Erase memory?

If you remember nothing, who are you?

On July 3, 2003, a man woke up on the New York subway. He got off at Coney Island, wandered around for a while, then gave himself up to the police. He had no idea who he was.

He had a British accent, wore a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, and carried a backpack containing a guide to Central America. Inside that, the police found a phone number and a woman’s name. They called her and described the lost man, but she had no idea who he might be. So they sent the man to Coney Island hospital, where a nurse taped a band to his wrist. She wrote on the band: “unknown white male”.

A few days later, after submitting to an assortment of inconclusive tests, scans and conversations with psychiatrists, the man phoned the woman himself. She didn’t recognise him immediately, but it gradually transpired that she was the mother of his ex-girlfriend. At last, somebody could tell him who he was: a 35-year-old British man called Douglas Bruce.

His sister Marina, who lives in Spain, got the news from the ex-girlfriend and called Douglas. “I said, ‘Hi, it’s Marina, your little sister.’ And he got really upset. I think he was crying. He was so wound up. ‘Oh God, I’ve got a sister.’”

Marina phoned their father. “At first I thought this was some kind of joke,” Ivan recalls. “But she said, ‘Douglas doesn’t know who we are,’ and I felt a terrible hole in my stomach. Had I lost a son? And what could I do about it?” The story spread among Douglas’s friends, but it seemed he didn’t relish speaking to people from his past. One friend, Rupert Murray, wrote him a letter. He said they’d known each other for 20 years, and he’d like to make a film about what had happened.

Memory loss has always intrigued film-makers. The Internet Movie Database lists no fewer than 13 films called Amnesia. Jackie Chan, in Who Am I?, has no idea why he’s being chased by secret agents. Emma Thompson, in Dead Again, recovers her past through hypnosis. And in The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon plays a man who discovers his name in a bank vault.

A film about Bruce would be different. It would examine questions of the greatest philosophical importance. Are we the sum of our experiences, our relationships with others? Is consciousness merely a stream of thoughts and sensations, or do we have an eternal soul, a defined personality from birth, that can’t be lost?

Murray’s original idea was that the film would only be shown in the UK, on Channel 4. But a few months after starting work, Murray asked Bruce if he could submit it to the Sundance festival. Bruce agreed. Unknown White Male was accepted at Sundance and short-listed for this year’s Oscars. It went on general release in the US in March, and this week it opens here.

The film’s success has also brought a great deal of unwelcome publicity.

Some critics described it as a “mockumentary” along the lines of The Blair Witch Project or This Is Spinal Tap. Others called it a hoax. Others went further, accusing Bruce of perpetrating some kind of fraud, with or without Murray’s help. It didn’t help that the film came out so soon after the so-called Piano Man, discovered wandering round Sheerness last year, was widely reported to be a fraud. Sceptics also wondered why Bruce devoted so much energy to filming his own life as soon as he came out of hospital. Why did he have that woman’s phone number? How did he know what a police station was, and that the people inside might help? Why had none of the medical experts who examined him been able to explain his profound memory loss? (He had a few small bumps on his head, but nothing that would explain this. Blood tests and an assortment of scans showed nothing decisive either.) And why hadn’t Murray fleshed out Bruce’s background? What school did he go to? Where did he grow up? Where did he work?

These questions provided plenty of material for the bilious occupants of internet chat rooms. One complained that there is nothing particularly tragic about losing your memory only to discover that you are rich and have a large, well-furnished home in Manhattan.

Bruce found the scepticism painful and insulting. It reached a peak at the time of the US launch, just days before I was due to fly to New York and interview him. With 24 hours’ notice, I was told he didn’t want to see me.

He didn’t need, or want, the publicity. It took an awful lot of talking to persuade him to change his mind.

I’ve experienced memory loss myself. I wasn’t going to mention it, as it seems insignificant by comparison, but I want Bruce to understand that I have some idea what he’s been through.

At university, shortly before my finals, I came off my bike at speed, breaking bones and smashing my head. I was taken to hospital and monitored for brain damage. I found I couldn’t remember the events of the previous week or so. However hard I tried, it was blank. Oddly, I did remember a Shakespeare play I had read that week as part of my course. I’d also lost my sense of direction. Hearing the words “Oxford Street”, I knew they described an important road, but I had no idea where the road was, nor how it fitted into the map of London, where I had grown up. I had to learn my way round again.

