To me, this line in Elsa Walsh’s introduction to Divided Lives, a book about the attempts of three successful women to balance their competing commitments, best captures the meaning of “emotional truth” (italics mine): “The narratives are, in large part, told from the perspective of the woman; they represent the subject’s version of truth […] The stories, as a result, are not fully inclusive and, most likely, would read differently if told from another perspective. But, again, that is the point.”
Emotional truth is inherently subjective: it does not reflect the “objective” reality of any given situation. However, that does not make it any less real. The notion of emotional truth, ultimately, challenges the easy dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity—it acknowledges that the realm of feeling can provide as much insight into reality as the realm of fact. Perhaps, more controversially, it even suggests that the distinction between the two realms can be collapsed.
Consider: in a court of law, whether or not God ordered Leslie deVeau to kill her daughter matters less than the fact that she ardently believed Him to have done so. That belief had concrete ramifications, and understanding deVeau’s perspective became key to the court’s decision to either exonerate or condemn her. The state of this woman’s mind, how she perceived the world and herself, was not merely a “subjective” consideration peripheral to the “objective” facts of the case—it was the objective fact of the case.
Our cultural conceptions of “fact” and “truth,” I would argue, have become overly scientific, as though only peer-reviewed journals and statistical models yield epistemic certainty. While polls, surveys, and experiments have their place, they will never capture the full complexity of the human experience, for one simple reason: they atomize it into discrete, vaguely defined units (happiness, sorrow, fear, satisfaction, etc.) and then attempt to separately and “objectively” measure each. This cannot possibly correspond to the messiness of people’s interior lives, where the boundaries of thoughts and feelings are not so sharply demarcated, if at all.
Aside from that, poll respondents and experiment subjects will not always answer honestly or behave authentically, not out of deception but rather of ignorance—that is, ignorance about themselves. This was the case with the three women Walsh profiled for Divided Lives, all of whom changed certain answers to certain questions later in the interviewing process—not just because they became franker, but also because they came to understand themselves better.
In their attempts to uncover universal laws of human behavior, scientists typically look for similarities—recurring patterns across significant sums of data—rather than differences. This misses the crucial but paradoxical insight revealed by Walsh’s pursuit of “emotional truth”: that universal human truths are often found in what differentiates people rather than in what links them. Elsa Walsh approaches her subjects much as ethnographers approach cultures, by acting on what I believe is a basic principle in storytelling: particularity yields universality. By attempting to understand her own, and her subject’s, “versions of truth,” Walsh arrives at conclusions relevant not just to one person but to many people--indeed, perhaps to all people.