Monday, February 9, 2009

Memory & the Self

Call it "The Curious Case of Doug Bruce." Until now this documentary film by Rupert Murray about his friend Doug had escaped my notice, but Unknown White Male is a compelling story about memory and the self, narrated in an episodic fashion that reflects the disjointed journey of the young man who comes to consciousness in a New York subway one day, without the first idea as to who he is, where he is, or where he was going. This unasked-for loss of self, a curiously Buddhist predicament, starts Doug on a perplexing, often painful path into a new life where nothing can be taken for granted--not family, friendship, profession--and literally everything is called into question.

Interviewed about the current science in the matter of memory, one expert explains the difference between "procedural," "episodic" and "semantic" faculties: "procedural" is the kind of memory the brain calls upon in performing habitual functions, like riding a bike. "Episodic," as I understand it, is the personal memory bank, the story of our lives and the events that form them; and "semantic" the kind of memory we share as human beings or members of a particular cultural group, those things that "everybody knows."

It's the procedural aspect of memory, I suppose, that leads Doug in his initial confusion and terror to a police station, where the single act that shows some functioning memory occurs when he is asked to sign his name--which he does without hesitation. (The signature, unfortunately, is illegible!) Passed on to the hospital for medical attention, he soon finds himself consigned to the psychiatric ward, still observing everything around him as though it's happening to someone else. Which, in a sense, it is. Doug's disorientation is complete--and terrifying. An English accent proclaims him to be of British origin, but otherwise there is nothing but a scribbled telephone number to aid in his identification. He is entered into the registration ledger as the eponymous "Unknown White Male."

By good fortune, the telephone number turns up a friend whose daughter recognizes his voice, and comes to his rescue. From then on, it's a matter of learning about who he was, before his memory loss; of flying to Spain, where he reconnects with family; and to England, to meet up with old friends. Throughout, Doug seems curious, but curiously removed, as though he has no inclination or desire to re-become his old self. Imagine meeting your father or your adult sisters as though for the first time, as a grown man. Imagine having to re-learn that your mother died of cancer, a few years before. Imagine having a stranger clasp you in his arms, declaring himself to be your oldest friend.

After the fear and the uncertainty, though, a refreshing light breaks in on the story, as Doug discovers the delight of seeing and experiencing everything as utterly unprecedented. Dis-attached from past memories and associations, detached too from the self that has taken most of us a lifetime to construct, everything becomes fresh and new for him, and life becomes the kind of moment-to-moment experience that a Buddhist might strive for years to achieve. He seems to surrender into the not-knowing of who he is, or was, and come to an almost child-like acceptance of whatever-is.

Friends and family wonder whether he is the same person that they knew before. The change they notice in him is the loss of drive that led the former Doug into a successful and seemingly lucrative career in financial services. He has become, we learn from them, more laid-back, more in touch with his emotions, more open. The new Doug enters into a relationship which has no bearing or association with anything in his past life, and which thrives on the wonder of its newness. The great fear of the couple, we learn as the movie ends, is that the past will come back to him, that he will remember who he once was.

There's a great teaching here, of course, in this man's difficult life-experience. It's not something we'd wish upon ourselves in quite this way, and yet something the Buddhist teachings would have us strive for: an ability to work past the attachment to those ego demands, the desires and the repulsions that our minds build up over the years. That's the I-me-mine mind-set which is often at the root of our discontent. A discussion yesterday in our sangha, however, reminded me that a healthy ego is needed, and can serve us well--in building, for example, that sense of self that takes responsibility for work, profession, family. It's the clinging to an illusion of self that brings with it the suffering which, the Buddha tells us, can be ended by simply letting go. For Doug, that self was taken out of play by his radical amnesia. That he eventually managed to accept the loss with dignity, calm, and a heart open to the newness of experience is greatly to his credit, and for the rest of us an example we might find hard to follow.


Anonymous said...

Looks interesting - just added it to my Netflix queue.

Nancy Youdelman said...

Citizen, I am amused because after reading the title of the movie, I went right to Netlix and added it, then came back to the Buddha Diaries and continued to read.

Peter, I have watched several movies that you recommended and have enjoyed them very much.

Reading about "Unknown White Male" made me think of "Being There" (1979) with Peter Sellers. It is a favorite of mine.

What book are you reading?


PeterAtLarge said...

Glad to hear that my occasional reviews inspire action! Enjoy the movie... Nancy, you'll find out what I'm reading in a coupe of days. Cheers...