WhoIAm

These Twin Brothers Were Sexually Abused in Their Childhood — But Only One of Them Remembers

In the new Netflix documentary ‘Tell Me Who I Am,’ director Ed Perkins chronicles how Alex Lewis’s coma and memory loss inspired his brother Marcus to keep their traumatic past secret

Alex and Marcus Lewis have lived a life that, without exaggeration, has probably never been experienced by any two brothers who have ever walked the earth. 

Their story starts in 1982, when Alex, who was 18 and growing up in Sussex, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. Hitting his head during the crash after losing his helmet, he slipped into a coma, only to wake up in the hospital without any memory of anything — except for the fact that he recognized Marcus, his identical twin. For the next few years, Marcus helped his brother regain a sense of who he was: This is where we live. These are your friends. This is where we’d go on vacation. This is your mother and father. It was an incredibly touching gesture on Marcus’ part, essentially serving as the memory bank for two brothers as he helped Alex regain a sense of himself and the life that he had lost. 

Except, Marcus wasn’t telling his brother the entire story. A photograph Alex stumbled upon in their house triggered something in the young man — a sense that something wasn’t quite right. And when he confronted Marcus, it set in motion a series of revelations about their past that Marcus had hoped he could keep from his twin. But there was no stopping that now.

(Note: What follows are spoilers for the documentary Tell Me Who I Am, which chronicles Alex and Marcus’s childhood trauma.) 

Alex and Marcus are now in their 50s, and they’ve been telling their story to the world — and, in a sense, to each other — over the last several years. Starting in 2012, the twins have gone public about the truth Marcus knew: They had been sexually abused by their mother Jill, an eccentric figure who hid hidden her crimes from her husband Jack. The brothers have tried to process that trauma in several ways, including a memoir published in 2015 called Tell Me Who I Am, but even there, they hadn’t completely delved into the details of their abuse, which Marcus remembered and Alex struggled to understand. Closure remained elusive for Alex — he still wanted answers that his brother was reticent to provide.

That’s when Ed Perkins entered the picture. An award-winning British filmmaker, Perkins became interested in Alex and Marcus, reaching out to them about possibly turning their story into a documentary. It wasn’t easy, taking years to gain the brothers’ trust and, more importantly, allow Marcus to arrive at a point in his life where he was finally ready to tell his brother everything about the sexual abuse they endured. Marcus had long wanted to shield Alex from that pain, but in the new documentary, also entitled Tell Me Who I Am (and available on Netflix starting Friday), the brothers tell their separate versions of their shared life story. 

In the first act, Alex talks about waking up from the coma into a scary world he doesn’t recognize. In the second, Marcus reveals his thought process about hiding the worst elements of their past from his brother. And in the final act, the two men sit across a table from each other as Alex gets to hear more about their sexual abuse than he ever has before. The film is incredibly cathartic — both for Alex (who finally learns the whole truth) and Marcus (who finally unburdens himself of the pain he’d held onto for both brothers), as well as the audience, who will be floored by a heartbreaking, extraordinary tale of survival.

Speaking from New York, Perkins told me about the long road to making Tell Me Who I Am. Alex and Marcus have remained close in adulthood — they even work together — but Perkins realized that their tight bond was slightly weakened by the secrets Marcus didn’t want to inflict on his brother. “I remember vividly having a conversation with Alex, probably four years ago now,” Perkins says, “and he’d end every sentence by saying, ‘The crazy thing is, I’ve never talked to my brother about [having a conversation about the sexual abuse]. I don’t know how he feels about this. [He’s] the one person that I see every day, that I do everything with, and yet this thing seems to be the one thing that we can’t talk about.’” From there, Perkins explained the process of getting the brothers comfortable enough to finally talk about it — as well as the challenges of playing therapist for his subjects — and where Alex and Marcus go from here now that they’ve shared their truth with the world. 

