The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Andrew Jarecki and Christopher Nolan in directing Capturing the Friedmans and Memento, respectively, attempt to show us the difference between what the truth is and what we see as the truth. David is the character in Jarecki’s documentary that refuses to see the truth because his version is easier to live with. In Nolan’s film, Leonard shapes his own truth to have a purpose in life. The directors extort this flaw in these two characters so their audiences can understand that the characters’ lives, as they both see it, are only contorted versions of the truth that are shaped around the ideas that make them feel happy. Once they have molded themselves around these lies, they become the embodiment of them. Their identity is directly dependent on their version of the truth because they have continuously conditioned themselves into believing that version. David and Lenny are the human condition because they cannot see past the mask of the character they have created and see the truth. They represent humanity because we all attempt to lie to ourselves since it is better than facing the truth.

Of all the characters in Capturing the Friedmans who were presented with facts and evidence of Arnold’s pedophilia, David was the one who held to his convictions. He always refused to believe the police, his mother, the testimony of his own father, and multiple other avenues of evidence. He would not believe that his father was a pedophile. He created his own version of the truth by not accepting reality.

In David’s first interview of the film, there is a glimpse of his denial. When talking about his father he states, “He died of a surprise heart attack about five years ago” (Jarecki). It is later revealed that “the cause of death as doxepin intoxication which basically means that Arnold took a massive overdose of antidepressants” (Jarecki). Even after the knowledge that his father took his own life, David lacks the ability to say his father killed himself. He is still in denial years after the event itself and creates a mask that only he cannot see past.

David never changes his views because he is still in the situation Elaine was in once. She states, “You know I didn’t see it. My eyes were in the right direction, but my brain saw nothing” (Jarecki). David is still looking at the truth, as his mother did, but he is not seeing it for what it is. His refusal to accept his father’s pedophilia is a way of lying to himself so that he does not have to see the truth. He is shaping the truth in order to make himself right. If he is wrong he will have to accept the truth, and that is something he cannot live with.

Elaine describes her children as having “this idealized image of this father as being this saint-like person, this Santa Claus, Messiah” (Jarecki). David doesn’t want to believe the truth because he is still holding on to “this idealized image” (Jarecki). This is the image of a boy, and how that boy sees his father. David has essentially never grown up. He still wants to see the same father he has always seen.

In Arnold’s statement he says, “In my early 40s, during the summer I did go ‘over the line’ and did have sexually arousing contact with two boys, short of sodomy” (Jarecki). With his father’s testimony, David still attempts to cover up the truth. He shouts, “That’s what? It’s one sentence. What does that mean? Do you fucking know what that sentence means? I don’t even know what that fucking sentence means” (Jarecki). He then goes on to explain that “sexually arousing contact” can mean many different things, and not necessarily a crime, because he has not let go of who he thinks his father is (Jarecki). He sees people a certain way, particularly his father, just as we see certain people in certain ways. We do not want to let go of the image we have of a person because we do not want to see that person for who they really are. Therefore, we cling to that comfort we have in knowing that image. David wants to hold on to that image of his father to make himself happy.

David is from a family of actors, always aware that there is a video camera running somewhere. He was forced to play a role since childhood. In doing so, he has built a certain persona, a role that he is continuously playing. He cannot break out of this role because he does not know how to. He has played it for so long that he is that character, that character is he. The character of David is one who cannot believe his father is a pedophile. Therefore, David cannot believe it. Only when he unlearns the part he is playing can he see the truth because the character is a mask that hides the truth from him. Nevertheless, David is comfortable in this role. If he takes off the mask, then he will no longer be David because he is the role that he plays.

Jarecki uses David to show the audience something more than just covering up the truth. David is denying the truth because the truth is painful. People themselves do not want the truth because the truth would change who they are; it would change the roles that they play. It erases that sense of self that is clinging to that role. If David is no longer the character of David, if he loses that role that he is intertwined with, then he will have to play a new role, one that is he unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. By accepting that his father is a pedophile, he is agreeing to play a role that he cannot bare to play.

In Memento, Lenny is a character who is always forgetting, not only because of his “condition,” but also because he wants to forget (Nolan). He wants to forget the truth because there is no reason left for him to live if he knows what the truth is. He has to have purpose in his life, which is vengeance for his wife, and his constant journey itself is that purpose. Without the pursuit of vengeance, he has nothing.

