If you’re not watching HBO’s documentary on Robert Durst, The Jinx, you should. If you do, you probably had to manually close your jaw after Andrew Jarecki (the director) interviewed him present day and Durst was caught with a hot mic during a break, repeating to himself (on the subject of his murder trial in Texas), “I did not knowingly, purposefully, intentionally lie. I did make mistakes.” He seems to be rehearsing for how the conversation will pick up after a break. His lawyer advises him that the mic is on and that the cameras are getting all of his self-talk.
Durst’s lawyers then came over to tell him that his mic was still on and that they were able to hear everything, but he did not seem to care at all. He doubles down and confirms he meant what he said: “I did not tell the whole truth. Nobody tells the whole truth.”
“I did not tell the whole truth,” Durst told one of his lawyers. “Nobody tells the whole truth.”
The moment is shocking, and many viewers undoubtedly heard that as, “Of course I lied on the stand” or maybe even “I probably killed this guy, and others, because clearly you see I have no problem lying.” But I do think the point Durst is making — albeit inelegantly — is that human brains just don’t tell the whole truth. The premise that we can is false. Coming from Durst (partnered with his famous twitching and squirming) this fact feels dark and ominous. But philosophers have known this forever.
I was struck when Errol Morris, in his recent interview with Grantland, addressed the nuance of this seemingly-terrifying-but-truly-human notion thusly:
“One of the reasons I hate the idea of lie detectors is that we think of the brain as being a recorder, a memory recorder, so you can go back in there and find out what happened and what didn’t happen, and whether the person is lying or telling the truth. Well, maybe you can figure out whether they’re misrepresenting what they know or think they know, but we all can fabulate, we’ve all lied, we all change things in innumerable ways. It’s just part of being human. And part of our job is to try to struggle through this nimbus of confusion and error and get to something that approximates what’s out there in the world. The fact that someone misremembers something, or that there’s an element of wishful thinking in what they remember, am I surprised by that? Not really. Am I horrified by it? Not really. I’m horrified by a lot of stuff. Not so much by that. Or let’s put it this way: I’m horrified by it when it just leads to truly terrible stuff.”
Morris is talking about his film, The Unknown Known, about Donald Rumsfeld. Completely difference topic, not at all related to Durst or that case or anything on HBO. He’s discussing how Rumsfeld is somehow able to get through life without noticing nuance, without really addressing the dark and ugly shit that (probably) makes him a war criminal. He just grins and tells the story and seems perfectly comfortable in his truth, no matter how absurd it might be. Perception is everything, and in many cases, the truth is almost irrelevant when telling our stories. How can any one human being really tell the whole truth? We take this for granted every time we say things like “Well I heard Sally’s side, I wonder what Tom says.” It’s only scary when someone scary says it.
Even more so when we talking about the truth from an individual’s perspective. What Morris argues above is essentially, “Part of being human is probably not being capable of The Truth, capital T, that’s just how we manage and function.” I believe that’s exactly what Durst meant too, only, that lack of nuance delivers a significant Rumsfeld-like detachment that startles us.
Anyway, there might not be a parallel between Durst and Rumsfeld, but there is a very good argument to be made for Durst’s terse and matter-of-fact “No one tells the whole truth.”