Three Recent Docu-dramas

     Three recent docu-dramas on Netflix have left me thinking about how our species deals with wrongness.  The first was a miniseries; the other two were feature length films; all three were based on real events.  Warning: plot spoilers ahead, though I’ll try to keep them limited.

     The Ripper is a four-episode mini-series about a series of murders in the County of York, England, in the 1970’s.  A woman walks alone in the wee hours of the morning, through a neighborhood of late-night bars believed to be a favorite hangout for hookers. Essentially, due to sexist attitudes that seem hard for us to believe fifty years later, the all-male detectives who become the series’ bumbling anti-heroes are insensitive to the possibility that a single mother in the modern world might have occasion to get a drink after work, and (quite sensibly) choose to walk home, rather than drive under the influence.  They become increasingly convinced of the theory that a woman walking alone in such a neighborhood at that hour of the morning must be a prostitute.   When other women are killed in similar ways, they realize there’s a serial killer at work, but their profile of the killer as a man who targets prostitutes becomes more than a theory.  As it gets shared with the detectives’ superiors, with the press, and with the public, their careers and the authority of their superiors in law enforcement become invested in it.  As the press hounds law enforcement for theories, those theories become part of “the truth known by all.”  Reputations, and the public’s confidence in law enforcement, in the press, and indeed, in government itself, are at stake. When evidence mounts that some victims were not prostitutes, the cops don’t abandon their profile of the prostitute killer, they theorize that the killer must have mistakenly thought that the victims were prostitutes.  (Someone is was wrong, not us.) Their attachment to their theory gets stronger and stronger as the murders mount, to the point that – well, there’s no need to ruin the whole plot.  It’s a fascinating expose of the power of confirmation bias, with extreme consequences we’d like to hope are rare – but which, methinks, probably aren’t.   

The second Netflix offering that left me thinking is Made You Look.  One promo description of it is, “A woman walks into a New York gallery with a cache of unknown masterworks. Thus begins a story of art world greed, willfulness and a high-stakes con.”  When the woman (Galfira Rosales) walks into the ultra-prestigious Knoedler Art Gallery with a single painting by a modern art master with no personal credentials and no proof of provenance for the artwork, Ann Freedman, Director of the gallery, is naturally  skeptical.  But Rosales has a credible story, so Freedman submits the painting to various experts for their opinions about the painting’s authenticity.  One after another, they vouch for the beauty and authenticity of the piece.  Some time after Freedman sells it for a substantial sum, Rosales comes to her with another painting, which Freedman also has evaluated for authenticity, and which, after the experts vouch for it, she also sells.  Over a period of some seventeen years, the process is repeated many times, until finally an evaluator questions the authenticity of a piece.  An investigation ultimately results in Rosales confessing that all the paintings she has sold to Knoedler and which Knoedler has re-sold to wealthy art afficionados — for a total of eighty million dollars – are forgeries.

In its review of the documentary, the LA Times calls Freedman “unrepentant,” a description I’ll get back to in a moment.  What stands out to me about the film is the harshness of Freedman’s critics as they accuse her of complicity in the fraud.  Many of the “experts” who originally vouched for the art quickly back off (once Rosales admits the fraud), claiming that their opinions as to authenticity were never really that at all. (Their reputations as experts being on the line, they strive to explain their own words as anything but the words of people who’ve been duped.)  Meanwhile, the wealthy art lovers who paid millions of dollars for fakes are acid in their condemnation of Freedman, certain that she was in on the fraud, clamoring for her imprisonment, ruination and (one imagines, if it were possible) her permanent exile from planet Earth.  Neither the experts nor the buyers who’ve been taken in seem “repentant” for their own gullibility, but that’s understandable:  human nature fights to preserve our sense of self-worth, and if that self-worth is imperiled by evidence we were duped, we naturally seek to pin the blame on others – in this case, on the evil, cunning, inexcusable co-perpetrator Ann Freedman, whose intentional trickery must bear the responsibility for our own mistakes.