Alex and Marcus have told their story in different ways over the years. How did you convince them to turn it into a documentary?
I first heard about this story five years ago. I read an article in The Sunday Times about Alex and Marcus’ story — like a lot of people, I was blown away by the things their story brings up. It plays out like a thriller — it’s one of those stranger-than-fiction tales.

It’s taken five years from the time we met them to make the film, and one of the great advantages of having that kind of long gestation period before ever getting a camera out of a bag is I got to spend a long time with them together, but also individually. Over the course of two or three years, I really got to know them as people and build a level of trust I think would be almost impossible to do on a more traditional filmmaking schedule. I think [the film needed] that level of trust, combined with a decision on Marcus’ part that he’d reached a moment in his life when he wanted to talk — but also an understanding on both their parts that there was a need to have a conversation and close this chapter of their lives.

There was an understanding on our part that there was something unresolved that both of them wanted to find a way to resolve. It was an interesting process: I wasn’t just acting as a director but like a therapist, sort of like a mediator. You’re hearing things from two human beings that go to the core of who they are — trying to navigate them through that process was something that we’ve taken incredibly seriously.

Alex Lewis

You mention having to serve as a pseudo-therapist. Did you consult with actual therapists before conducting the interviews with the brothers?
The responsibility of a director when you’re telling a real person’s story is huge, and with this, given some of the scenes involved, that responsibility did weigh heavy on me. I spent a long time with therapists. I talked to them about, if Alex and Marcus had come to them seeking help, how would they guide them through this process safely? Making sure they avoided re-traumatization — that was so helpful for me. 

One of the really fascinating things that came out of some of those conversations and some of my reading was this idea of a therapeutic frame — a real, geographic space in which a therapeutic relationship can be established, can grow and in which disclosures can happen. I took that idea and built the [interview] studio that you see in the film. That was a very conscious decision — we weren’t trying to pretend it was happening at their home. And the week before we filmed the interviews, we invited them to see the studio space. They walked around it, they sat down, they met all the people who were going to be in the room, the very small crew, and I think it was helpful. It allowed us to have this little world — this space that none of us had ever been to before — for the eight hours a day when we were talking, and it felt like a safe space. 

I would [film] four hours in the morning with Alex, four hours in the afternoon with Marcus, and you were able to explore someone’s story, someone’s life, someone’s feelings in so much more detail when you have that amount of time and you can return to ideas and stories and themes, and see it from different perspectives. I felt like [that studio space] allowed them to feel that they could talk very openly.

Was there anything specifically you were advised in terms of talking to men who have dealt with sexual abuse as boys?
I don’t remember there being anything specific — it was more the broader understanding of how that relationship works when you’re talking to someone, and making sure that if there were flashbacks how to stay safe. And, of course, one of the other things we did was make sure that there was a support network there in place at all times and after filming.

For me at least, their agency was paramount. We wanted to make sure they felt like they were in control at every stage. There was a fascinating moment on Day Four or Five of the interviews — we got to the core of the story, and I asked Marcus, “Are you willing to tell me what your mother did to you when you were a child?” Despite us having talked through the themes of the story, he was quite taken aback and sort of said, “I wasn’t expecting we would actually have to go there. Can’t we talk around it? Do we actually have to talk about the details?” I said, “It’s up to you, we don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to, but if you’d like to, I’m here to listen.” 

His response was interesting: He said, “That’s not a good-enough answer. That’s not going to persuade me to talk. Give me a better reason why I should talk.” And again we just resolutely said, “You don’t have to talk. You don’t have to say anything. But if you want to, we’re here and we’ll listen.” It was a fascinating back-and-forth — it felt like 20 minutes, but it was probably about 10 — where we resolutely weren’t willing to provide any reason [for him] to do this.

Marcus Lewis

So what made him decide to open up?
Only Marcus can explain why he felt that was the right time in his life to say those things in those words, but it was a really amazing moment. It felt like a real privilege to be there with him — anyone who sits in front of a camera and bares their soul is a far braver person than I am. What he’s done in that moment is astonishing, and I really hope it helps people. 

