Ellen Urbani: There is No Such Thing as a True Story


There is no such thing as a true story. 

I know this because my daughter insists I told her to put her dirty dishes in the sink when I know I told her to put them in the dishwasher, and because my sister swears that on a late summer night in 1990 I deliberately flicked a Japanese beetle into her mouth when – cross my heart and hope to die – I only intended to swat it off my mother’s shoulder. I know this because my former spouse will tell you nothing of note occurred on the night I feared he would kill me.

“Dada says you say he tried to hurt you.”

This, from my eleven-year-old. It has been a quiet two days since he returned from his father’s house—the house where I send my children weekly because this is how divorce works, the court says I must, the court made up of learned men with so many Ds after their names, JDs, PhDs, PsyDs, MDs, men who say, “Send the children, they will be safe, but you: you would not be.”

My child who is never silent breaks his silence of the past two days with, “Dada says you say he tried to hurt you,” as I tuck him into bed. He has ducked far beneath his blanket, down in the dark where he might finally release this dark statement he does not want to repeat but cannot not repeat, because he tells me everything yet some everythings are too much of everything. I cannot see his face, but in his voice I hear tears.

Surprise hits me first. Pure, stupid surprise. For over a decade I’ve endeavored to shield my children from the facts that built the story of the end of my marriage and I’d always assumed their father would collude with me in our secret-keeping.

“What else did your Dada say about that?” I ask. But even before I finish the question I know the answer. He meant to beat me to the punch. Again.

“He says he didn’t do it. Whatever it is you say he did.”

I am not by nature a stoic person, but I throttle myself: my emotions, my voice, my gut, my fury, my tears, my reaction. I sit contained beside my son on the bed, this child I share with the man who hurt me. I move only one hand, and that barely: stroking my son’s head beneath the blanket until finally he peeks out from beneath it.

“So tell me the truth,” he says. “The whole truth! Don’t leave anything out.”

“Why do you want to know this truth?” I ask.

“Because knowing the truth is the only way to figure out who is lying.”

*          *          *

Do you remember the stories escaping from New Orleans ten years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

The Army Corps of Engineers always maintained the levees were properly engineered, up to and beyond the moment they failed.

The newscasters reported body upon dead body piled in the freezer hold at the Superdome, raped and murdered; beaten and murdered; ignored in the 100+ degree heat index and, therefore, murdered by neglect. Yet when the National Guardsmen opened the makeshift morgue a week later: empty.

The white police officers from Gretna said they were merely doing their jobs, standing shoulder-to-shoulder protecting their town, when the black folk mobbed them; they barely escaped with their lives. Whereas the black refugees said they were drowning in the Crescent City, trying to find safe passage out of hell, nothing more, when the white cops turned shotguns upon them and chased them away. The tourist caught in their midst, trapped between black and white, asked to name the criminal, swept wide his arms to take in every color of skin and said, “Thugs, every one.”

The Coast Guard helicopter pilots said the terrified people swarmed their crafts the minute they landed: they refused to queue up, would not wait their turns, would breach the weight capacity and down them all. The hospital patients and their nurses, holding aloft the IVs, squeezing the oxygen masks by hand, claim they stood on the helipad and waved and waved at planes that flew past them and on to those with more money or influence. Still others say the planes never came, not a one. “Wrong!” insist the 35,000 people flown to safety.

There is no singular truth of Katrina. Never was. Never will be.

Bodies floating in attics belied watermarks at five-feet above ground. Houses standing untouched on their foundations mocked their neighbors carried off entirely by the water or left in a scrap heap of two-by-fours and baby-doll heads and shattered TVs. No survivor upheld any other survivor’s account; no story authenticated any other story. Every experience: different. Wildly so.

As is always the case in times of trauma and disaster.

*          *          *

Seven years into our marriage, my former husband strangled me in a drunken rage in the middle of the night.

I’d awakened when he stumbled into the bedroom and I immediately berated him for driving home drunk. When he told me to stop acting like his mother I said that if she’d done her job right I wouldn’t have to. I was livid; I spoke cruelly; I was entirely out-of-line. I admitted this to my son when he asked for the truth. But I also told him that my behavior did not warrant—could never warrant—the retaliation of being hurled across the room, smashed against the wall, strangled off and on and made to beg for my life until dawn.

Then I told my son other things, things I had hoped to avoid telling him until he was older: why I went back to his father even after I escaped, why I did not report it—a thousand ‘whys’ built on fear and shame and guilt and the sort of fractured thinking I’d judged as insane my whole life and swore I’d never succumb to, the sort of fractured thinking that knocks you off your feet and off your game just as surely as a wall of levee water or a fist you never saw coming. I told my son that I’d been wrong to go back and wrong not to report it, but that we all sometimes talk ourselves into doing the wrong things for what we believe at the time are rational reasons. Finally, I told him that when we realize we’ve made a mistake we have not only the right but the responsibility to alter our course. I told him this is why his father and I are no longer married.

