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Unknown white male: fugue amnesia or imposter?

Imagine waking up in a subway traveling to Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY and having no idea how you got there, where you were, where you lived or even your name. This is what allegedly happened to Doug Bruce. Unknown white male was the moniker on Douglas Bruce's identity band after the police took him to Coney Island Hospital on July 3, 2003. 

The film is a documentary directed and edited by Rupert Murray, an old friend of Bruce's from his days in England.  When Rupert heard what had happened to his friend he approached him about a documentary.  Included in the film are interviews with Bruce's family and friends; psychologists, psychiatrists and other experts in memory loss; along with interviews with Bruce at various stages of his mystery journey into his past.

Several hours after waking in the subway, while still unidentified, Bruce is interviewed on video about his experience.  He sounds genuinely confused, shaken, frightened.  He had with him a backpack which contained a few items but no sort of ID.  The only clue was a pink piece of paper in a Spanish-English dictionary with a phone number on it.  Frightened and disoriented, Bruce went to the police who subsequently took him to Coney Island Hospital.  It was a hospital staff member who called the number and described this man to the woman who answered.  She claimed no knowledge of such a man.  After some time it dawned on her he might be a young man her daughter had dated recently and she encouraged her to go see him at the hospital.  The daughter recognized him right away, telling him, "You've got a great life."

He lived in a large loft, was a wealthy stockbroker who quit the business life at 30 to pursue photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. A  friend had spoken to him the night before and was told Bruce planned on staying home and going to bed early. 

Bruce has no memory of any of the previous 35 years of his life before he woke in the subway.  When he woke in the subway he had a few bumps on his head, which was throbbing. Experts describe his type of amnesia as very rare, possibly a fugue amnesia which is often mentioned in connection with multiple personalities.  Did another personality suddenly take over Doug's life?

There are many theories as to what happened to Bruce including that he is faking it to become the "toast of the town" (Washington Post).  Since no physical causes were found, many have doubts about the veracity of his tale (see also NPR article).

However, Bruce's family and friends, while initially having doubts, seem convinced of his memory loss.  They say he is a different person: less cynical and sarcastic, less arrogant, more introspective.  He even dresses differently.  He is rebuilding relationships with some of his old friends, has a new girlfriend, is getting reacquainted with his father and sisters and states some months after the incident that he no longer cares if he regains his memory, though doctors say he may regain his memory at some point.

The film delves into questions of who we really are?  Are we the product of our experiences and environment or is who we are already there, built-in at birth?  Did Doug concoct a way to change his life consciously or did some mysterious malady take away his memory?  The film discusses types of memory and what type he retained-how to swim, speak, walk etc.; and what he lost-memories of his life experiences.  He states he "saw the world with the eyes of a newborn baby and the maturity of a grown man" and that he "saw no cliches or stereotypes, only originality".  He has re-enrolled in the photography program at SVA and his professors there also see a different person.

The film is a fascinating study of one man's unusual journey, and opens up questions of memory, life choices, personality development.  If he is faking it he is a very talented actor and could make a bundle in film.

Watching some the the "extras" on the DVD gives some insight into how Murray put the film together, why he used some of the images we see during the film.  It is for you to decide:  Is Bruce for real?  Were Murray's choices of imagery effective?  Can you get the feeling of how it would be to wake up and not know who you are?

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