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Journal-writing and unreliable narrators

September 3, 2012

Some of the problems of Mormon history deal with events that, if they were as truly groundbreaking as the church now teaches them to be, would have been recorded a lot more consistently than history actually shows them to be recorded. One easy example in Mormonism is Joseph Smith’s first vision. At least in the 20th and 21st centuries, the First Vision has served a pivotal role in missionary efforts to show the credibility of the restoration (and in consequence, of the truth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Joseph Smith is worth paying attention to because he really saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, and that has implications on how you should live your life.

The problem with the First Vision, for the members who are stumbling upon its less-than-straightforward history for the first time, is that for such a monumental (at least, in our 20th and 21st century consciousnesses) event, there are so many versions of it (and that is a link to…so that’s not even a critical response to the multiplicity of vision accounts…), and even more, those versions were not even first recorded until decades after the event happened.

Joseph Smith First Vision

The usual questions that arise are things like: if this were such an important event, then why wouldn’t Joseph have written it down or told anyone about it until several years had passed? And when he would write it down or tell people about it, why would the details change? I mean, if you met both Jesus and God (and your meeting them was kinda important to let you know about the nature of deity), then wouldn’t you make sure to remember that detail?

Of course, there are apologetic answers for many of these issues, and to be honest, the purpose of this post isn’t really to hash out the First Vision, because I quite frankly do not care.

Rather, I was just thinking about the nature of history, historiography, and the philosophy of history.

I am not even an amateur historian, so I guess plenty of people have thought about these issues far more than I have, but I think about a lot of the evidences that historians have at their finger tips…they have things like journals and diaries, legal documents, publishings, and whatnot. The question is…how reliable are each of these source documents for gleaning accurate historical accounts.

I think that there’s something to be said about the problems with human memory recall, so I would think that already casts into doubt a lot of stuff. But one thing that has made me more skeptical of journals as historical source documents has been my own journaling habits.


I keep a journal, and have kept a journal since I was 8 (at least, I would have to open my first journal and check the dates to tell for sure). Of course, I already cringe at that description — to say that I have “kept a journal since I was 8” implies to me more regularity or habitualness than is actually the case. I have not written every day, or every week, or every month. I write when it suits me, and then there are long periods of silence in between.

What’s even worse is how I write…when I decide to write a journal entry, I usually feel somewhat guilty about not having written for so many (days/weeks/months), so I try to fill in a summary of the events that occurred since the last entry. Usually, that’s too tedious, so I will simply apologize for not having written in a long time, and instead, I will start the journal with a recording of the events that I feel are relevant to get me to the present.

Each entry I write has a purpose or goal…and that purpose or goal means that I may withhold some details and express others. But at least with all that, it’s not like I’m not being honest…I’m just selecting which facts to tell…

There is a lot of room for inaccuracy, and most of it is not because I’m trying to mislead.

Sometimes, when I’m writing something, it is so far away from the event that I can’t just remember all the facts correctly. (If the event was so important, why didn’t I write about it the same day? Well…life doesn’t work like that for me. When I’m in the middle of something, my first reaction is not to take a break and write it down…)

Even when I do write an entry shortly after an event, sometimes I do not understand what was happening at that moment as correctly as I will. Sometimes, I view certain facts as having less importance at the time of the event than several (days/weeks/months/years) later, when I’m revisiting the event or when I have learned more about the situation. (This has led to some hilarious re-readings, where I would say something rather candidly in a journal entry, but not understand the implications of it until my re-reading.) And of course, I am not immune to all of those memory biases that I linked earlier.

Positivity and Negativity Effects

I haven’t been too great at this Sunstone recap blogging thing (which means that, when I get back to it, all the stuff that I talked about above will be very applicable), but if you recall, my Sunstone Day 3 recap mainly focused on a conversation I had with Marguerite Driessen. At some point in the conversation, I raised how the church’s lack of forthrightness about problems in its history was, well, problematic. I mean, she described how no one had pointed out to her — a convert in 1981 — that there was ever a priesthood ban that had persisted until 1978. She also described how she meets members every day who have never heard of the priesthood ban, and as a result of finding out that such a thing existed, they go through (what she believes to be an overreacting) faith crises.