One of Freedman’s harshest critics is New York Times reporter M.H. Miller, who is repeatedly featured in the film.  Miller is completely convinced that Freedman was in on the hoax.  He argues his case like a prosecutor, pointing to all the “obvious” reasons that Freedman must have known the works were fake. Unlike those who were duped, Miller’s certainty can’t be explained by the psychological needs of a duped victim.  Rather, it must be explained by the persuasive power of what Miller and The Times might call objective facts.  Of course, at the forefront of those facts is the eventual confession of Rosales.  Miller applies his expertise as an objective news reporter with all the benefit of hindsight.  He “knows the truth” – that the pieces were fakes – from the outset of his own understanding of the facts, and he condemns Freedman as complicit in the fraud, refusing to believe that she didn’t see things as clearly as he does.

I submit that when you “know the truth from the outset” people who saw things differently along the way inevitably look blind to it.  In any case, back to the review in the LA Times, calling Freedman “unrepentant,”  the description seems to me to suggest The Times’s implicit conclusion that Freedman was in on the hoax. On the West coast, just as on the East, then, objective reporters with the benefit of hindsight seem to share an underlying belief in objective truth.  If you’re seeking a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting – as journalists these days all seem dedicated to doing – is there, perhaps, an essential requirement that you believe that objective truth not only exists, but that it can and should be convincingly exposed for what it is (by you)?  When one has the benefit of hindsight, clear logic and evidence must make Truth irrefutable, no?  Evidence that points to any other conclusion must not really be evidence at all, if properly understood.  And people who see the evidence as pointing in any other direction must, like Freedman, be guilty of wrongdoing.  And therefore “unrepentant.”

But the art experts who vouched for the authenticity of the fakes defended their reputations by trying to explain away their prior words.  (Unrepentant?) The wealthy but duped buyers never admitted their gullibility, defending their purchases by pointing to the reputation of the Knoedler Gallery and the sheer deceptive skill of its con-artist Director, Freedman. (Unrepentant?) In fact, Freedman is the only character in the drama who says she was duped, the only character willing to acknowledge that, despite her life’s work as an art dealer, she made some stupid mistakes. Sure, she liked the idea of being in on the discovery of  previously unknown works of masters, and of bringing them to the world’s attention.  If they were real, she profited; if not, she didn’t.  Her self-interest and sense of self-worth therefore blinded her to the evidence of forgery.  But as I see it, Freedman acknowledges as much, and no one else involved comes close to the depth of her own acceptance of responmsibility.  Everyone else tries to cast blame elsewhere.

     The third Netflix offering that got my attention, Spotlight, is an account of the Boston Globe’s investigation into Catholic Church pedophilia in Boston.  Like The Ripper and Made You Look, it ultimately paints a picture of eventually-known truth, on the one hand, and years of widespread blindness to that truth, on the other.  It, too, is a study in the human capacity for being wrong.  As the extent of pedophilia in the church becomes gradually clearer, it isn’t only the Church itself that tries to cover it up.  Parishioners deny it. Law enforcement denies it.   Family members of victims deny it.  Lawyers and prosecutors deny it.  Each element of the population with a role in the drama has its own self-serving psychological influences – I won’t call them “reasons” – for being blind to the extent of the problem.  I don’t think it’s a better docu-drama than the other two, but as I see it, Spotlight does us a favor.  The best part of it, for me, is that one storyline within Spotlight deals with The Globe’s own culpability, it’s own past blindness to the extent of the problem.  As everyone else is asking how complaints could be ignored and abuse excused for so long – by others Spotlight depicts The Globe as asking the same question of itself.