This is what I tell Bruce when I meet him, in the shadowy bar of a trendy Manhattan hotel. He listens carefully, with a blank expression that shifts occasionally, as when he can’t hear me over the piped music, into something almost thunderstruck. As a conversational manner, it’s unusual and a little unnerving. He’s come here with Murray, who has been doing interviews all day. (The film opened in New York the previous night. Bruce stayed away.) I tell them I enjoyed the film, particularly Murray’s idea that Bruce, after the accident, “saw the world with the eyes of a newborn baby, but appreciated it with the mind of an adult”. Is that how Bruce recalls it?

He nods. “If you see something for the first time, you feel a great sense of wonder. Imagine falling in love for the first time.” (Some time after losing his memory, Bruce met an Australian, Narelle. They are still together.) “How can that not be amazing? It grabs you by the throat.”

Research suggests there’s a 95% chance that his memories will return. Has that happened yet? “No.” Will he even notice when they do come back? “I don’t know. I don’t think you get everything back at once.” He’s worried that odd memories might come back out of sequence and make no sense. I raise several issues that have troubled viewers. The answers are generally convincing. (For instance, Bruce had recently been to Central America, he says, and his ex-girlfriend was staying with her mother, which is why he had her mother’s number in that travel guide.) It’s hardly to Murray’s credit that these loose ends were untied in the film.

Not everybody who dislikes the film regards it as fraudulent. Others argue that it’s exploitative: it takes advantage of a man in the throes of mental upheaval. Bruce doesn’t feel that himself. “I have taken a lot out of the process. Rupert is a very imaginative guy, and I’ve learnt a lot from him.

I value our friendship.” The arguments they did have about the film, amusingly, were aesthetic. Bruce didn’t like Murray using distorting lenses to re-create his weird time in Coney Island. But Murray says he was only trying to “get the viewer as close as possible to Doug’s experience”.

Murray’s first work as a film-maker involved shooting vox-pop interviews on the street for advertisers. His big break in documentaries was a film about a group of Sheffield Wednesday supporters at the World Cup. In 2004 he won an award for a film on drug addiction. He met Bruce in the late 1980s. They belonged to a large group, friends of friends, who went clubbing together.

Nobody else could have made Unknown White Male, Murray argues, because so much depends on his own insights as a former friend, his access to other old friends, and home-movie footage. Also, Murray says, making the film provided a pretext for renewing their friendship. “Others who were maybe better friends than me had not telephoned Doug. Because how do you structure that call?”

Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, says it’s extremely rare for someone to lose their entire past. But it has been reported many times in medical literature, he says. It happens. But what exactly did Bruce lose? Schacter says there are three main types of long-term memory. Episodic memory comprises unique experiences that happened in a particular time and a particular place. Semantic memory is the kind we acquire at school: facts, language, concepts. And procedural memory includes skills such as how to ride a bicycle. All three are involved in constructing our identity, but it’s episodic memory that makes us unique.

Bruce seems not to have lost his procedural memory: he found he could still swim, and his old signature came back to him at once. But he lost a large chunk of semantic memory, such as the meaning of the term “West Indian cricket” and the identity of the people who live at Buckingham Palace. And his episodic memory had gone entirely. As he’s subsequently been told, Bruce was born in Nigeria, to a Scottish father, Ivan, and a French mother, Loraine. He had two younger sisters, Christina and Marina. When he was eight, he was sent to board at St Edmunds in Canterbury, where Ivan had been before him. Douglas was bright, if not exceptional. At the senior school, he became a bit of a tearaway but passed his A-levels, and he went to London University. He left after a year, and went to Paris to work as stockbroker. Soon afterwards, still in his early twenties, his mother died.

He had been very close to her, but his sisters don’t remember seeing him cry or hearing him discuss his feelings. When he was 30 he decided to switch careers. He moved to New York and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts.