She responded to me what many church defenders often say: we can’t really expect any organization, institution, or person to be forthright about their past. That’s just not how things work.

But then she related another story…and I apologize if I recall the details incorrectly:

From reading Jane Manning James’ (a black member of the early church) journals, we generally can’t find much of anything about the issues she personally faced relating to the priesthood ban in the early church (in her case, it wasn’t about being personally ordained…but rather about simply being eligible for temple ordinances like sealing.)  She just doesn’t write about the negative stuff. Rather, what we know comes from third-party sources that wrote about her.

Marguerite’s point was that generally, getting the full-side of the story requires not just going to the original person/institution/organization, but also to other sources that talk about that original person/institution/organization. It also means that we (as other folks) must raise awareness to those matters, so that we can fill out the story as well…

But notwithstanding that point (which is really its own topic), I was struck by the idea that someone wouldn’t write about the negative events that they themselves had experienced in their own lives…and to this, Marguerite had said, “Well…I don’t know if you write in a journal, but in my journal, I tend to write about positive events in my life.”

To which I responded: “Well…that’s interesting…if people read my journal, they would think that I was far more depressed and gloomy than I actually am…since I generally am only motivated to write when I am feeling down…when things are going well, I often don’t write for weeks/months at a time.”

Marguerite found this uncommon — she thought that I would definitely be in a minority of people as far as journaling habits go.

Well…I guess that’s just another way that I am a unique snowflake (like, for real, and not in the fake conforming-to-nonconformism way that most awkward teenagers think they are unique snowflakes.)

I don’t have any way to tell for sure whether more people tend to write about positive things or negative things in their journals (although I guess this question is kinda silly — how many people even write in journals in the 21st century? I mean, I guess some blogs can be considered analogously to journals [I believe it was Bridget Jack who clued me into the fact that contemporary history does very much take into account things like blogs and email conversations…]…but I definitely do not consider them so.)

I feel like I should take the time and read through all 8 volumes of my journal…just to see how far off my current memory of myself at early ages (which I know is not very valuable…I can’t even remember how old I am these days…) is from how I was in the past. How did I write about belief, sexuality, and feeling more like a robot or alien than a human being? I mean, now, I definitely feel more techno-organic than purely techno-, but would the organic have come out back then?

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  1. In my own writing I have occasionally tried to write as though the I (subject) was actually writing about Me (object) in the third person. It’s an interesting process because it forces a degree of “objectivity.”

    From the pov of historians, I agree that the statements of the subject become more or less reliable when filtered through the sieve of contemporaries or chronicles written relatively soon after the recorded events.

  2. Vajra,

    I think that is interesting — writing about yourself in the third person…I’ll have to try that and see if it causes me to write about things differently.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Isn’t your survey a bit biased by the fact that the only groundbreaking events you have access to are the ones that are well-documented?

  4. Seth R. permalink

    But one thing does need to be acknowledged I think. It seems Joseph Smith himself did not view the First Vision the same way the modern LDS Church does.

    We only view it as “the first time in 1800 years that the heavens were no longer silent and revelation was introduced into the world again, etc, etc….”

    That’s just how we interpret the event after a lot of LDS authorities hashed out the idea for a while. At the time Joseph Smith saw the event as a hugely important PERSONAL event. But just that – personal, and not really having any greater theological or ecclesiastical significance. For a long time, he felt the “First Vision” was meant only for him and no one else. It was only later in life that it even occurred to him that “hey – this might actually mean something for the affairs of all mankind.”

    This idea is consistent with both faithful and non-faithful narratives. You can view it either as Joseph mulling over his story and thinking how to embellish it to mean something more, or as Joseph Smith faithfully discovering it actually meant more. Take your pick.

    But events most undoubtedly take on additional meaning as more and more people have their shot at the narrative. How many people have become heroes in the popular conscious when at the time – they had no intention whatsoever of being that hero?

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