One of the things we’ve learned through this process is that, when you’ve gone through some of the things Marcus has gone through, the feelings of fear, guilt and shame can make you silent for a very long time. Marcus’ strength in talking is very inspiring. We hope that this is a film that, even though it goes to difficult and complicated places, will leave audiences with a feeling of hope.

Someone came out [of a screening] and said, “Oh, it’s a love story, isn’t it?” I hadn’t really considered that, but it is actually a love story between two twins and the way in which their relationship has allowed them both to survive and to be extraordinary people. I find them both on a personal level to be a real inspiration to me because they’ve steadfastly refused to be victims. I’ve seen them in their personal lives, as far as [being] husbands, and they’re extraordinary. 

In Tell Me Who I Am, Marcus seems pretty convinced that his father was unaware of the sexual abuse. It’s so hard to believe he knew nothing. What do you think?
Their dad is actually their stepfather — their biological father was very sadly killed in a car crash when they were three days old. Their stepfather is the person they refer to as dad — it’s the only father they’ve ever known. And we’ve gotten [this question] at Q&As, and Marcus’ response is he resolutely doesn’t believe that his stepfather knew. They didn’t share a bedroom, and they lived in different parts of the house. Marcus has been very strong on his belief that his stepfather wasn’t aware.

Whether or not Alex has ever asked his brother more about that I don’t know. When I first met Alex, I [understood] that so many of the things that, as an outsider, we would see as essential, burning questions weren’t questions that they’d ever discussed before — that [question about the stepfather] being one of them.

I would ask, “Why haven’t you thought about [some particular question about your childhood]?” Their response often was, “We’re twins. We have this almost telepathic understanding. We don’t need to talk. We feel what each other feels.” But one of the interesting shifts in the first few years of getting to know them was a realization that one of the reasons why they hadn’t talked wasn’t because they each knew what each other felt — it was because it was too scary to ask the other person about certain parts of their life.

I’ve had that in my own life with people — sometimes, some of the people closest to you are, for whatever reason, people you can’t talk about certain things with. I understand that, I empathize. I’m not an identical twin, but the way that they talk about their relationship is so unique. I can only imagine that brings you unbelievably close on certain things, and also makes other conversations even more difficult to have.

The whole film builds to their big conversation at the end, where Alex finally learns the truth from Marcus about the sexual abuse they endured as boys. How hard was it to make that scene happen? I imagine there might have been some false starts while the brothers got their courage up.
There were many false starts throughout the entire process [of making the documentary]. Probably three years ago, we were just starting to try and pitch the film out to people, and I remember getting a call from Alex saying, “Look, I’m really, really sorry. I know we’ve been getting to know each other for a couple of years, and we’ve had all these meetings, but we’re not able to do this anymore.” Then a week or two later, I got another call saying, “We’ve talked about this, and we do think we want to go forward.” Even the week before actually starting to shoot, they told us in hindsight that they were having concerns about it. And I get that totally — I would have felt the same.

You’re spending four hours in the morning with Alex and he’s telling you, “Until I get to talk to my brother — until I hear the real truth from my brother — I can’t really move on. That’s the last puzzle piece missing for me — that’s what I need him to find the strength to give me.” And then you’re hearing [from Marcus], “I don’t want to be silent anymore, but the reason I’m being silent is because it’s scary to talk. And the reason I’ve been silent for decades is because of the fear, because it’s too difficult to admit this stuff.” So you’re trying to act as a mediator between these two twins who weren’t in a position to understand each other’s perspectives to the full extent.

We see Alex watch Marcus’ footage of him detailing the abuse — Marcus felt more comfortable telling you than telling his brother directly. Was there anything more that we don’t see in the final film?
What you see on the laptop is exactly what Alex saw, and the impact on him has been really profound. I can’t speak for Alex, but I get the sense that he needed to hear that from his brother. Marcus couldn’t say it directly to his face, but through that laptop, Alex was finally able to understand.  

