All names have been changed as to protect the identities of the research participants.
On my first day of research at the shelter for female street children, I met Hala (15), one of the first girls willing to give me an in-depth interview. Although she did not allow me to record our conversation, she talked with me about her life on and off the street for more than two hours. Hala was not shy at all, but rather very outspoken and talkative. It was a great interview, or it would have been, if there had not been this one problem: I felt that Hala was lying. The following text is an excerpt of my research journal.
Hala likes to be armed while walking in the street. She either carries a glass bottle or a knife. She told me many stories where she attacked, hurt and injured people. In one of these stories, she told me she prevented a gang-rape. Her sister Maya was going to be raped by four men on a horse carriage. Hala jumped on the carriage and beat the four men with her bare hands until they fell off the carriage. Hala and her sister then left the men lying in the street and stole the carriage (and the horse) and went home.
I did not openly challenge Hala’s story but I found it so hard to believe that she had defeated four men who were attempting to rape her sister, and that she had stolen their horse carriage and gone home. I could not help but wondering how much truth there was in the story, if maybe only the four men, the horse carriage and the rape were real, while the rest was Hala’s depiction of the story in the way she would have liked it to end. When I talked with a psychologist, Hanna, about the lies of street children, she explained:
“Those [street girls] who are physically weak always tell stories about how they defeated people. They create stories in which they are the heroes. They are heroes in their own minds because in reality, they are weak and they can’t defend themselves. Street girls are like this. They pretend to be strong and brave but in truth, they are constantly scared.”
After my experience with Hala and the statement of the psychologist, I expected the children to lie and I was highly interested in distinguishing between the factual truth and the lies. I expected the lies to be as instructive as the truth to add to my knowledge about the lives of female street children, but I still wanted to know when a child was lying, and when she was telling the truth.Without this knowledge, I felt that I would not be able to write about and present the results of my research.
It was only after a few weeks of research that I realised how deficient my understanding and the terminology of truth and lies was. If I wanted to understand the children and to make their voices heard, I had to make their voices heard, and not my own perception of what they were or were not saying. This meant that I had to quit searching for the truth and that I had to focus on listening to what they chose to share as their truth.
Today, more than six months after the end of the research period, I returned to the shelter where I had interviewed children, social workers and psychologists. I had the opportunity to ask Hanna more about truth and lies when working with street children, and I became aware that my attempts to deal with the girls’ accounts in the least biased way possible had still been quite flawed. Hanna explained to me the different dimensions of truth, or reality.
“What really happens to her [the street girl] is the factual reality. All the other things she talks about, the phantasies and lies, this is what I call the psychological reality. It is also real, but it is her psychological reality. […] The psychological reality reflects who I want to be, or how I want others to see me. I can describe myself as an abused victim, so you see me as a victim and feel pity and empathy and treat me with kindness. […] As a psychologist, I do not care the least bit about the differentiation. What I care about is her mental status. Whatever she decides to tell me is what I care about.”
Hanna then told me the story of a girl who had shared stories about the most horrible abuse she had experienced at home. Her mother was dead, her father would reagularly beat her up and her father’s wife had once tried to throw acid on her face. The psychologist later found out that most of the things the girls had told her were not factually true. The girl’s mother was alive and her parents had never gotten divorced, nor had her father married another woman, and nobody had ever attempted to throw acid on her face.
H: I can’t be upset with the girl, or question what she says. I have to understand why she views herself as a victim, why she really believes she was abused at home, although she wasn’t. […] I realised she didn’t feel very loved by her mother, cared for by her father. She felt like people were not seeing her or looking at her. […] She thinks that when she tells me all these horrible stories, I will care, I will empathise with her. She will be loved by me. This is what the psychological reality is about. She takes what she needs. She lies because it gets her what she needs.
A: So you don’t actually search for the factual reality?
H: There is no truth. […] I don’t care about truth or lies, all that matters is how she is doing and what she needs to be better. I want to find out what she needs. She sure needs something, otherwise she wouldn’t lie. Once she becomes more stable, she begins to share the factual truth, bit by bit, step by step. […] When this happens, I feel there is progress.
It was only today that I realised how absolutely necessary it is not to differentiate between the factual and the psychological reality. After all, I had not been trying to create a factsheet on the lives of female street children in Egypt, but to come closer to understanding the girls’ lives, how they viewed and desribed it. By (subconsciously) trying to distinguish ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, I had allowed a great portion of my own views to distort the results of my research. Hanna showed me that by sharing a certain information, a girl does much more than tell a story, and that it was so much more important to analyse what a girl did by sharing information, instead of what she said and whether or not it corresponded to my own and very subjective understanding of factual truth.