At least, that seems to be his story. But is it? Nobody knows the details of someone else’s life as well as the person involved. Even Ivan can’t say what his son studied at university: “I think it was economics, but I wouldn’t put my life on it.”

Memories are kept alive, Schacter explains, by retrieving them and talking about them. By a similar process, we can also create false memories. And that, to an extent, is what Bruce has done since 2003. Knowing he lived in Africa as a child, he finds himself building up pictures of that life whenever he watches a documentary on National Geographic. Murray has a theory about this. “Freud said, if you picture yourself in a particular memory, it’s unlikely to be real. I have a powerful memory of sitting on my grandmother’s lap watching the moon landings, because that’s what I’ve been told so often by my family.” (In July 1969, Murray was less than two months old.) “So it’s difficult to know how much of my memory is real. Doug has a pretty clear idea of the timeline of his life now, so what makes that any different from my memories?”

It took Bruce a long time to accumulate his “memories”. For months, he felt excruciating discomfort as he tried to deal with the blankness. “At parties it was awful. I had gaping holes in my general knowledge and nothing to talk about. If I talked about the amnesia, that took over everything else.

Now I don’t mention it.”

One area in which he is careful not to mention it is work. After several years at the School of Visual Arts, Bruce is now a professional photographer. The morning after our meeting at the hotel, he takes me to a lab in midtown New York to collect some portraits he shot recently.

Wandering around with him, and travelling on the subway – which he still finds difficult after that train to Coney Island – I can’t help thinking of Robert Powell in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth. Powell, as Jesus, famously never blinked during eye contact with others, which lent him a transcendent, unearthly air. Bruce does blink occasionally, but there’s certainly something unearthly about his gaze – a blankness that seems, impossibly, to convey insolence and compassion at once. Old friends say Bruce used to have a great sense of humour: he was sarcastic, ironic, wisecracking. But only once do I see him smile. And when that happens, I’m amazed: laughter lines break out everywhere, each line a fossil from his previous life.

At the lab, a woman behind the counter hands over his pictures and we go to a corner to examine them. They show a woman basketball player standing alone on court. After some time, he says quietly, as if to himself: “Yeah, I’m really pleased.” The pictures go into a huge album, which he’s brought to show to editors of a fashionable magazine he hopes might commission him to do some portraits. He tells me the name of the magazine, but insists I keep it to myself. The editors know nothing about his amnesia, he says emphatically. “I really do try to keep the film and the story from my work,” he says. “I don’t want notoriety, neither good or bad.”

After spending time with Bruce, I talked at length with his family. I wanted to know how his experience affected them. What, for instance, did Ivan do after Marina told him what had happened? “I called him,” Ivan says.

“I said, ‘Douglas, this is your father. Do you know who I am?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t know anything.’ He was very agitated. Very agitated for days.

I called him every day, short phone calls. I said, ‘Look, I’m coming over.’

And he said, ‘No, no, I don’t want anybody.’ But he seemed to have accepted that I was his father. And he began to telephone Marina, and the intimacy between them seemed to reactivate. They spent hours talking. Then he said, ‘I’m coming to stay with you.’”

Weirdly, Bruce arrived at the airport in Spain carrying his camcorder. “He came out and went past me,” remembers Marina. “I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and there was a wild-eyed look on his face. He looked totally freaked out. I asked him to stop filming. It was hard enough to deal with without that.”

“He couldn’t move without a camera in his hand,” Ivan confirms. “He would walk out from his bedroom while we were having breakfast and he was already taking pictures.”

Looking back, Bruce says that he was using the camera as a kind of shield.

“I hid behind it – it gave me some kind of protection.”

Ivan says the family have speculated endlessly on the cause of the memory loss. “We concluded that this was somehow psychological.” That does happen, according to Schacter and others. But psychogenic amnesia is understood even less than other kinds. What could have produced that psychic earthquake? “Well, Douglas was very close to his mother and he lost her.

That must have been a terrible shock, as it was to all of usI”

In the film, Bruce’s ex-girlfriend recalls telling him that his mother was dead. He cried. But why should he be sad about the absence of someone he couldn’t remember – and whose passing he had not cried about at the time? “My own theory,” says Ivan, “is Douglas had a kind of deep-seated motivation to become what he is now.”