We talked about what might happen in that conversation and whether Marcus would be willing to say those things directly to Alex. Marcus didn’t think that he was going to be able to have the strength to do that, but he’d already said that to me on camera — that felt right, but of course it also had to be Alex’s decision. It was a really fascinating moment before the laptop comes out where Alex sort of says, “I need to see this. I want to see it,” and Marcus says, “I still don’t get it. Why do you want to?” Even right up to that moment, I think Marcus didn’t quite understand why Alex needed that, because for so many years Marcus had been protecting both of them from that.

Once we finished [filming] for the day, they left the studio — it was very, very emotionally charged. They went to a local pub in London, and apparently they looked each other in the eye and said, “Are we done? Yes, we’re done.” That was their way of drawing a line under it and moving on to the next chapters of their lives.

The brothers have been promoting the film. Obviously, they’d previously written a book about this, but were you hesitant at all to have them go out and answer questions from the press about their trauma?
It’s a really, really important question, because the process of them making the film is one thing — sharing it with audiences is another. That’s a complicated, difficult, emotional step. It’s been amazing to see the ways in which Alex and Marcus have embraced and owned not just the process of making the film but now taking it out into the world and wanting to share their story. They live incredibly full and fulfilling lives, and they’ve done extraordinary things. I’m an expectant father — our first child is due later this year — and spending time with them and seeing them as parents, as husbands, as family men has been so inspiring for me. What they’ve endured in their lives is more than you’d ever wish anyone to go through, and yet they haven’t let it define them.

Was it hard to find out you’d be a dad while working on a movie like this?
Once we found out my wife was expecting our first child, I watched the film again — I found it incredibly difficult. It has made me think a lot about parenting, but the process has been an incredibly positive one because I’ve been able to spend time with these two extraordinary men and see how they’re doing it and see how they parent their kids. I’ve learned a huge amount. 

Tell Me Who I Am isn’t this kind of film, obviously, but were you at all curious to hunt down the people who allegedly sexually abused these boys? Their mother died in 1995, but maybe others who took part in the abuse are still alive?
From my perspective as a director, no. And this is a question that really only Marcus can answer, but he wants to look forward, not back. He wants to move on to the next stage of his life, and I really hope they can now. [Finding their abusers] isn’t part of their journey.

One detail about the story that blows my mind: Alex wakes up from this coma and remembers nothing — except for the fact that Marcus is his brother. I kept wondering: Is this common with twins?
It’s not a common thing at all, and it’s a very difficult, if not impossible, thing for doctors to understand or explain. It raised this question that I talked a lot about with Alex: Do we as human beings have the ability, in a state like a coma, to consciously or unconsciously press the reset button? Can we press the delete button and get rid of trauma? Are we able to do that as a way of protecting ourselves? I have absolutely no idea whether we can or whether we can’t. I think part of me finds that a comforting thought that we might have that ability. But who knows what happens? Alex certainly doesn’t.

The movie ends with a kind of happy ending, with the brothers stating that this ordeal is over for them now. But is it really? Isn’t that kind of healing ongoing and unpredictable?
Only Alex and Marcus will be able to tell you — and they won’t yet know because there is a journey ahead for them. I think what they mean by that is there were gulfs of understanding [between them] because there was this one thing between them. We’re talking about two identical twins who have shared everything — they came from the same egg, they were two halves of a whole — and yet there was this thing that stood between them that maybe didn’t allow them to be whole.

My understanding is that they feel like that very unique, difficult-to-put-into-words essence — that extra bit you get as a twin — is now there because of the fact that there aren’t any secrets anymore. Alex doesn’t have to guess anymore — he doesn’t have to allow his mind to run wild anymore.

That’s not to say that there won’t be other things along the way that they’ll both be thinking and talking about. But I think this feels like an important moment. At festivals — to have people come up to them after a screening and give them a hug and disclose their own stories and tell Alex and Marcus their own secrets and be affected by what they’ve gone through — it’s a huge privilege. I just feel immensely proud to have witnessed what they’ve done.