I have several major scars on my torso. One is about the size of a silver dollar and is just under the bottom of my lowest left front rib (my brother used to say I had two belly buttons). Another is basically an arc-shaped fold of skin, about an inch long, just under the right scapula on my back. The largest scar begins just below and to the right of my right nipple and extends in a roughly straight line under my right armpit around to just above and to the left of the scar near my scapula. Anyone who has ever seen me without a shirt on has seen the scars. When I was younger, I used to enjoy telling tall tales about the origins of my scars. I told people it was a shark attack, a gang fight, or my personal favorite, “Dude, I got it in ‘Nam.”
The current scholarly consensus is that I got the scars from surgery in 1964, on the day I was born. According to the narrative espoused by the Williams family, the scars are consistent with major surgery to correct a birth defect, tracheoesophageal fistula. Whenever I have an X-ray, it’s obvious that every rib on my right side has been broken, and the breaks line up in a clean line, suggesting that they were cut during surgery. I’m sure any number of physicians could confirm that the scars look exactly like what you expect from someone who has had corrective surgery for that birth defect.
However, there are significant gaps in the historical record. Neither of my parents kept a journal, so there is no written contemporary evidence from the family. As far as I know, the only documentary evidence for the surgery from the family is a life history of my uncle, which he wrote in 2001, many years after the alleged surgery. And unfortunately, the hospital where the surgery was performed has long since closed. The only evidence that supports the consensus–besides the scars themselves–is oral history, and obviously memories and motivations can be suspect. If we are going to uncover the real origins, the ones we all want to believe in, we need to consider alternative theories.
Given the paucity of incontrovertible evidence that is available to the public, several alternatives are possible: the knife fight, and so on (the ‘Nam theory is intriguing but ultimately can be discounted because I was 8 years old when the war ended). But someone could easily speculate that the injuries could have been sustained in a car accident. Suppose they learn that, around the time I was 17, I didn’t work during one summer, several high school acquaintances died that same summer in a terrible car accident a few miles from my home (police reports could not determine who was driving), and the car my grandfather had given me–a 1971 Plymouth Valiant–suddenly disappeared from in front of my house at roughly the same time. Is such an accident a plausible explanation for my scars? I suppose it is. I could explain the real origin of the scars, but this theorist could just as easily say I have a motive to lie about not being in a car accident because I don’t want to admit that I killed 7 people on the Pacific Coast Highway. And besides, how could I confirm that I was operated on as a newborn, as I obviously have no memory of the surgery? And there are other, unexplained scars that do not fit the “surgery” narrative: one on my chin, another on my upper left back, and a small, barely noticeable one on my nose. All of these might be consistent with injuries sustained in an automobile accident, but not with the alleged surgery. Also, several years later I had a stress fracture in my femur, which could have been weakened in the accident. Clearly, then, it’s just as plausible to believe I was in a car crash at age 17 than it is to believe I had major surgery the day I was born.
Imagine that I ask this theorist to provide some documentary data to support the theory: an accident report, hospital records, a family member or anyone else placing me at the scene of the accident. I would think I’m well within my rights to ask for some evidence beyond speculation.
Suppose, then, that the accident theorist asks me for more “data” to prove I got the scars from surgery. I’m not really sure I could prove it to anyone’s complete satisfaction. It would take me some time, but I could probably locate the note the surgeon gave my parents the day I was born. I saw it once about 20 years ago, and it consists of a diagram showing the extent of the defect and an explanation of what the surgery would do. It’s probably in a closet somewhere in my parents’ home, but it would take some digging to find it. But then it’s jotted in blue ballpoint pen on a scrap of lined notebook paper, and it would be impossible to substantiate its authenticity, unless of course you can trust me or my parents (would they have a motivation to lie, as well?). There’s no date on it, there’s no way to authenticate the doctor’s handwriting, and besides, he’s been dead for more than 15 years. As far as I know, that is the only documentary evidence of the surgery in my parents’ possession. I would also assume there are medical records somewhere, but I’m almost certain my parents don’t have them. I’m not sure how I would be able to find anything contemporary to the surgery that is verifiable. I don’t have any photos of me as an infant without a shirt on, so that’s out. I could probably find a photo somewhere in a closet in my parents’ house, but then again, my mom is a bit of a hoarder, and it might be hard. But before I bother with that, I think it would be reasonable to ask the theorist to provide some evidence to substantiate the assertion that I was in such an accident.
What if there were even less compelling evidence that I was involved an accident? What if it was known only that I had received the Valiant sometime after high school and that I no longer had it in my possession sometime before I turned 19? What if I had met some of the accident victims only a couple of times during high school but had no established history? What if I could show that the stress fracture to my femur was probably related to doing too much running and occurred many years later? What if the theorist couldn’t show that the other scars I have are contemporary with the surgery scars?
What if there were no documentation at all? No accident reports, no medical records, no bill of sale of the Valiant? What if all we had to go on is oral history from me and my parents? Would it make sense to accept the accident theory and then interpret the rest of my life based on the belief that it actually happened? Why or why not?