 The Globe, it seems to me, was complicit, but now, to its great credit, is portrayed as acknowledging as much. I might even say that the Globe comes across as “repentant.”  But Mr. Miller, of the New York Times, seems convinced that anyone with a brain should have seen what he sees, while the L.A. Times calls Ms. Freedman – and only Ms. Freedman – “unrepentant” when she alone has admitted to her wrongness.  Alas, I often feel that such self-righteous condemnation of the motives and beliefs of others is – how best to put it – a “sign of the times”?

All three are worth watching, both as studies of our human capacity for wrongness, and of how we respond when our ideas are tested by contrary evidence. All in all, a good mix to remind us of the ways we may be wrong.

Happy Halloween

Since we planned to be out of town for Halloween this year, we produced our annual Haunted House last night, a bit before official trick-or-treat night. “We” means myself and my volunteer crew, of which, this year, there were thirteen members.  What an appropriate number for a Haunted House!

As usual, It took several weeks back in September for me to get psyched.  First, I had to stop thinking about my other projects.  I had to come up with a theme, decide on characters, scenes, and devices, and develop a story line in my mind, imagining the experience our visitors would have, before I could nail the first nail.  As I created the structure that defined the maze-like path to be followed, as I shot each staple into the black plastic walls intended to keep visitors’ footsteps and focus in the right direction, as I adjusted the angle and dimness of each tea light to reveal only what I wanted to reveal, eventually, the construction of the house drew me into the scenes and characters I was imagining.  And as usual, now that “the day after” has arrived, I’ve awoken before the sun rises, my mind crawling with memories of last night’s screams and laughter.  I try to go back to much-needed sleep, but the thoughts of next year’s possibilities get in the way.  It’s the same old story.  Once my mind gets psyched for the Haunted House, it starts to wear a groove in a horrific path; now, it will take something powerful to lift it out of that groove.

I wish I’d done more theater in my life.  I suppose some of my elaborate practical jokes might lay claim to theater.  I’ve even tried my hand at a few crude movies of the narrative, “artsy” sort.  But mostly, its been novels and haunted houses.  I suppose I’ve wanted to tell stories with pictures and words ever since I was a kid.  It’s how I’ve always imagined who I am.

In my efforts to be a better writer, I’ve read much on the craft of writing, from popular books like Stephen King’s On Writing to academic tomes like Mieke Bal’s‘s Narratology.  But among the ghouls and monsters on my mind this dark morning comes the memory of a book on writing I read a few years back, one by Lisa Cron called Wired for Story.  That book makes the point that human brains have evolved to give us a highly developed capacity – indeed, a need – to think in terms of stories, and that we’re now hard-wired to do so.

The opening words of Ms. Cron’s book set the neurological stage:

“In the second it takes you to read this sentence, your senses are showering you with over 11,000,000 pieces of information.  Your conscious mind is capable of registering about forty of them.  And when it comes to actually paying attention?  On a good day, you can process seven bits of data at a time…”

Cron’s book goes on to describe how the very success of our species depends on our capacity to translate overwhelming experience into simple stories.  I don’t know the source, or even if it’s true – maybe from The Agony and the Ecstasy? — but Michelangelo is said to have observed that when he sculpted, he didn’t create art, he just removed everything that wasn’t art.  In my own writing, I’ve come to realize how true that is.  Research produces so many pieces of data, and because I find it fascinating, my temptation is to share it all with my readers.  But thorough research is a little bit like real life, which is to say, like Cron’s 11,000,000 pieces of information.  That much information simply doesn’t make a story, any more than the slab of marble Michelangelo started with makes art.

Our brains are not wired to deal with such overloads, but to ensure our survival, which they do by “imagining” ourselves in hypothetical situations, scoping out what “might” happen to us if we eat the apple, smell the flower, or step in front of the oncoming bus.  Every memory we have is similarly a story – not a photographic reproduction of reality, but an over-simplified construct designed to make sense of our experience.  Think of what you were doing a minute before you started reading this post.  What do you remember?  Certainly not every smell, every sound, every thought that crossed your mind, every pixel of your peripheral vision.  What you remember of that moment is a microcosm of what you remember about your entire life.  Sure, you can remember what you were doing September 11, 2001, but how many details of your own life on that infamous day could you recall, if you devoted every second of tomorrow to the task?  And that was a very memorable day.  What do you recall of  September 11, 1997?  Chances are you have no idea of the details of your experience that day.  The fact is, we don’t remember 99.99% of our lives.  All we remember are the pieces of the narrative stories we tell ourselves about who we are, which is to say, what our experiences have been.

