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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)

"He would listen intently to every syllable you said, even if you were just describing how to cook an egg," says Chris Doyle, the acclaimed cinematographer of films such as "Hero" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence," who dined with Bruce on five or six occasions. "Most of us, we want that sort of wonder in our lives and we rarely experience it."

But eventually, there were doubters. "At first, Doug was very believable and fascinating to be around, but at the same time, there were apparent inconsistencies," says Brown, who quit videotaping Bruce. "On one hand, he had to ask who George Bush was, but on the other, he could hold nuanced conversations about Middle Eastern politics. He would always preface such conversations with the disclaimer, 'I don't know but I've been told,' yet he had an incredible command of the facts and an extremely perceptive insight, and after a few weeks I started to have doubts about the veracity of his story."

Others realized that Bruce seemed to relish his condition. Some friends swear he was hesitant to share his extraordinary tale, but when he posted a profile of himself on Friendster, a Web site dedicated to social networking, it sure sounded like he was working it.

His page is still up, complete with photos of himself and his cockatoos. In the "About Me" section, he's written, "mmmm . . . i have the perceptiveness of a 35 yrd old with the naievety and vulnerability of a 3 month old infant. (but am growing up fast!!!)" Under "Who I want to meet," he wrote, "the person who banged me on the head and stole my memory."

Under occupation, he wrote "fugal amnesiac."

No Explanation

Amnesia -- fugal and otherwise -- is rampant in soap operas but rare in the real world. Most cases involve accidents followed by a few seconds or minutes of memory loss. Total retrograde amnesia is quite rare, and the number of cases that last more than a few days is tiny.

Hans Markowitsch, a neural psychologist and professor at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, has studied dozens of examples of total retrograde amnesia. Every one that he's encountered or read about can be traced to severe mental or physical trauma.

"Even when the patient has no idea what that trauma is, if you dig around long enough, you find it," says Markowitsch on the phone. In "Unknown White Male," a Harvard psychology professor gives a primer on amnesia, but the only physiological explanation floated for Bruce's memory loss is an MRI that shows a small congenital tumor on his pituitary gland. There were also three small bumps on his head the day he walked into the police station. The only psychotraumatic explanation hinted at is the death of Bruce's mother, though that happened years ago. It's possible that some combination of these factors accounts for his amnesia, but the doctors in the movie doubt it, and even Murray concludes before the credits roll that no amount of testing or consultations can solve the mystery of Bruce's condition.

Which technically isn't true. With a functional MRI, or fMRI, the truth of an amnesiac's claims can be put to a test. When confronted with questions about their past, there is a distinct pattern in the right frontal part of the brain in subjects who remember personal events, which an fMRI will pick up. Given that medical science was stumped, why not test for fakery?

"Then he wouldn't have made the film," snaps Murray, a little indignantly. "How would you explain to your friend, he's just about to make a documentary, 'Before we start [would you take an fMRI?]' It's just rude."

To Markowitsch, the absence of any plausible trigger makes Bruce's story more than just suspicious. "Total retrograde amnesia doesn't happen out of nothing," he says. "I can't imagine that this story is true."

What the Film Left Out

If Bruce did invent this whole episode, where did he get the idea? Take your pick of movies -- anything from "Regarding Henry" to "50 First Dates." But it's also possible he lifted the concept from a friend. In a coincidence that defies Lotto-size odds, Bruce knew a man in Paris who suffered a weeklong bout of severe amnesia and used the ordeal to rethink his life.

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