Narrators Who Leave Us Stranded In the Shadows

Over the last 24 hours, I have been thinking a lot about storytelling. About reconciling a setting with the people interacting in that setting; about the noises, the ancillary details. I’ve been thinking about unreliable narrators; how when we, as readers, know someone’s pulling the wool over us. I’ve been thinking about how Mike Brown left us month ago, but how through stories, his ghost remained very much with us.

I have been thinking about the 12 individuals whose decisions, based on their interpretation of events from a series of unreliable narrators, winded us.

In fiction, unreliable narrators are a thrill. In our waking lives, they are shepherds of discord, apathetic gods of cruelty. Their actions seem to operate according to no universal moral code–but rather a self-serving one, one which assumes that to get ahead, you must pummel others. It’s one that precludes kindness.

A real-life unreliable narrator will take you by the hand, ask you to trust him, and then lead you into the shadows and leave you there to fend for yourself.

We know well the tricks an unreliable narrator has within reach: Scapegoating, a fuzzy understanding of time, selective memory, narrative filibustering, aimless tangents…are but several.

Logic, responsibility, continuity: These are elusive.


There is a thrill when we read Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” We witness his gradual descent to insanity.

We assume that it is his insanity because he makes less and less sense. His thoughts are less coherent. Our trust in the narrator wanes the further along we get.

It is Gogol’s intention, too, to have us bear witness–look at the title of the short story–to this man’s mental decline.

We trust Gogol, but never ever would we trust the madman.


There is a balancing act between expectations and narrative trust.

We are expected to assume that St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch is not a man who is experiencing a gradual slide into insanity.

We are expected to trust him when he tells us justice has been delivered. We are expect to trust that the investigation he led turned over all the necessary cards and yieleded a just verdict. We are expected to trust that all the correct witnesses were invoked and of the witnesses that were invoked, they all accurately represented what actually happened on August 9, 2014. We are expected to trust that all the correct and relevant evidence was analyzed, tested, and submitted.

We are expected to take at face value his scapegoating of the kinds of backchannel communications which forced this investigation in the first place; we are expected, of all things, to not trust the backchannel communications, led by civilians and activists, which sought a just verdict. We are expected to think that hashtags and a non-stop news cycle are somehow more harmful than one human ending the life of another human.

We are expected to think that all these things add up–and we fail to trust him when these things do not add up.

(We are inclined to ask, “Is there a gradual slide into insanity?”)

Furthermore, we are asked to expect the possibility of a verdict we disagree with by a President who we expect should be incensed by the outcome of events. This is the tipping point.

His equanimity–something which might in most instances color a narrator as reliable–decimates our trust in him. It makes us wonder who is pulling the puppet strings. It makes us wonder how a man who can order unmanned flying machines to take out small children across the world can feign powerlessness so. We expect something, anything.

We expect him to shed a tear. Or raise his voice.



I, too, am an unreliable narrator because I set this piece up for you hoping that I could untangle the knots in my stomach and maybe help shine a light into the darkness.

There is no light, though. And I failed you.

I can only leave you with this: The tall shadow of Ferguson, Missouri eclipses us all. While we stand in it, we need to steady our breaths, clasp hands with those around us–even if we don’t know their names and can’t see their faces–and trust that together, we can find a way out of the shadow and into light.

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