Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD)
I saw a very interesting TV programme last night. ‘Unknown White Male’.
In July 2003, a 35yo ‘Englishman In New York’ named Douglas Bruce speaks to his friend on the phone at approx 8pm. They talk about plans for the night and next day (Doug has no plans for the night) and then farewell until the morning. At 7am the friend arrives at Doug’s house to pick him up. No answer at the door.
Doug raises his head and finds himself on a subway train miles from his house and moving further away, with no idea of where he’s going, who he is, or why he’s there. He’s got no injuries, no wounds. He’s wearing shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, and has a backpack over his shoulder. The programme followed the next 2 years of Doug’s life.
With no other ideas, he presented himself at the local police station and they search. In the backpack is no wallet, but 2 sets of keys and a Latin American Spanish phrasebook. Inside the book was a pink piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. There’s also a small vial of veterinary medicine (like something your doctor sticks his needle into to load it). The woman who’s number is on the pink piece of paper doesn’t recognise Doug from the description the police give her.
With no-one similar reported missing and no leads on his person, the police take Doug to the local hospital. Here he has to sign himself in, and to his joy he discovers that some muscle memory remains because he can sign his name – just a squiggle, but enough to tell the first letter is D. Doug finds the emergency room incredibly frightening, the noise, the blood, the smells – and gets even more anxious when word gets round the hospital that some guy has total memory loss and everyone comes to look at him. They do MRI’s and CAT scans – clear but for a pituitary cyst, a common enough ailment which they don’t believe would have caused the memory loss. With no explanation it must be mental, so he is taken to the Psychiatry Dept. Doug is told that he won’t be released from the psychiatry until he is identified. The only thing Doug can concentrate on is that phone number.
He tries it again, and the woman on the end thinks she recognises the voice saying over and over, “I’m scared”. She talks her daughter into going to the hospital to look at this guy, and the daughter recognises Doug. They’d dated a few times, but nothing came of it. He is released and is brought to his apartment, where absolutely nothing is familiar.
A month or so later, with Doug building a new life for himself from the ashes of the old, he travels to meet with his sister and father, now living in Spain. Again, faces are not familiar, “they look nothing like me”. He hears stories and sees photographs of himself, but no memories follow. He travels to the UK to meet with his other sister. He feels “an almost chemical connection with her”, but still the memories don’t come.
But the family and friends notice a distinct change in Doug. In any conventional sense Doug Bruce – charming and charismatic English stockbroker-turned loft-dwelling New York photographer – no longer exists. In his place is ‘essence-of-Doug’ – a man composed of the same raw material, but unaffected by his 35 years of experiences. Home movie footage from the 80s and 90s reveals an ambitious and intelligent guy with a sharp tongue, a cynical wit, and a taste for adventure. The new Doug is gentle, reflective, drawn to philosophy and almost Zen-like in his appreciation of both his condition and his environment. As film-maker and friend Rupert puts it, “Doug seemed to be more articulate than before, more serious, more focused. As if his senses had been sharpened by a rebooting of the system.”
As Doug’s friends point out, there’s something deeply seductive about throwing away all the accumulated baggage and returning to a state of innocence. “It was as if he was seeing the world through the eyes of a baby,” says Rupert, “but appreciated it with the mind of an adult.” His ‘first’ experience of the ocean brings tears of joy. “I discovered this fabulous new band! They’re called The Rolling Stones!” Doug is aware of this change too. With no knowledge of cliches, the whole world is original. With no assumptions or assumed notions of what constitutes ‘art’, his work as a photographer achieves a new depth.
As time goes on Doug starts to see his memory coming back as a bad thing – something to be dreaded. Something that would change him. His friends are also confused. They have all these memories of Doug that feel like they haven’t happened – like they never happened. The ‘new-Doug’ is different, but they start to wonder if they want the old Doug back.
Two years on, the memories haven’t returned and no-one can say when or if they will. Doug is moving along with his life. He’s in love, he’s still studying photography, still living in New York. And he’s not concerned about the old Doug. Some people he’s re-met he’s friends with again, some he isn’t – but it is not something he feels concern or guilt about. He sees himself as a different person leading a different life.
If you get a chance to see this programme – DO! I can only imagine what that panicked first week must have been like, but it is a topic that bears thinking about. It raises again the nature v nurture debate, and sheds light on new possibilities.. A brilliant film – moving, original and entirely thought provoking.