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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)

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According to a former girlfriend, who remains close to Bruce and is convinced he is telling the truth, a friend had an on-field collision during a pickup soccer game, landing him in the hospital without any identification and no memory of his life. His family thought he was dead, until they scoured area hospitals and found him.

It's not in the movie, but Bruce mentions this episode during the videotaped interviews shot a few days after the alleged onset of amnesia. In a copy obtained by The Washington Post, Bruce says the friend set aside his hard-charging business career and moved to either Bali or Thailand, where he learned to give massages. "And now he heals people," Bruce whispers.

During those same interviews, Bruce also seems to commit a rare gaffe. He says it was raining the morning he walked into the Coney Island police department. A couple days later, while sitting in his apartment and being interviewed, he says that he'd taken a walk a day earlier and seen a breathtaking summer storm. "It was the first time," he mutters, choking up, "that I had ever seen rain."

A more curious filmmaker would surely have quizzed Bruce about this contradiction, and perhaps asked a follow-up or two about that soccer accident. There are also mysteries the film doesn't touch, including a weird blank patch during the years that Bruce made his fortune in Paris. Everyone contacted for this story said either that they didn't know how he made that money or wouldn't say.

Why this is a mystery is itself a mystery, but it is a conspicuous obstacle to sifting through Bruce's past, and it produced this head-scratcher of an answer from Murray. "Somebody told [Bruce] the name of the firm, but he forgot it. When I asked him about it recently, he said he thought it started with an 'L.' Lllllllle something."

True or False

If Bruce's story is a hoax, it is so finely constructed and executed that in some perverse way it deserves a round of applause. Think about it. In the span of days, he may well have devised a cost-free way to upgrade his life, from anonymous student to legendary curiosity.

According to friends, Bruce's life pre-amnesia was hardly miserable, but he was trolling for dates on the Internet and communing with a crowd far less glamorous than the one he wound up in. Today, he's dating a knockout of a model -- she appears in the movie and calls him a man without flaws -- and he has a ready-made excuse to break with anyone in his previous life he doesn't consider up to scratch.

"There are good friends that I've had in the past who, I've met them and I just don't get them," Bruce says at one point in the film, sounding like Old School Bruce. "I don't feel it, and so I don't hang out with them, which for them is tough."

Bruce's scheme, if it is one, is also arguably superior to those highly publicized frauds who have been exposed in recent weeks. Unlike the case of James Frey, of "A Million Little Pieces" infamy, there's no one who can step forward and say, "This didn't happen." (This assumes nobody else is in on it.) Unlike Laura Albert, who invented a novel-writing alter ego named JT LeRoy, a character supposedly many years younger and male, Bruce doesn't need a co-conspirator to handle interviews and appear in public. At least until recently, when he started feeling "singed," he could enjoy the upside with a minimum fear of exposure.

It's possible that Bruce had a movie and national fame in mind from the start, and it's possible, too, that he's been aided by any number of allies. But if this is a charade, it could have started with modest ambitions, and as his character caught on, he just ran with it. Where was the danger? If things got hairy -- if he truly found himself stranded in that hospital, or tripped up at a cocktail party -- at any moment Bruce could just say, "I'm back! I remember everything!" and that would end it.

Of course, fraud or not, one imagines this whole affair was brutal, at least for a while, on Bruce's father and two sisters. And if it's a scam and Murray is not part of it, Bruce put a buddy's career in serious jeopardy.

But others found "doe-eyed Doug," as some called him, uplifting in an almost spiritual way. He brought joy to the jaded and if all of it was merely a performance, well, the guy should take a bow.

"The effect that Bruce had on everyone around him was exactly the effect that great art aspires to," says Chris Doyle, the cinematographer, "the effect that I want whenever I make a movie. He opened your eyes to things you didn't know."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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