The same holds true about our thoughts of the future.  As we drive down the road, we don’t forecast whether the next vehicle we pass will be a blue Toyota or a green Chevy.  We do, however, forecast whether our boss will be angry when we ask for a raise, or whatever might happen that’s important to us when we arrive at our destination (which is, usually, a function of why we’re going there).  Whether we’re thinking about the past, the present, or the future, we see ourselves as the protagonist in a narrative story defined by the very narrow story-view we’ve shaped to date, which includes our developing notions of what’s important to us.  Our proficiency at doing this is what has helped us flourish as a species.  This is why photographers tend to see more sources of light in the world, and painters more color, while novelists see more words and doctors see more symptoms of illness. The more entrenched we are in who we’ve become, the more different is the way we perceive reality.

Understanding ourselves as hard-wired for dealing with simple, limited stories rather than the totality of our actual experience – not to mention the totality of universal experience – has important ramifications for self-awareness.  As the psychologist Jean Piaget taught us, from our earliest years, we take our experiences and form conclusions about the patterns they appear to represent.  As long as new experiences are consistent with these constructs, we continue interpreting the world on the basis of them.  When a new experience presents itself that may not fit neatly into the pattern, we either reject it or (often with some angst) we begrudgingly modify our construct of reality to incorporate it.  From that point forward, we continue to interpret new experiences in accordance with our existing constructs, seeing them as consistent with our understanding of “reality” (as previously decided-on) whenever we can make it fit.

And so, from earliest childhood, we form notions of reality based on personal experience.  The results are the stories we tell of ourselves and of our worlds, stories which have a past and which continue to unfold before us.  As Cron points out, we are the protagonists in these stories.  And I’d like to make an additional point: that in the stories we tell ourselves, we are sometimes the heroes.  We are sometimes the victims.  But unless we are psychopathic, we are rarely, if ever, the villains.

There are, of course, plenty of villains in these stories, but the villains are always other people.  In your story, maybe the villains are big business, or big government; evil Nazis or evil communists; aggressive religious zealots, cold-blooded, soul-less atheists, or even Satan himself. It could be your heartless neighbor who lets his dog keep you up all night long with its barking, or the unfeeling cop who just gave you that unjust speeding ticket.

As you think of the current chapter of your life story, who are the biggest villains?  And are you one of them?  I doubt it.  But I suggest asking ourselves, what are the stories the villains tell about themselves?  What is it that makes them see themselves as the heroes of their stories, or the victims?  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that their stories make as much sense to them as our stories make to us?

We have formed our ideas about reality based on our own experiences, because they make sense to us.  Indeed, our stories make sense to us because they are the only way we can get our minds around a reality that’s throwing 11,000,000 pieces of information at us every second of our waking lives.  We live in a reality of mountain ranges, full of granite and marble.  Michelangelo finds meaning in it by chipping away everything that isn’t The Pieta, Auguste Rodin by chipping away everything that isn’t The Thinker.  When they find meaning in such small samples of worldwide rock, is it any wonder they see reality differently?

Psychologists tell us that self-esteem is important to mental health, so it’s no wonder that in the stories we tell ourselves, we are the heroes on good days, the victims on bad ones, and the villains only every third leap year or so.  Others are the normal villains.  But if I’m your villain, and you’re mine, then we can’t both be right – or can we?  An objective observer would say that your story makes excellent sense to you, for the same reasons my story makes excellent sense to me.  Both are grounded in experience, and your experience is quite different from mine.  Even more importantly, I think, your “story” represents about 7/11,000,000th of your life experiences while my story represents about 7/11,000,000th of mine.

