Tell Me Who I Am opens on a tragedy: in 1982, Alex Lewis woke up from a three-month coma after a motorcycle crash and could remember nothing about his life except for one thing: the face of his identical twin brother, Marcus Lewis. The new documentary about the brothers, which debuted on Netflix on Oct. 18 following a successful festival run, gradually unspools the consequences of a decision made by Marcus, suddenly the holder of all of his brother’s memories, to paint a picture of a happy life—withholding the reality that their mother had abused the boys throughout their childhoods.
Shot in a studio space built for the brothers to confront, for the first time, the emotional distance brought on by the secrets Marcus kept, the film offers a strikingly intimate portrait of the now middle-aged twins coming to terms with the facts of their lives.
“It played out like a psychological thriller. And yet it was true,” Ed Perkins, the film’s director, tells TIME. “I was fascinated by the themes of brotherhood, the blurring of fact and fiction, memory and the question of who we are if we lose our memory.”
Between Alex and Marcus lie decades of guilt, confusion and deep sadness over what’s remained unsaid. As the men explain in the film, after 18-year-old Alex woke up from his coma unable to remember anything, from his own name to where he was, he returned home with his family to start rebuilding his identity.
“Imagine a black, empty space. You’ve lost everything in your life and you start from a blank canvas. Imagine how scary that would be,” Marcus says in the film. Back home, Alex encounters a life that he’s told is normal, with Marcus filling in all the details: he tells him where to sleep, where to eat, where to go to the bathroom, and so on. Alex relies completely on Marcus to tell him about what happened in their lives, and to bridge the gaps with childhood photos and TV shows that offer ideas about how normal families function.
Years pass as Alex grows close with his family without really questioning signs that others might see as suspicious. The twins, for example, live in a shed on their family’s property, and they don’t have keys to the main house. Their father is stern and distant, while their mother remains in denial that her son has lost his memory, particularly of her role in his life.
“What you might ask is, ‘Surely you realize this is not how other people live?'” says Perkins. “But that was all he knew. Try and put yourself in his shoes. You wake up and you have absolutely nothing, no memories at all, no reference point for anything. The only thing you have is that bond with your brother.”
Alex believes their family is “normal” until after his mother’s death, when he finds hidden in her belongings a photograph of him and Marcus as boys, showing them from naked the neck down, with the strip of the photograph containing their faces cut off. He asks Marcus if they were abused as children, which Marcus confirms without providing any additional details.
And so, Alex’s life, already complicated by his lost memories, descends further into a mystery that goes unresolved until the third act of Tell Me Who I Am, when Marcus faces his brother and lays bare the details of the trauma they experienced. Marcus explains in the film that he chose to hide their mother’s extensive sexual abuse of the boys in an attempt to protect his brother. This repression also felt like a way to protect himself, pushing away the pain of confronting his trauma.
The Lewis brothers wrote about their experience in a book of the same name published in 2013, but left out the details that make the final act of the film—the moment of confrontation between the brothers—so emotional. Perkins says the scene in which the brothers come to a full understanding of what happened in their lives came after years of him getting to know both men and gleaning that Marcus “knew deep down he hadn’t given his brother what he really needed.”
The director says he spent about three years just getting to know the men before beginning any filming. “We were able to spend a lot of time just building a relationship of trust, and that’s been so helpful to creating an environment where they felt they could have conversations in a way they hadn’t before. It’s been a real journey. There were a number of times when Alex and Marcus pulled out of the project.”
In Perkins’ view, after speaking at length with both men, Alex needed his brother to give him all the information so he’d know who he really was. Marcus, according to Perkins, agreed to have the crucial conversation, eventually saying, “I don’t want to be silent anymore.”
Today, Perkins reports, Marcus and Alex, “live incredible and emotionally rich lives. They’re amazing fathers and husbands. It’s very inspiring for me to see people who have gone through more than you’d wish on anybody and yet resolutely refuse to be defined as victims. I really hope audiences are left with a feeling of hopefulness.”
Tell Me Who I Am is a difficult watch that includes graphic details about child sexual abuse. But Alex and Marcus’ story is a testament to the relief that can come from speaking horrors out loud. Both men had lost the undefinable psychological bond said to connect identical twins in the “gulf of understanding between them,” according to Perkins.
“Now, they’ve got that bond back,” he says. “There isn’t anything between them anymore.”
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