Friday, November 1, 2019
Ed Perkins (with Alex and Marcus Lewis) | Tell Me Who I Am
different lives: lying to your other self
by Douglas Messerli
Ed Perkins (director) with Alex and Marcus Lewis Tell Me Who I Am / 2019
Ed Perkins’ award-winning documentary from 2019, Tell Me Who I Am, cinematically speaking, is a rather awkward work, relying on only a few images, mostly photographs, haunting pictures of a family’s large sprawling mansion, and, mostly, two taking heads—the identical twin brothers, Alex and Marcus Lewis whose lives this film recounts.
Without knowing much about it, I watched this film on Halloween morning, which could not have been more appropriate for this true ghoulish tale.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, perhaps you might wish to wait before reading my tell-all review. For some people plots or stories matter immensely; I tend to be more interested in reveling in the entire experience of films and books. I’ve seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo, dozens of times, and yet it still puzzles and enchants me every moment. Having now seen this film, and having been moved by the conversations of these two unfortunate brothers—and now realizing that Perkins didn’t need to be a clever cinematographer given the poignancy of the story he was telling—I might surely see this film several times over, even if it is almost too painful to watch.
For identical twins, the other is almost the same as the self; I know this not only from reading several essays on the subject but from my experience with the Wine twins, who I got to know in my late college years. So, it is not surprising when Alex suffers a terrible motorcycle crash and wakes up in the hospital without any memory, the only thing he does know is that Marcus, sitting next to him on his bed, is his brother: although he can’t recall his own name or the vision of his mother hovering nearby, he recognizes Marcus.
Returning “home,” a world without meaning in this case, he discovers a terrified woman of some 6 feet tall, with apparently a quite vivacious personality, and a sour and often violent father who hardly has the time to talk to his children, without the ability to even comprehend the situation. The boys, from the age of 14, have been basically forced out of the mansion into what is called the “shed,” where they share a room without even a key to enter the house itself. Mysteriously, certainly to the now completely unknowing Alex, they are refused entry to many areas of the parent’s living quarters, including the stairs. Like servants they live downstairs only, sharing meals with the highly eccentric mother and father with little other contact.
Alex is now forced to rely entirely upon his brother for memories of the past, which Marcus provides him, assuring his sibling that they have lived a charmed life, with travels to France and other places each year, grand parties attended by duchesses, dukes, earls, and famous individuals, and a life of great ease given the family’s wealth. As they together begin to move back into their young adult lives, Marcus clues in Alex about the people he once knew and now has absolutely no memory of, a bit like a political advisor whispering into the candidate’s ear who is who and what their role is the world of a spinning past, or in this case a totally forgotten one. The two joke that Alex lost his virginity twice to his former girlfriend.
But mostly Alex is forced to rely on a few photographs of him and his brother on a beach, swimming in the sea, etc. He himself begins to take photographs, fearful that if he were to lose memory once more, he would be swallowed up into an impossible vortex of forgetfulness. For Alex, the photographs are connections with a lost world which he links up through his imagination rather that any rational thought. Gentle, and reassured by his brother, he appears never to question the “rules of the house,” the distance of his father, and the strange, always partying mother, who keeps him, despite her overwhelming personality, at a far distance.
When the now 20-some-year-old’s are called into their father’s study, where he reports he is dying of cancer, he asks them to forgive him for his temper and distance. Alex immediately does so, but Marcus refuses, much to the confusion of his twin.
Except for some very quirky behavior of the duo’s parents, this might simply be a story of two privileged children, one of them having suffered amnesia.
When they once sneak up into the attic, discovering dozens of presents sent to them as children as birthday and Christmas gifts, still wrapped and never delivered to them, Alex doesn’t seem able to question why their mother and father might deprive them of those offerings. And Marcus explains it away as simply an eccentricity in their otherwise blessèd life. It is a bit like a horror film sans the horror. Yet even most the naïve viewer must recognize something is not quite right with this tale.
