Review of: Unknown White Male. (2005, Rupert Murray, Steven N. Gold )
How much of our past lives, the thousands of moments we experience, help to make us who we are? If you took all of these remembrances, these memories, away, what would be left? How much is our personality, our identity, determined by the experiences we have? And how much is already there, pure “us”?
This prologue, so thought provoking and yet so easily forgotten in the midst of the ensuing account of one particular man’s experience, perfectly frames what we are about to see. If one stands back from the content of this preamble and scans its form, what becomes salient is that it consists of a series of questions. It is here that the value of this project lies. This is a film best suited for those who are sufficiently tolerant of ambiguity to value the rewards of contemplating fundamental issues over the satisfaction of receiving definitive answers.
Unknown White Male is a documentary about Doug Bruce, who claims that on July 3, 2003, he found himself on the subway headed for the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, completely unaware of how he got there. For the relatively limited cadre of psychologists with extensive experience working with dissociative clients, this much of the story, as exotic as it may seem, is entirely credible. It is not at all unusual for clients with severe dissociative symptomatology to report periods of time, lasting from hours to days, for which they cannot remember their whereabouts or activities. Although many psychologists are skeptical about the reality of dissociative phenomena, what is not widely recognized is that their validity is well and extensively documented by approximately two decades of accumulated empirical evidence (see Gleaves, May, & Carde�a, 2001; Waller, Putnam, & Carlson, 1996).
Nevertheless, Bruce’s account deviates significantly from the patterns of amnesia that are presented by most dissociative clients. In addition to reporting amnesia for the period leading up to his “awakening” on the subway, he claims to remember absolutely nothing of who he was before that moment. His personal history, he alleges, is a blank; the people he had been closest to are strangers to him; his very identity is gone. Far from unheard of, this experience fits the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) criteria for dissociative fugue—travel away from home accompanied by amnesia for one’s past and confusion about personal identity. Nevertheless, fugue is extremely rare; prevalence is estimated to be 0.2 percent in the general population. In comparison, dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), which conventional wisdom suggests occurs extraordinarily infrequently, has an estimated prevalence of between 1 percent and 2 percent, 5 to 10 times that of dissociative fugue.
Bruce’s story is both so remarkable and so unusual that the credibility of Unknown White Male has been vigorously attacked by some. An article in the March 22, 2006, issue of the Washington Post (Segal, 2006), for example, noted that there is “one question you won’t hear in the voice-over: Is this a film about a big, brazen lie?” Post writer David Segal had some cause to be skeptical. Although documentaries often promote a particular point of view, one expects them at least to acknowledge the existence of alternative perspectives.
Bruce’s tale raises the possibility of at least four scenarios:
His claims are genuine, and his memory loss is due to some form of organic/neurological pathology, such as head trauma sustained in the days just prior to his awakening on the subway.
His claims are genuine, and his memory loss is due to some psychological factor, such as a severely traumatic incident that occurred or was reactivated in the days just before he found himself on the subway.
His claims are false and were fabricated by him without other people’s knowledge for reasons such as the desire for notoriety, celebrity, and the gratification of duping other people, including his family and closest friends.
His claims are false, and at least some friends and family members, including the film’s director, have actively colluded with him to promote the fabricated tale of pervasive amnesia for his former identity.
But which of these variations applies? The film devotes itself to presenting Bruce’s version of events. It does not address or even acknowledge the issue of whether his story is a truthful account of an actual situation or a fascinating but concocted forgery. Rather, the filmmakers take the stance of implicitly assuming that Bruce’s alleged loss of personal identity is factual. In fact, the director, Rupert Murray, had been a good friend of Bruce’s. Murray himself has been accused of being complicit with Bruce in perpetrating a hoax. He clearly takes on the role of substantiating Bruce’s account. In voice-over, for example, he notes,
The more we talked, the less I recognized the person in front of me. Our 15 years of history didn’t mean anything. We had to start all over again. I felt there was some kind of rapport. He looked and sounded just like the man I used to know. But it was obvious something had changed.
For better or worse, one of the aspects of the film that will greatly enhance the credence placed in it by members of the general public is that excerpts from interviews with professional experts are interwoven with the story line. The most prestigious of these specialists is Dr. Daniel Schacter, chair of psychology at Harvard University. If Schacter voiced any uncertainty about the veracity of Bruce’s narrative, his doubts did not make their way into the film. On the contrary, he appears to accept Bruce’s contentions by noting that the course of those with amnesia is marked by “an incredible amount of variability… . Some of them recover in a few days; some of them have not recovered their memory for years.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Vorobyev of Coney Island Hospital, where Bruce was initially treated after reporting at a police station that he did not know who he was, confides that “frankly” he has “never seen such kind of amazing clinical case like Douglas Bruce” before. He indicates that he has only heard of the clinical picture described by Bruce “from movies, and from my textbooks.” Although dissociative amnesia is not particularly common, retrograde amnesia for one’s identity and entire personal history persisting for over two years, as Bruce contends has been the case for him, is markedly rarer.
Bruce’s circumstances form the type of situation that often leads clinicians and researchers to respond in radically different ways. Practitioners, struck by the powerful impressions left by such cases, may be too quick to lend credence to what they are told, especially if the presentation is accompanied by strong affect. Empiricists, conversely, may have difficulty remembering that the mere fact that an alleged phenomenon is rarely encountered does not by itself suggest that it is fictitious.
If you are the kind of person who, after witnessing a magician’s act, is tormented by obsessions about how the tricks were done, this is probably not the film for you. If, however, the mystery and wonder of the questions raised by such a performance are stimulating and thought provoking to you, then you can appreciate the essence of Unknown White Male. I do not pretend to know whether Bruce is perpetrating trickery or genuinely exhibiting a compelling manifestation of the mystery of the workings of the human mind. To me, it is not paramount which of these alternatives applies. Being inspired to ponder the vagaries of memory and identity is worth the price of admission.