Seeing a different vision with the same eyes

‘Unknown White Male’ shows how one man’s memory loss has meaning for us all

by Don M. Burrows

What would it be like to start from scratch? To wake up one day and experience everything for the first time? To discover yourself without all the defining experiences of your life?

Rupert Murray’s documentary about his friend Doug Bruce leaves you asking such questions about who you really are – in a way that’s more inspirational than disturbing.

Bruce returned to consciousness on a subway in 2003 without any knowledge of who he was. His episodic memory had vanished, and so he turned himself in to police.

Finally, through a phone number in his belongings (he had no identification with him), they tracked down someone who knew him, and he was re-introduced to a life he didn’t know.

On the surface, it’s easy to see how some critics have dubbed Murray’s documentary a disturbing film. After all, it makes us ask tough questions about ourselves and who we really are – an innate person we’ll always be, or an amalgam of all the experiences we’ve lived?

“I think it’s important to examine the things around us that are important and question what they really are,” Murray said last week. “Just by hearing his story and spending time with him, some of it rubbed off on me.”

Bruce not only didn’t remember his parents, his friends, his apartment or his job, he also had no memory of any of the experiences of his life. His procedural and semantic memory remained – he could still remember, for example, the names of cities in Australia and how to swim. But every other experience in the world was new.

The film is not really about the medical condition of amnesia and all its particulars, though Murray does interview doctors to give us an idea of what we’re watching unfold. Rather, the documentary is a stirring look at what it’s like to experience the world for the first time.

Bruce swims in the ocean, scoops up a snowball from freshly formed frost, listens to the Rolling Stones for the first time. He devours history, relearns photography and is reintroduced to his family.

Murray said he was there when Bruce first watched fireworks again and couldn’t take his eyes off his friend. He seemed to view the world without cliché or stereotype.

“It makes you re-evaluate,” he said. “And I was excited to pass that on to everyone else.”

Murray’s selection of music heightens the emotion of a fresh start, the new beginning that Bruce undergoes through discovery. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” explodes the gravity and profundity of the experience of rebirth, something Murray said he always wanted to do with that piece in a film.

The film ends with the same question that recurs throughout, about what will happen to Bruce if and when his memory does return, when his new identity and outlook on life collides with his old self. Will he still see the world in the same way?

Murray thinks so.

What’s inspirational about Bruce’s story and Murray’s presentation of it is its universalizing message. The truth is people don’t have to suffer amnesia to struggle with who they are, who they were or what they will be. Bruce might get his memory back, but he has viewed the world through new eyes – with the eyes of an infant and the mind of an adult, as Murray put it.

Bruce’s experiences are a helpful reminder of how outward and inward the journey of discovery really is: the discovery of self and the way we view the wide world around us – two things not as different as we would sometimes have them be.