Tell Me Who I Am is one of the most disturbing documentaries about family dysfunction since Capturing the Friedmans— all the more so because it unfolds like a psychological thriller. But there’s something about the film’s big reveal that won’t be readily apparent to viewers who haven’t read the extraordinary book that preceded it. (This article contains spoilers and is written for those who’ve already watched the film.)
The documentary, directed by Ed Perkins and now streaming on Netflix, tells the story of identical twins, Marcus and Alex Lewis, who experience a rift at age 18 when Alex crashes his motorcycle, goes into a semi-coma, and emerges after several days with his memory almost entirely wiped out. Though he has forgotten his personal history and doesn’t recognize his own mother and stepfather, he does recognize the twin brother with whom he has an intuitive bond.
As Marcus spends the next months and years filling Alex in on their past, he idealizes their childhood and neglects to mention the peculiar details that made their family life less than idyllic, like the fact that their mother– a gangly, gregarious social butterfly– often pawned them off on family friends and showed little interest in conventional childrearing.
After his mother’s death, Alex finds a nude photo of himself and his brother amid her personal effects. He asks Marcus if they were sexually abused and the answer is yes. But that’s all his brother, still traumatized by the abuse, will say. “I had questions and I needed answers,” Alex says in the film. “And he wasn’t prepared to give them to me. And he still hasn’t, to this day.”
Marcus tells his brother that he hasn’t wanted to reveal “anything more than, ‘Yes, my mother abused us.’ When you asked me the question, I gave you the answer. Everything else is off the table.” But during the film’s climactic third act, Marcus breaks down and confesses to his brother exactly what happened, showing him a pre-recorded video in which he describes their horrific, years-long sexual abuse at the hands of their mother and her circle of pedophilic friends.
The moments leading up to this powerful confession are literally gut-wrenching. I found myself growing physically queasy as Marcus struggled to reveal the details of the abuse, presumably for the first time. But as it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Alex had heard many of these details. Nearly all of them were revealed in the 2013 book Tell Me Who I Am, written by Joanna Hodgkin with the twins’ participation.
The twins’ brother, Oliver, doesn’t factor into the film at all. But in the book, he’s instrumental in forcing Alex and Marcus to confront their abuse. After Oliver writes a letter to a man who molested him at age 9 or 10 and reports him to the police, Marcus finally reveals to Alex that their mother “passed us around” to her pedophile friends, and that “she’d leave us at men’s houses, pick us up in the morning,” though he doesn’t get more explicit than “stuff happened.”
Later, as a defense mechanism, Marcus claims he was spared from the abuse and it was only Alex and Oliver who were passed around. But eventually, during the writing of the book, Marcus has his first big breakthrough. He finally stops denying that he was a target of his mother’s molestation and, through tears, remembers that he and his brothers “spent years” in her bed. He tells his brother, “She used to make us touch each other in the bed, Alex.” Later, Marcus admits that “their mother had left them, often overnight, and always singly, with her pedophile friends, often people from the London antiques world. Unspeakable things had happened over and over again until it all became a blur in a child’s mind.” But “the only occasion Marcus was prepared to access in any sort of detail” was the time he refused a famous artist’s advances– an incident that he also recounts in the film. Later in the book, he shares with Alex and Oliver the story of another man who had done “unbelievable things” to him, and Alex says that Marcus told him “the details of what the men were doing… and everything else.”
In tearfully confessing all of this to Alex during the book’s writing, Marcus says that living in denial was “the only way to survive,” and uses a line that later resurfaces during the movie’s most emotional moments: “Alex lost [his memory] legitimately, and I lost it voluntarily.” For Oliver, Marcus’s painful confession is a “game-changer” in helping him realize that he was a victim of outright rape. The same goes for Alex, who comes to realize, in the book, that “this was calculated, organized abuse.”
All of this is to say that while the film presents Marcus’s revelations as if they’re occurring for the first time, many of them were previously disclosed– in a similarly cathartic way– during the book’s writing. It may seem petty to focus on the film’s narrative choices rather than its powerful content. But it really is remarkable: In not acknowledge the extent of the book’s earlier revelations, the film keeps information from the viewer in much the same way Marcus systematically kept information from Alex. Like Marcus’s failure to tell Alex everything about his childhood, the omission isn’t an outright lie, but is nonetheless a kind of deception.
The film acknowledges the book only in passing, when Alex says he and his brother do everything together: “We even wrote a book about our experience, but Marcus just wouldn’t open up. He wouldn’t go where I needed him to go.” Hearing this, one assumes the book contains no specific details about the abuse. After all, Alex says in the film that he was “left with no details of what my mom had done,” and we’re led to believe that this is still the state of things when Marcus offers his dramatic confession.
To be fair, Alex does say, after that confession, “I knew some of that, I guessed some of that, I talked about some of that; I just didn’t know the magnitude of it.”
During a q&a following an advance screening of the movie last week, Marcus acknowledged that “some of this stuff is in the book,” and explained that “when we were doing the book, I said a few words here and there and then the authors just kind of pushed all that together. So I’d never actually spoken about it. I gave the minimum I could for [Alex] to feel good. And obviously I hadn’t worked out that that wasn’t what he wanted at all; that was just feeding the monster in his head of what was going on.”
Still, it’s remarkable just how much of Marcus’s filmed confession was told to Alex during the book’s writing, given that, in the movie, it appears as if Alex is hearing it for the first time. Again, when Marcus tells the camera that he’s been “silent about the real details of what happened for 20 years,” we assume he has never shared any specifics with Alex.
If the narrative was constructed this way in the interest of suspense, it certainly succeeded in making mother Jill’s alleged crimes all the more shocking. During the q&a, Perkins was upfront about his approach to filmmaking. “I believe that all documentaries are, to a lesser or greater degree, constructs,” he said, “and I wanted to kind of own that artifice and create a space in which the film could take place.” To do this, his team built a “very artificial studio space” for Alex and Marcus’s meeting, so that they could “have a conversation that had been too difficult to have up to that point.”
In his director’s statement, Perkins writes, perhaps in reference to this artificial setting, and/or to the dramatic reenactments that are paired with interviews in the film, “We walk a tightrope in making films like this– and intentions matter. I have tried to make a film that, while pushing documentary form to explore issues around the nature of truth and the blurring of fact and fiction, nonetheless has integrity and honesty at its heart.”
Even if reading the book after having watched the movie left me feeling a little deceived, it’s clear that Marcus’s filmed confession wasn’t just a staged reenactment of the one he made in the book. In the film’s press materials, Marcus says that although Alex hoped the book would bring closure, “when we finished the book, Alex wasn’t satisfied.” The progress Marcus made in the book was similarly short-lived: “The small exposure to releasing some of the basic details of our story out of Pandora’s box was so strong in the book, that I immediately put it all back in again.”
It’s clear that Marcus’s filmed confession wasn’t easy for him (he made it only after 15 minutes of back and forth about whether or not to do so, Perkins said) and that it brought fresh closure to him and his brother. In the film, Marcus describes his confession as a “fuck you” to his mother, and it’s clearly cathartic for him to hold her accountable.
Asked by an audience member whether he has been in therapy, Marcus responded, “We did it live for you on the screen.”