it’s important to stay true to the story as told by the person who lived it. What really happened can shift over time, not necessarily intentionally. Memory and imagination both whittle down and embellish an event. And is the result less “the truth?” Perhaps it is more.
Years ago I wrote the story of Larry and Shirley Rascher, long-term missionaries, in Irian Jaya (now West Papua, Indonesia). They had rich family experiences and fun, even living in a nearly primitive society in a tropical swamp.
But their story included great tragedy. In July 1971, they had just returned from a year’s furlough in the US, and were traveling by boat with their three youngest children, Chip (11), Gregory (3), and Karen (2), and a native helper Moses, to visit their mission stations along rivers in the swamps on Irian’s south coast.
They had gone out into the ocean to navigate around a sand bar and intended to enter the mouth of the next river along the coast. But a sudden tsunami with fifteen foot waves capsized and broke apart their boat, leaving them clinging to pieces of wood eleven miles from shore with no human beings in sight. Larry grasped Gregory, and Moses held Karen. Eventually Greg was torn from Larry’s arms in the waves and drowned before Larry could reach him. Larry relieved Moses of little Karen, and eventually the same thing happened to her. This is the story that was told to me by a grief-riddled father.
After interviewing Larry and Shirley weekly for several months, I traveled with them to Irian Jaya, where I had the opportunity to meet and interview Moses through an interpreter. In his version of that day, little Karen was pulled from his arms and she drowned.
Which account of the story was true? I felt positive that both men were telling me the truth as they remembered it. But I believe that in Larry’s anguish he couldn’t let another man shoulder the responsibility. So in his mind, he had been holding Karen.
In the resulting book, Incessant Drumbeat, that is how I told the story, although I suspect that Mose’s version is the literal truth. But I was telling Larry’s story, the story that would haunt him, and the one that to him was true.