In the 2009 romantic ensemble comedy Couples Retreat, the character played by Vince Vaughn and his wife, played by Malin Akerman, sit in couple’s therapy, included in their tropical vacation package. The night before, the man played by Vince Vaughn was, by his account, attacked and injured by a shark. To everyone else, including his wife, his injury seems imagined, puffed up for reasons of ego. His wife opens therapy by saying, “My husband found himself in a very traumatic shark situation.” Her emphasis on the word “traumatic” is sarcastic. When asked by their therapist to contribute, Vince Vaughn’s character simply repeats, deadpan, “I know my truth.”
The “Guide to the Reader” at the beginning of Preston Nichols’ The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time, his account of what happened to him and others at the now-defunct Montauk Air Force Base in the 1980s, states that, “Some of the data you will read in this book can be considered as ‘soft facts.’ Soft facts are not untrue; they are just not backed up by irrefutable documentation. A ‘hard fact’ would be documentation or hard physical evidence that could stand up to scrutiny.” He goes on to mention the additional category of “gray facts”: “These would be very plausible but not as easily provable as a hard fact.”
I write fiction, and it is perhaps characteristic of my vocation that hard facts hold little interest for me. Their concreteness, their ability to “stand up to scrutiny,” has always seemed trivial in comparison to the greater and infinitely more mysterious personal truth, the type being lampooned in Couples Retreat. The scene I mention makes fun of two things at once: first, the New Age lexicon that makes it possible to glibly refer to “my truth” in the first place, and secondly, the petulance of a grown man clinging stubbornly to his own story, despite all evidence to the contrary. In fiction – and, I would argue, in this life made up of endless encounters with the slippery and often unprovable experiences of others – objective scrutiny of the truth is impossible. How to do it without bringing your own complexly unfolding beliefs to bear on the question?
If Preston Nichols’ book were science fiction – and some may read it as just that – it isn’t particularly beautiful or absorbing science fiction, though the Montauk story was transformed into a very clever and evocative piece of cinematic nostalgia in last year’s Stranger Things. What is interesting about the Montauk Project is not the time travel or experiments in mind control or electromagnetism or the pull of parallel realities, all of which hold very obvious sway for Mr. Nichols. What is of great interest to me is that he and a coterie of other men – there are no women who claim to have been involved in the Montauk Project, to my knowledge – have essentially come to live their own versions of the truth; they talk to and interview one another, they build websites to publish their own accounts, they reference one another as mutual authorities. We call this conspiracy theory, but there is another type of conspiracy at work apart from the imagined, secret conspiracy of government and military: importantly, there is the everyday conspiracy of those who all believe the same thing.
All major religious traditions emphasize the gravity of telling a lie; there is often an associated punishment or unwanted consequence. And all we humans who have lied understand at some level the reason for this – lies create painful, complicating, and alienating experiences. As Buddhists might put it, they are unwholesome in the extreme. But the admonishment not to lie is complicated by the fact that what is true can only be measured subjectively. If Preston Nichols tells us that he has repressed memories of being on “another time track,” how are we to know whether he’s simply telling us “his truth” or whether he’s spoken with the intent to lie? A spectacularly grave example of the man who “knows his truth” comes to us in Donald Trump, whose lies are clearly as tightly wound into his identity as are Preston Nichols’. Assuming they are lies – the time travel in Montauk, Muslims celebrating in Jersey City on September 11th, etc.
It is no small thing to claim truth as your own. A photograph could be seen as a kind of truth claim, a “hard fact,” an indisputable artifact of what really happened in a given place and at a given time. But this appearance of objectivity, too, dissolves under any degree of scrutiny. The accompanying photos of the abandoned base in the outer reaches of Montauk, a place claimed to be site of so many mysterious – if clichéd – events, offer their own mysteries. They would have to: any projection of the human mind brings with it the unfathomable interior of the speaker, or artist, or conspiracy theorist, or President-elect. I don’t pretend to know what really happened there. I imagine the truth about Montauk – insofar as it can even be imagined to exist – is far more absorbing than any story told about it so far.