Nowhere Man

Milking amnesia

The brain is a beguiling thing. One evening, you're talking to a friend on the phone. Sometime later, you find yourself in a subway car, passing through an urban landscape. You don't recognize the buildings, the neighborhood, or the city. Don't know why you're on the train. Don't even know your name, or what you do for a living, or if you have a home. When you notice a backpack hanging off your shoulders, you search it for evidence of your identity, but there is none. Terrified, you exit the subway, find a police station, and ask for help.

That's what happened to Douglas Bruce, a young Englishman who had retired early from stock brokering and was living in New York. In July 2003, Bruce suffered an attack of retrograde amnesia, losing his entire episodic memory -- that is, memory of all of the events and knowledge of his life -- to a brain hiccup that no doctor or medical test has since been able to explain. Unknown White Male, a fascinating documentary by Bruce's longtime friend Rupert Murray, uses footage taken by both Bruce and Murray to document Bruce's harrowing, enlightening, and occasionally hilarious experience. It's a wild ride.

There is much to marvel at, considering the questions the film raises about identity and personality. For instance, Bruce lost his episodic memory but not his semantic memory: He speaks the King's English with precision and care. He also seems to have retained much of his procedural memory, since he can still type and ride a bicycle. And though he has lost all of the photography technique he acquired in two years at school, he relearns everything in a span of two months, suggesting that certain neural networks in his brain may remain intact, despite his lack of access to them.

Brain washed: Douglas Bruce attempts to find out who he is after being stricken with amnesia in Unknown White Male.
Brain washed: Douglas Bruce attempts to find out who he is after being stricken with amnesia in Unknown White Male.

In fact, that seems to be the general state of things for Bruce. It isn't that his memories are erased; it's that he can't reach them. Doctors have given him a 95 percent chance of a full recovery, but, 21 months after the event, it still hasn't happened. In the meantime, Bruce has relearned worlds. He has connected with -- well, met -- his family and friends. ("My father is not at all what I expected.") He has looked through photographs, old school letters, and paraphernalia from his childhood. He has watched home videos and listened to friends tell him stories about their shared past. But none of it seems to matter much. With Bruce's amnesia has come a sort of Buddhist detachment from his story. What pains him is the obligation he feels to others, people who are attached to him and have hopes for his recovery.

One of the most delightful aspects of the film is watching Bruce experience the world anew. As director Murray puts it, "Doug now [sees] the world with the eyes of a newborn baby, but appreciate[s] it with the mind of an adult." Bruce describes eating chocolate mousse "for the first time" and tasting a strawberry, and what it's like to see and touch snow or watch and hear firecrackers. A friend says that, one day, Bruce called her up to share his discovery of a great band: the Rolling Stones. When Bruce sees the ocean for the first time, his senses are overwhelmed. He seems to experience it with the finely tuned perceptions of a child, taking in the sounds of the rushing waves, the sparkling reflections of the light, and the cool, wet textures of the sand and sea. And when he dives in, he discovers that he knows how to swim.

So who is Doug Bruce now? English philosopher Mary Warnock muses that he is very likely the same man, since a line can be traced from his birth to his existence in the present, but quite possibly not the same person. The implication is that personality is inextricable not just from experience but from the memory of experience: Because he has only the past two years to bring to his current identity, Bruce's personality has changed. His existence, on the other hand, relies neither upon the past nor any connection to that past.

Interestingly, Bruce's personality does seem to have changed. His friends and family find him more mellow, more open, less edgy, and not as dark. Has his detachment from his memory relieved him of a lifetime of burdens? His amnesia might be psychogenic, a response to his mother's death, which greatly pained him. Has living without that grief enabled him to be more present in his life? Or is that grief lying in wait, only to resurface later? Or maybe it's informing him without his awareness of it? Unknown White Male raises these and other delicious questions, richly layered queries that offer new ways of thinking about ourselves and our lives. Kudos to both Bruce and Murray for having had the courage to make such a brave and honest film.

 
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