A Trip Down Memory Lane

Doug Bruce's amnesia claim made him the toast of New York and the subject of a documentary,
Doug Bruce's amnesia claim made him the toast of New York and the subject of a documentary, "Unknown White Male." (Wellspring)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006


On the morning of July 3, 2003, a former stockbroker named Doug Bruce walked into a police station in Coney Island and told the cops that he didn't know his name. Without a wallet or identification, he'd awoken a few minutes earlier on a subway train, befuddled but unharmed, with a case of what doctors call total retrograde amnesia. He could form sentences without a problem, but remembered nothing of his past and only patchy facts about the world.

He was checked into a nearby hospital, and a call was made to the only number that Bruce, then 35, had with him. It was scrawled on a slip of pink paper found in his knapsack. He was retrieved by a friend and chaperoned home, which turned out to be a gorgeous loft in downtown Manhattan with cockatoos and a dog. He has yet to regain his memory and is still basically a blank slate, learning pop culture, sports, science, arts -- everything -- one day at a time.

That, at least, is the story told in "Unknown White Male," a documentary that opened Friday in Washington. The film raises some fascinating philosophical stumpers about identity and love, but here's one question you won't hear in the voice-over: Is this a film about a big, brazen lie? Is Doug Bruce -- there isn't a polite way to put this -- faking it?

It's impossible to know. If this is a fraud, part of its beauty is that it requires no accomplices. Unless Bruce submits to tests that separate pretend amnesiacs from real ones -- tests that nobody in the movie even mentions, let alone asks him to take -- his story can't be disproved.

Family and friends stand foursquare behind him, amazed that anyone would challenge his word. But a tantalizing pile of circumstantial evidence suggests that the whole elaborate tale might be bunk. A leading amnesia expert believes Bruce's story is without medical precedent. There is an inexplicable gap in his life story, and one episode that is either a stunning coincidence or a credibility crusher. Bruce could be exactly what he claims to be -- or he could have found an ingenious way to trade the cards he'd been dealt for a far more intriguing hand.

If that's what he had in mind, it worked. Soon after the Coney Island incident, Bruce became hipster Manhattan's answer to the Elephant Man, an ingratiating medical marvel, except hunky and with an adorable British accent. A crowd of accomplished artists, models and producers orbited in awe. He met the singer Bjork, the director Spike Jonze, the actor Vincent D'Onofrio. He was invited to parties and dinners where he told his story pretty much nonstop. Everyone was riveted.

Nearly everyone. Some listeners couldn't resist the suspicion that amnesia was Bruce's shtick.

"I remember meeting him at a bar with some mutual friends and he started telling this bartender the whole thing," recalls Kishu Chand, a wardrobe stylist who works with photographers and film directors. "It was like he was searching for any excuse to go into it, which just seemed weird to me. I remember asking a friend of mine afterward, 'Are you buying this?' " Her doubts grew later that night, when Bruce handed over his e-mail address, which he told friends he'd registered just days after the incident: unknownwhitemale@yahoo.com .

A Changed Man

Doug Bruce did a few interviews to help publicize the movie, but stopped recently and declined to speak for this story.

"He got singed," says Rupert Murray, the film's director and narrator, a friend of Bruce's for more than 15 years. He started filming Bruce several months after the 2003 event, and he's behind the camera as Bruce retraces his day at Coney Island Hospital and then visits London to meet old pals. "Unknown White Male" is Murray's first full-length documentary and his big break. It's also sort of his nightmare.

He and Bruce feel burned by the skeptical press already generated by the movie, including a short piece in GQ magazine quoting director Michel Gondry (of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" fame) saying that he met Bruce and thought him a phony. Murray is sitting in a conference room in the Manhattan offices of Wellspring, the movie's distributor. He doesn't seem to be having any fun.

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