Waking up to a kinder reality
Alex Lewis lost his memory after a motorbike crash aged 18, and relied on his twin brother to tell him about their past. The benign story he told hid the sexual abuse the boys had suffered at the hands of their mother. These made-up memories bought the brothers time to understand and deal with their misery, writes Emily Hourican
WITHOUT memories, we exist only on the surfaces of our minds. When accident or trauma wipes the slate of the mind clean, those memories must be painstakingly recreated. Where the recreation triggers no answering response, no spontaneous recollection or answering echo from the depths, then the stories become just that, stories, to be exaggerated, skewed or invented.
For Alex Lewis, the memories supplied to him by his twin brother, Marcus, after he lost his memory following a motorbike accident aged 18, were all of those things. But what Marcus was trying to do was to create a new reality, something far kinder than the actual facts of the boys' early lives. It was a problematic but heroic act because, in doing so, he not only assumed an excessive responsibility, but left himself quite alone with the burden of pain and misery they had previously shared.
Like Roberto Benigni's character in La Vita e Bella, desperately turning life in a concentration camp into a game for his son, Marcus used stories to try and protect his twin from the vicious, ugly truth. Ultimately, the truth could not stay hidden. As always, it finds some way to circumvent the barriers placed before it and spills over into the light, but the attempt was an act of such faith that it has transformed both men's lives. Together they have confronted this truth, wrestling it into a more manageable shape, by writing a book, Tell Me Who I Am, with Joanna Hodgkin.
"He became my memory," is how Alex describes waking up from a three-month coma and finding he remembered nothing, except his twin brother's name. Not the woman weeping by his bedside -- his mother -- or the man she had married, his stepfather, or anything he had been told about his own father who had been killed just weeks after the boys were born. Marcus was his only point of reference, his touchstone. "I felt alone and isolated -- Marcus was the only person I could relate to." He had to relearn everything, including how to drive and cook, and lost his job as chef at a hotel. Even so, Alex found the emotional distance he felt from his mother difficult to understand. Marcus had told him they had a fairly ordinary childhood; difficult, but nothing unusual. It was only after his mother died, 12 years later, and he followed Marcus into therapy, that Alex began to uncover the foul secret that, though buried, was still keeping his emotional life on hold.
Jill Dudley was a debutante and distant relative of British prime minister Clement Atlee, a thin, vivacious woman with huge energy and a delight in childish games. Her upbringing was conservative and repressive, typical of the era, but the dawn of the more permissive, experimental 1960s seemed to suit her temperament far better, and she found herself moving with a louche, bohemian crowd. Jill married John Lewis, a salesman and a "quiet, decent, nervous man", and had twin boys in 1964. Tragically, John was killed in a car crash just weeks after their birth, and Jill gave the boys to a children's home.
This was not, Marcus and Alex maintain, because she couldn't cope. "She didn't abandon us because she was distraught over losing our father. She was out, having boyfriends and all sorts. She wasn't sitting at home moping," Marcus has said. An aunt, their father's sister, begged Jill to let her take the boys, but was refused, and eventually, after a year, she was sufficiently shamed by relatives to take them back. Soon after, Jill married again, an accountant called Jack Dudley, more than 20 years older than her. She was his fourth wife and together the couple had two more children, Oliver and Amanda, whom he greatly favoured over the twins.
Already undoubtedly traumatised by the upheaval of their lives, this is where things really began to go awry for Marcus and Alex. Jack denied many areas of the house to the twins, saying they were "his quarters". Eventually they were reduced to sleeping in the garden shed. They were also not allowed to address him unless spoken to first and had to stand up in his presence. "Jack was a very frightening man. You did not challenge him, absolutely not," Alex recalled. Unpleasant as Jack's behaviour was, however, it was still within keeping with the harsh norms of the time. Jill, for all her vivacity, drama and flamboyance, was far more sinister. She was sexually abusing both boys, from a very young age, although neither recalls exactly when the abuse began. "As a child, you accept it as something that happens. It's only as you get older that you start to realise that it's wrong," Marcus has said. "From around the age of 10, you start to know that it's not acceptable, but you are too frightened to say anything. You have this intense fear of something dreadful happening if you tell. You become frightened and paralysed. It wasn't happening every day -- it was sporadic. Alex and I never spoke of it, which is strange because we talked about everything else."
In as much as either boy can understand the monstrous betrayal of their innocence by the one person most charged with protecting them, they believe that Jill's behaviour stemmed from her "voracious sexual appetite and total lack of inhibition". Sporadic rather than systematic, the abuse, they believe, was part of Jill's erratic, highly sexed personality and complete "lack of boundaries". She was, they say, "a very sexual person. She came from a strict, conservative background and her upbringing was extremely conventional. Then, later in life, she became highly sexualised and took it too far ... She didn't have any boundaries. This was her main problem in life. Whether it was turning up uninvited to our parties and saying inappropriate things to our friends or wearing outrageous clothes, she just didn't think it was wrong".