There are easier ways to do that, I say. He could buy a self-help book. Go on a retreatI Ivan roars with laughter. “I can laugh now, because I’ve got my son back. I believe that subconsciously he wanted to become this other person that he has become. Is that possible? I don’t know. But he isn’t now what he was before. His speech always used to be decisive. I liked that. He was self-assured. Now, he’s a more tender plant, if you follow me. I was talking to him yesterday and I said I had a postcard to send him. He said, ‘I like getting postcards from you.’ Douglas would never have said that before. He might have liked getting postcards, but he’d never have said it.

It’s a bit like having had two sons. There was nothing wrong with the first one, but I’ve got a second one now. The one question I don’t want you to ask me is, which Douglas did I like best?”

Marina, who once grieved the loss of her big brother, now says he’s changed for the better. “He’s in touch with his feminine side. It will be traumatic when he gets his memory back. I don’t know how he’d reconcile the two personalities. The people I feel most sorry for are his friends in London.

He’s not the same person with them any more.” One of those friends, Pete Small, admits as much: “You definitely want Doug to suddenly ring you up and go, ‘Hey hey, I’m back!’” Murray, like Ivan, doesn’t express a preference. “The old Doug only exists in our memories. It’s hard for me to tell you how he’s different. Like all of us, he’s been changing throughout his life.”

Movies 101, at New York University, is described in the official bumf as “the closest thing to Sundance in Manhattan”. Each week, in the basement of a building on Washington Square, Professor Richard Brown previews a new movie, setting it in its historical context and explaining how it was made.

Film-makers and actors he has interviewed include Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Kline – and, tonight, Rupert Murray.

I’m a few rows from the front, beside Murray’s heavily pregnant wife, Chantal. She’s been to several of these Q&As and finds it immensely frustrating when people call Bruce a fake. “I’ve known Doug for years. He had everything. He was very attractive, very sexy. Women loved him. He was like a young Sean Connery. He doesn’t have that same sex appeal any more.

Women aren’t attracted to him in the same way now.”

A brief but forceful round of applause greets the film’s closing credits.

Then Professor Brown wanders on stage. “My first and only question is, how many of you have misgivings about the authenticity of the guy with the amnesia?”

Out of 400 people in the audience, roughly 30 raise their hands. Only then does Brown announce that the British film-maker is here tonight: “Please give a warm welcome to Rupert Murray.” There’s more applause, and Murray joins Brown at a table on stage. Brown asks if Murray ever doubted Bruce’s credibility. “No. When I met him for the first time I looked into his eyes and nothing came back. I felt like a stranger. I had thought I knew him and he didn’t know me. But neither of us knew the other.”

After a few more questions, the professor turns to the audience. A man behind us stands to say: “This guy, Doug, had all the incentive in the world to fake. He was unhappy with his life before.” From the stage, Murray interrupts: “Does discontent lead to amnesia?” The man continues: “Doug’s sister’s comment was interesting. She said he was not asking questions about the past. His reactions didn’t seem genuine to me.”

Murray’s wife, beside me, glowers terribly at this doubter. But then a woman in the front row stands up. “My husband, a couple of years ago, was in a terrible accident,” she declares. “My husband has absolutely no memory. He had the same experiences as this guy in the film – and I’m telling you, nobody who has not had amnesia could have carried this off.”

Speaking for myself, I never did believe Bruce was faking. Meeting him hasn’t changed that. In fact, it’s made me want to defend him. Back in London, writing up this story, I found myself posting comments in an internet chat room devoted to the film, not something I’ve done before.

Bruce has no motive to fake, I replied to a particularly peevish unbeliever by the name of Doug Pickering. “He’s largely avoided the parties and previews. He’s carried on where he was before, in terms of his work, and he’s rebuilt relationships with friends and family, when he could have dropped them, if that was his wish.”

Pickering remained unconvinced. (“Do you work for the studio?”) So in my next post I mentioned being a journalist, and said I’d met Bruce and others in the film. “If he’s taking me for a ride,” I added, a little priggishly, “I won’t regret having given him the benefit of the doubt. But if he’s for real, isn’t your shrill scepticism a little heartless?”.04