But I did not tell him that his father was lying when he said it never happened.

*          *          *

I think I know but I could not possibly know why his father claims that night never occurred.

People sometimes black out when they are drunk.

People sometimes want so badly to be someone other than who they are that they convince themselves that they are, and always have been, a more laudable version of themselves.

I know a man who said to his wife, “I love you,” and his words were true but he was being just as truthful when he smiled and said, “It makes me feel good to hurt you.” I know that same man to have cried, “I’m so sorry for being mean to you and I want to change, but it’s so much easier to hate you than to do something about all the hate I have for myself.” Such sincere but broken aspirations reside simultaneously in these two apposing truths: He wants to change. He will not change. Neither is a lie.

We can be one thing, and another thing, at the same time.

We can remember one thing, and a different thing, at the same time.

It is a fact that well-intentioned witnesses point fingers at innocent men in courtrooms because what they believe they saw and what they actually saw are two different things. It is a fact that men who try to kill their wives but stop themselves from killing their wives convince themselves they never meant to kill their wives, never even tried to do so. It is a fact that although he never touched me again in anger he has come after me in anger over and over and over again and each time I feel his hand is reaching for my throat.

Perspective is a fickle beast, and memory is an unreliable traveling companion through the years.

Which is why there is no such thing as a true story.

By way of explaining this to my son, I told him the foreshortened story of Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, flooded in the wake of Katrina. I told him how the patients and staff and visitors and family members and their pets hunkered down without electricity or enough food or sufficient medicine for a week and how, on the fifth day after the hurricane stranded them, with evacuations petering out and the government ordering them to abandon the failing facility, it is said that one or more doctors and a handful of nurses filled syringes with what medicine remained and injected it into the patients they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, move—killing them. Federal and state prosecutors interviewed hundreds of witnesses and got hundreds of different stories. Pathologist after pathologist tested the dead bodies and got the same results but interpreted them in myriad ways. There have been dozens of investigators, multiple indictments, magazine articles and books, court appearances, public statements, depositions, and ten years later we are left with this: no one can say with certainty what happened on the fifth day at Memorial.

So when my son asked me to tell him the truth, “the whole truth,” I told him truthfully I cannot do that—not about Katrina, or about Memorial, or about the night I was strangled by his father. For I can never know the whole truth of what transpired in a city in which I did not live, or within a surgical suite I did not occupy, or at the other end of a pair of hands that did not belong to me. My perspective will never be full enough, nor my understanding sufficient, to speak to anything other than what I lived.

*          *          *

In my stories, my truth resides. Little pieces of my life lent to my characters, set free in words to dance with all those other resilient, jumbled-together, unverifiable truths whose echoes have caught my ear, touched my heart, and landed on the paper at the end of my hands.

“This is you!” my mother thrilled to say as she read my novel about Hurricane Katrina for the first time, finding little clues to me tucked into the folds of one girl or another, until she came to the scene where a man hurls his victim against a wall and strangles her and laughs at her little mewling noises and makes her beg for her life and my mother said, ”Thank God nothing like that ever happened to you,” and I sat there, silent, unable to lie, staring at her across the kitchen table until she understood, until she reached a hand toward me and said, “Oh my God. What happened to you?” and I told her, the first person I ever told, seven years after it happened.

Another seven years later, my child comes to me and asks me to tell him the truth.

And so I do.

This essay first appeared in The Rumpus and is shared here with the kind permission of Ellen Urbani. 

Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall (Forest Avenue Press, 2015), a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena (The Permanent Press, 2006), a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. Her autobiographical essays and short stories have appeared in a variety of bestselling pop-culture anthologies as well as the New York Times.

Ellen earned a B.A. in Writing and Design at the University of Alabama in 1991. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala from 1991-1993, she returned stateside to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Art Therapy from Marylhurst University in 1996, specializing in oncological illness and trauma survival. She is a renowned speaker on the national lecture circuit, and her work is the subject of a short documentary, Paint Me a Future, which won the Juror’s Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2000, qualifying it for Oscar consideration. As a former mental health specialist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and advisory board member at the Annenberg Center for Health Science Research, she focused on addressing the emotional repercussions of disease and disaster. This therapeutic perspective informs her characterization of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in Landfall, allowing for a nuanced fictional interpretation of historic events.

Ellen lives on a working farm near Portland, Oregon with her husband, two young children, and a passel of barnyard pets.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.