When their mother also dies, of brain cancer, the twins having inherited the big house, go to work cleaning it from the massive amounts of possessions accumulated by their parents. In their mother’s room they discover a large cabinet filled with sex toys, within which lies a smaller cabinet. Finding the key, they open it—the closest to a true Pandora’s box that one might even imagine—in which lies a photograph of the two boys entirely naked, but with their heads clipped off.
That photo suddenly reveals to Alex that apparently he has been lied to, not only by his mother and father, but by his twin brother. The world Marcus has recreated for him is not the real world at all. The only person upon which he could rely for any truth has betrayed him as much as the past must have.
There have been numerous occasions in which we realize that children’s or even older adult’s memories have been altered through dreams, misguided therapists, and parents so that they imagine terrible events that may never have truly happened. We had a dear friend, a restaurant host, who we truly loved, who suddenly begin to have terrible feelings that he was abused as a child. When I asked him what was his memory of the abuse, he described his father as basically washing him in a shower. Whether or not there was actual abuse, I don’t know. And he clearly did not like his father; but I suggested that perhaps he was imagining of even manufacturing the abuse, and that his nightly tears might be better directed towards something more positive. I am not, clearly, a psychiatrist, I may not know of other events he may have experienced. Nor do I have the expertise to suggest what that “event” may have meant to his life. But I do know that in times of crisis we might imagine all sorts of things that may never have been what we later perceive them to be.
In the Lewis’ case, it is the reverse. Alex claims to truly have loved his mother, the mother he cannot now remember.
Perkins’ story is divided into 3 parts, the first about Alex and his desperation. The second about Marcus and his explanation of the lies. Marcus knows that many people might judge him negatively about the tall tales he told his brother, but both Alex and we know, ultimately, that he was simply attempting to give his brother another view of history, to provide him with a life that any child might have wished, instead of one he still remembers with terror and even horror. Alex, after his accident went through a great deal of therapy, yet Marcus has held everything within, refusing at times to even admit what he and his brother experienced as children, joining in on the myths he was lovingly telling his twin in an attempt, perhaps, to erase what he actually knew to be the truth.
In the third part of Perkins’ film, Marcus finally admits what really occurred, but will only face Alex, in this instance, through a computer transmission of what he describes.
Their mother abused them numerous times, taking them into her bed and masturbating them. But, even worse, she would individually drive them to the homes of local pedophiles, who would rape them and keep them overnight. There were no trips to France or other beaches, there was no possible joy in the lives of these brothers who often awoke to find the other gone. Despite the family’s great wealth, the boys were banned from the house, forced to live in the garden “shed.”
Alex says everything when he attempts to describe “normality”: “I was never questioning anything, because what is normal really? Normal is what you know, and normal is what your family is.” It is only at age 32 that he realizes that his life was not the “normal” life his brother attempted to recreate for him.
Yet these brothers did “come through” despite their numerous betrayals, and both today are married and run a successful hotel.
As Variety critic Peter Debruge perceptively comments about the film:
The result could be viewed as a meditation on memory, an Oliver
Sacks-like case study or a deeply unethical experiment in which
two identical twins are allowed to cope with abuse in completely
different ways. Before Perkins met them, the brothers co-wrote
a book about their experience, which bears the same name. In the
documentary, the director appears to be interviewing the twins
separately, but he’s really just filming them as they recite their own
story. They’ve chosen their words carefully; they cry on cue; and they
share just enough, while holding back an enormous amount of
That’s their right, of course, but by the end, there are large segments
that still don’t add up. More peculiar still, once the twins have had their
cathartic moment, neither one seems the slightest bit interested in holding
the culprits of their childhood suffering accountable. It wasn’t just their
parents, both dead now, who abused them. If “Serial” could influence the
fate of Adnan Sayed, surely the Lewises’ book, followed by this
documentary, has the power to expose the monsters who preyed on
them as children. In a scripted thriller, one can bet that unlocking the
source of Alex’s trauma would bring all of his memories flooding back.
Here, the process merely points the way to an even deeper mystery.
We have always to wonder whether Alex’s accident wasn’t a kind of fortuitous event, that his need to forget was behind his amnesia, which his twin recognized and used to help his own way out of the horrific past they both had suffered?
Los Angeles, November 1, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).