Unreliable Narrators

I fell asleep to an episode of Dateline last week. I watch Dateline pretty often late at night. It’s on all the time, which is helpful for those of us who are awake between midnight and five a.m.

Plus, I find the way the episodes are structured really interesting, and if you can tolerate a bit of murder and mayhem and want to learn how to write stories with elements of suspense, Dateline is a great resource. There’s a rhythm to the way information is parceled out, and this rhythm is what keeps the viewer engaged.

Dateline also does a great job of creating “unreliable narrators.” Any narrator, by virtue of being the one telling the story, is initially credited by the reader (or viewer or listener) with honesty. Scout, for instance, is telling the truth about Jem and Atticus and Calpurnia. We can appreciate that she has a kid’s point of view and limited insight into some events, but we never think she is deliberately lying to us.

But when the narrator is shown to be unreliable, as so often happens on Dateline, the reader/viewer becomes disconcerted and anxious. Deliberate dishonesty, bias, faulty memory — these things grab our attention, because they go against our expectation of reliable narration. 

A great example of an unreliable narrator.

On Dateline, unreliable narrators are created by juxtaposing the things people say with the things they do. “I loved her and would never hurt her,” says the guy who, in the next frame, is shown on the Home Depot security camera buying rope and duct tape. Hmmm…..You sure about that? Never? 

As a result, the viewer stays off-kilter. We want to take people’s words at face value….but we also want to see if the fibers found at the crime scene match that rope. If we switch over to Shark Tank, we’ll never know! 

Col. Mustard routinely bashed people’s heads in with a candlestick in the Library, just because he was grumpy.

The main story of the episode I saw was about a man who’d crashed a plane into a lake. His passenger, whom he claimed was his fiancée, drowned. But he managed to escape, and — lucky guy! — escape with a duffel bag full of money and extra clothes! Quel coincidence! No pre-planning there, for sure. He went on to live under an assumed name for 24 years. 

But that wasn’t what got my attention. What grabbed me was a woman. 

She was, Dateline told us, employed by Texas Instruments as a “fault finder.” Basically, her job was to read through technical codes and find anything that looked suspicious or flawed.

“I hate a mystery,” she told Dateline. “I’m the kind of person who sees something off or fishy, and I have to investigate. All my life, I’ve been that way.”  I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist — we were dealing with a real life Nancy Drew.

Had she spent a little more time reading, Nancy would have known that it was Boo Radley putting the messages in the hollow oak. And who played Boo Radley? (Hint: He’s a god among men.)

This woman repeatedly asserted her inability to tolerate anything suspicious or dishonest, but then we find out….

She was dating the guy from the plane. They met online, and right off the bat, there were some red flags. He claimed to be 34, but looked quite a bit older. He dissembled when she asked personal questions.  

Months into their relationship, she finally confronted him about his age, because, you know, she can’t abide anything fishy. Turns out he was 10 years older than he’d said, and oops! that name he gave her? Not exactly. His real name is Jaroslaw Ambrozuk.

This guy.

Well, you can imagine what happened next. This is a woman who HATES a mystery! She Googles Jaroslaw Ambrozuk, and finds a couple of articles about this mysterious plane crash he was involved in, and the suspicious death of his companion.

So she does the only logical thing.

She packs her bags, and goes with him on a trip to Japan.


My takeaway from this wasn’t that this woman was stupid or delusional or so desperate to see Japan that traveling with a suspected murderer and confirmed fraud seemed reasonable. She may be all or none of those things, I have no idea.

What struck me was the tremendous disconnect between what she said and what she did, between what she believed about herself, and what any person with eyes and ears would think about her. It made me think about how crafty the human brain is, and how incredibly good at justifying the things that the heart wants to believe.

So as I fell asleep, I was thinking about the times when I’ve been an unreliable narrator in my own life, because it was too painful to own the truth. 

And then, as I teetered right on the edge of sleep, Tony Robbins came busting into my thoughts.

This man does not sleep. Ever.

You know Tony Robbins, right? He’s the terrifyingly Tigger-like force of nature who’s amassed a fortune helping people see beyond their current situations. 

I watched a Ted talk with him some months ago, and while I’m neither a devotee nor a detractor of Tony Robbins, something in that talk stayed with me. In it, Robbins wanted to understand what makes us do the things we do. 

He identified six basic needs, and argued that understanding which one we value most helps us see where we’re going, and also why we’ve done what we’ve done in the past. These are the needs:

  1. Certainty — being sure of having our basic needs met. 
  2. Uncertainty — alleviating boredom through variety.
  3. Significance – knowing that we matter.
  4. Connection – valuing ourselves through friendship or love or a relationship with God.
  5. Growth – knowing that we are expanding, spiritually or intellectually or emotionally.
  6. Contribution – feeling called, and knowing that we are making a difference.

There’s something to this, I think. You see it all the time in people who live with addicts, for instance. [I also watch Intervention. If I ever need an intervention, please call Jeff Van Vonderen. No one else.] 

“I’m all he has,” a mother tells herself about her son, who’s violent, abusive, and oh yeh, just pawned the wedding rings he stole off her dresser for crack. “He needs me to take care of him.”

Well, no, not really. He needs to get sober. The rest is just her brain justifying irrational decisions in order to meet an emotional need.

Jeff Van V. being pensive.

In the case of the woman on Dateline, the disconnect between what she believed about herself — that she is unable to tolerate dishonesty and is relentlessly curious and has a knack for detecting b.s. — and what she actually did revealed something about her need to be loved, or connected or….something. That’s for her to figure out. 

But I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, to consider the times when you’ve been an unreliable narrator of your own story. If you can figure out why you had to bridge the brain/heart divide, then you can learn something about what’s important to you, and how you should prioritize your life.  

In the meantime, the god among men who played Boo Radley? That was Robert Duvall. And here are two of the most unreliable narrators ever. They can have kibble in their whiskers and still act like stealing the pineapple cake off the counter was entirely justified, because they were just so hungry…