The construction of Sammy Jankis helps Lenny forget who he really is. Nolan shoots Sammy’s scenes in black and white to show that Lenny is the real Sammy, but it is also the part of Lenny’s memory that he is shaping into his own truth. Lenny writes “Remember Sammy Jankis” on his hand in order to “condition” himself into believing Sammy was once a client of his (Nolan). By doing this, Lenny can continue his quest for his wife’s killer. As long as he doesn’t remember that it was his “wife who had diabetes” then he has a purpose in his life (Nolan).

Lenny states at the end of the film, “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different” (Nolan). Mirrors are supposed to be reflections of “who we are,” but we only see an image of who we believe ourselves to be (Nolan). When Lenny looks in to the mirror, he does not see those tattoos that have shown his progression. He see who he used to be, a person who was in love and had a great career. This is what Lenny chooses to see. The tattoos cannot tell him who he is because he chooses to look past them. This line is used to tell the audience that the person they see in the mirror is whom they want to see. The truth is distorted when people look into the mirror because people shape the truth in order to see a person they were, a person they want to be, a person they love, or a person they loathe. The mirror is simply a way of lying to ourselves. When Lenny doesn’t look past his tattoos to see the person he was, and he is looking directly at the permanent information on his body, he is looking at lies, a version of the truth that he has created. These tattoos are representations of the lies he tells himself. The tattoos for Lenny are the same twists of the truth that we tell ourselves in everyday life.

Teddy tells Lenny, “So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it. Who cares if there’s a few little details you’d rather not remember” (Nolan)? Nolan uses this to show that we all lie to ourselves. We lie to ourselves to have meaning. Our identity is contingent on our purpose in life, therefore it is contingent on the lies we tell ourselves. We, like Leonard, “don’t want the truth” (Nolan). We create our “own truth” (Nolan). Lenny is a representation of the human condition because he chooses to lie to himself. Lenny’s short-term memory loss is comparable to the way we forget the lies we create. We “condition” ourselves with our version of the truth for so long that we forget that we are lying to ourselves (Nolan). Lenny’s condition is not short-term memory loss. It is the human condition, which he cannot escape. He lies to himself because he is human. He lies to himself in order to continue his search, a search that is the only thing real for him, the only thing that gives him meaning and identity.

Lenny says of Mrs. Jankis, “I thought she just needed some kind of answer. I didn’t think it was important what the answer was, just that she had one to believe” (Nolan). This is important to Lenny’s identity because he needs something to believe in himself. To him, it’s not important whether he has gotten revenge. What he wants to believe, what he needs to believe in order to feel human, is that there is an answer out there, and that he will find his wife’s killer. He needs to believe this to have meaning in his life. If he does not believe, then he will lose his purpose. He will lose his identity, which is completely built around his quest for vengeance. Lenny lies to himself because he has to in order to feel alive, and there is no place for him outside of the world he has constructed.

David and Lenny are characters built around the same ideas, which are representations of what it means to be human. We all lie to ourselves to certain degrees. The degree to which we lie is subject to what part of the truth we cannot face. David could not face his father’s pedophilia, so he molded himself around the idea that his father never molested a child. Lenny did not want to face the reality of what he had done. Therefore, he conditioned himself into believing that he was trying to find his wife’s killer. Each of these characters did not want to see the truth because the truth would change who they are. Their identities relied heavily on their distorted versions of the truth. By seeing the truth, without lying to themselves, they would have lost all meaning.

In the scheme of the world, we all do not want to see the truth, since the truth would change who we are, and it would take away our purpose for being. We lie to ourselves to keep going, to keep living day to day. Our lies are who we are, and we do not want to lose our sense of self. Since our identity is built around the lies that we tell ourselves, we have nothing to look for outside of the meaning that these lies represent.

Are David and Leonard wrong for believing in something that is not real? We want to think they are because we do not want to see that they represent who we are. They represent all of humanity, us, liars. We cannot say that they are wrong because that would be saying that we do not want an identity, and we do not want meaning and purpose in our lives. We all lie to ourselves, if only to have these things that make us human.