But confirmation bias means that we fight like heck to conform new experience to our pre-existing stories.  If a new experience doesn’t demand a complete re-write, we’ll find a way to fit it in.  It’s like we’re watching a movie in a theater.  If some prankster projectionist has spliced in a scene from another movie, the whole story we’re watching makes no sense to us and sometimes we want to start over, from the beginning.    If our stories are wrong, our entire understanding of who we are and how we fit in becomes a heap of tangled film on the projection room floor.

One of the things I love about Halloween is how it lets us imagine ourselves as something different.  I mean, Christmas puts our focus on Jesus or Santa Claus, role models to emulate, but their larger-than-life accomplishments and abilities are distinctly other than the selves we know.  Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day encourage us to focus on other people.  Halloween is the one holiday that encourages us to pretend to be something we’re not – to put aside our existing views of the world “as it really is” and become whatever our wildest imaginations might see us as.  I think that’s why I like it so much.  Obviously, I’m not really a vampire ghoul from Transylvania, but when my current worldview is based on a tiny,  7/11,000,000,000th slice of my own personal experience, how much less accurate can that new self-image be?

I think of “intelligence” as the ability to see things from multiple points of view.  The most pig-headed dullards I know are those who seem so stuck in their convictions that they can’t even imagine the world as I or others see it.  I tend to think that absent the ability to see things from multiple points of view, we’d have no basis for making comparisons, no basis for preferences, no basis for judgment, and therefore, no basis for wisdom.

Halloween is the one time of year I really get to celebrate my imagination, to change my story from one in which I’m hero or victim to one in which I’m a villain.  As I try to see things from a weird, offbeat, or even seemingly evil point of view, I get practice in trying to see things as others see them.  For me, it seems a very healthy habit to cultivate.

But I must end on a note of caution.  As someone who tries to tell stories capable of captivating an audience, I am keenly aware of a conflict.  As the dramatist, my goal is to channel your experience, your thoughts, your attention, along a path I’ve staked out, to an end I have in mind.  When I’m successful, I create the groove.  My audience follows it.  In this respect, good story-telling, when directed toward others, is a form of mind control.

But what about story-telling to oneself?  It’s probably good news that in real life, there isn’t just one Stephen King or Tom Clancy trying to capture your attention or lead you to some predetermined goal.  Every book, movie, TV commercial, internet pop-up ad, billboard, preacher, politician, news reporter, self-help guru and next door neighbor has a story to tell, and wants you to follow it.  The blessing of being exposed to 11,000,000 pieces of information every second is that we’re not in thrall to a single voice trying to control the way we see the world.  But does this mean we’re free?  The reduction of the world’s complexity into a single world-view is a story that IS told by a single voice — our own.  All of our individual experiences to date have been shaped by our brains into a story, a story in which we are the heroes and victims.  The most powerful things that seek to control our views of the world are those stories.  We’ve been telling ourselves one since the day we began to experience reality.  My own?  Since early childhood, I have seen myself as a story-teller.  Since September, the immanence of Halloween has forced me, almost unwillingly at first, to focus on my annual Haunted House.  At first, it was hard.  But in just a few weeks, the themes, characters, scenes, and devices of this story took such a hold on me, that I woke up this morning unable to think of anything else.

Such are the pathways of our minds.  If my thoughts can be so channeled in just a few weeks, how deep are the grooves I’ve been cutting for over sixty years?  Am I really free to change the story of my life, or am I the helpless victim of the story I’ve been telling?

This week, try imagining yourself as something very different.  Something you’d normally find very weird, maybe even distasteful.  But remember – don’t imagine yourself the villain.  Imagine yourself, in this new role, as part hero, part victim. Get outside your prior self, and have a Happy Halloween.

— Joe