'Give me my history!'

Psychologist and writer Dr Terri Apter watches a new Netflix documentary, 'Tell me who I am: Sometimes it's safer not to know' (with plot spoilers).

This new Netflix offering, directed by Ed Perkins, is about twins’ very different journeys through trauma. Based on the compelling memoir by Alex and Marcus Lewis (written with Joanna Hodgkin), one twin’s damaged brain seems to free them both from a history of abuse. Or does it?

In 1982, after a motorcycle accident, 18-year-old Alex emerges from a coma with only one certainty. He cannot remember his parents. He cannot remember his own name or his own mother. But he recognises his brother, remembers his name is Marcus, knows that the brother is his twin and someone he can trust. The depth of this bond is key to what happens next. 

It is Marcus who inducts Alex into the basic lessons of life: “This is a kitchen. This is a television. These are shoes, and this is how you put them on.” Gradually the lessons come to include their personal history. The questions Alex asks seem basic enough, innocuous enough, but reveal some knowledge, however blurred, that he does not know he has. “Is our mum a good mum?” and, “Is this family a happy one?” 

Marcus realises that he now controls the story of their past. As he answers Alex’s questions, he omits 'the bad stuff'. He describes idyllic childhood holidays, neglecting to explain that these were never with their parents. He assures Marcus that their mother is 'cool'. He advises him how to deal with their stepfather’s cruel temper. He assures his twin that their family, for all its bizarre rules and restrictions (they are not allowed a key to the imposing family house; they are forbidden from going upstairs; they don’t have meals with their parents; they sleep in a flimsy, unheated shed in the huge garden), is normal. And he says nothing about the abuse they suffered until the age of 14 years, first in their mother’s bed, later in the beds of her friends, to whom she delivered them to be, in Marcus’s words, 'raped and violated'.

From Marcus’s perspective, excising such pain from their story is a gift to his twin brother. He is offering Alex, he believes, a good childhood, freeing him from the shame and anger that haunt his own life.

But whether or not this protection is possible depends on what kind of memory is erased. Painful experiences lead to post traumatic stress when the traumatic event remains in the form of immediate memory, consisting of sensations and images, smells and sounds, pain and pressure. Normally our experiences are processed into a story or narrative. We store and access narrative memory differently from the ways we experience the not yet organised present. When a traumatic experience defies this narrative processing, two things happen. First, because it is painful, we don’t want to recall anything about the event. We become hyper-vigilant, guarding against recollection.  Second, because these memories remain in immediate, happening-now form, they are eternally present, and efforts 'not to think about it' are doomed to failure. Any sound or image or smell or gesture or feeling or movement associated with the traumatic event revives the immediacy of the past experience, flooding mind and body, just as it did when it first occurred.

And so we remain at a heightened level of stress, guarding against the chaos of experiential memory, yet at the mercy of every sensation associated with the event, however minor or innocuous to others. Indeed the term 'post' traumatic, meaning after the trauma, is misleading. The trauma is not 'post'; it is eternally present.

The head injury Alex sustained in the motorcycle accident may have erased his narrative memories, but the fresh-seemed experience of trauma remains. When their mother dies and they are cleaning out the cluttered house, Alex finds a photograph of himself and Marcus as children, torn in such a way that the images of their heads are removed. His questions reveal what he already knows: 'Were we abused as children?' and, 'Did our mother abuse us?' When Marcus answers, 'Yes', Alex reflects: 'I knew something like this. I guessed something like this'. 

The memoir is as much about sibling love and identity as it about abuse. Marcus wants to protect his brother from the burden he himself carries of their childhood. But in protecting his twin, he is also protecting himself. If his twin, with whom he so closely identifies, can have a clean slate, then in some way he shares this, too: there is now, he believes, another version of himself that is not plagued by traumatic memories. 

Crucial to this memoir is the failure of denial. We cannot evade or trick traumatic memories away. While Marcus tries to empty his own mind of memories of his painful past, Alex struggles with a terrible emptiness because he does not know his past. When Alex hears Marcus’s brief 'Yes', in reply to his question about being sexually abused, he becomes obsessed with discovering the details. But if Marcus provides Alex with details, then he will have to exhume his own memories, and that is precisely what he wants to avoid.

The awful truth about their past then becomes a relational dilemma: If Marcus gives Alex the information he craves, he will forfeit the (comforting but false) version of his childhood; if he refuses to give Alex the information her needs, then Marcus loses his connection with Alex. If Alex ceases his demand – 'Give me my history!' he can maintain a comfortable relationship with his twin, but both the connection and his sense of self will remain empty, devoid of his own story.

Gifts play a big role in this documentary. As they clear out their parents’ attic, they find years and years of unopened presents friends and relatives sent them, but which their mother withheld. Never having been given presents as children, the grown men struggle with gifts of exchange. Eventually, however, Marcus reveals the brutal details of their experiences, giving Alex his personal history. Alex, in exchange, gives Marcus the assurance of his love and trust, saying, 'We now have each other'. And with this exchange of gifts, their connection rather than their trauma becomes the central point of their lives.

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