Their stepfather, they are certain, despite his repressiveness and cruelty, had no idea of what was happening to the boys.
That, of course, is no kind of excuse, although it might constitute a reason of sorts. However, that Jill allowed her sons to be abused by other people, men who were part of her social set, is even more sinister. This was the era of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall, a time when children were viewed as appendages rather than autonomous, when their vulnerability, instead of rousing a protective instinct in many adults, inspired something predatory. Jill would drop the boys -- separately, never together, which indicates a degree of awareness on her part -- to the houses of these men, then collect them the next morning. "Without a doubt our mother knew exactly what she was doing. She was in no way naive -- she was far too devious and clever," says Marcus. "She was streetwise and never let anyone get one over her. What was she getting out of it? Was she being paid? We have no idea."
Certainly money seemed very tight at home. There was never enough food -- both boys recall wolfing down meals at other people's houses because they were constantly hungry -- and Jill dressed herself from second-hand clothes shops. She boasted of knowing countesses, but on a practical level, her life was chaotic and increasingly squalid.
Yet more trouble came when the boys were diagnosed as severely dyslexic at their expensive prep school. Instead of meaning they got extra help, the diagnosis was an excuse for Jack -- who already called them the "dim twins" -- to take them out and send them to a rough-and-ready comprehensive, where they were bullied. Physically and emotionally neglected, abused and largely abandoned, Alex and Marcus had nothing, no compass in life, except each other. The bond that naturally existed between them was strengthened by the extremity of their experiences, even though they never spoke of them, and probably because of it, they endured the kinds of traumas that would have broken another. "Without a doubt we survived because we had each other," says Marcus. "Our bond was so close and our love for each other unconditional. It was as if we had our own protective bubble."
That bubble sustained them, even as the horrors of the world in which they were trapped became more and more obvious to them. "As children, you accept everything you are told -- you think it's normal. We used to think it was other people who were strange," says Alex. But increasingly, they realised it was not. The violent mismatch between their lives and those of people they knew became increasingly borne in upon them, often via specific unpleasant incidents. Aged 12, Marcus and Alex were charged with serving canapés and drinks at a London party given by a friend of Jill's. At the party was one of the men who had abused Marcus. "I could see a man in the drawing room who had done unbelievable things to me. And I had to serve him a drink," he recalls in the book. "I was so frightened I peed myself in the hall, right in front of everyone, frozen on the spot aged 12. My mother must have known what that was about. I can see him now, in the corner of the room by the window." Marcus' reaction was to try and disguise what had happened, showing a truly pitiful ingenuity. "I went into the kitchen and threw food over myself, so I could disguise what had happened."
The abuse stopped when the boys were teenagers, and still they had never discussed it with each other. Then, when they were 18, Alex was involved in the motorbike accident that put him into a coma and left him with no memory, beyond his twin brother. He woke to a strange new world, through which Marcus was his guide. Going home was like walking into a strange house for the first time, his then-girlfriend had to be formally introduced to him, as did his half-siblings, the blanks of his background slowly filled in. Except that they were being filled in around an enormous gap.
Marcus says that he never deliberately set out to hide their past, rather that deception crept up on him, because he couldn't find a way to tell the awful truth. "I was 18 at the time, and wasn't a particularly mature 18. It was thrust upon me, and I was so busy the first couple of months teaching Alex to walk again and caring for him. His mental age was quite young at first. It wasn't until three or four months in that he started asking some more difficult questions." There was, Marcus says, no "light bulb moment" when he decided to create an alternative, kinder reality. "It was a protective thing. I thought 'I'm just not going to tell him'. If you had the opportunity to give that to your sibling, you would. It's a no-brainer." And he knew there was no one else who could or would tell.
And indeed, Alex has said that he would have done the same thing, in an instant. That power, to deliver a different childhood, a different truth, security and peace where there had been desperate neglect, must have been faintly delirious for Marcus, but it was undoubtedly also lonely. For 13 years he carried the burden of memory alone, forcing himself to live the happy life he had invented for his brother, while Alex gradually forged a bond of sorts with his mother, who seems to have been remarkably, even disturbingly free from guilt over her behaviour. It was only when she died, of cancer, in 1995, that the cracks began to show. By this time, their stepfather, Jack, was also dead. Until then, Alex had had no clue that there were any secrets to uncover, although he was very aware of a kind of emotional numbness of his own, a kind of frozen detachment that prevented him forming strong relationships with anyone except his twin.
Marcus couldn't fake a grief he didn't feel at her death, and that was the first sign, for Alex, that something was wrong. "I was grieving. Everybody was upset. But Marcus didn't seem particularly upset. That bothered me a lot. I said, 'something's not right'." Oliver, the twins' younger half-sibling, was the first to break, opting to go into therapy. Marcus followed soon after, and Alex, unnerved by the reaction of his two brothers, then decided that he too needed to talk to someone. "I needed to know more about our family on my own terms," he said. "During one session I broke down and started crying, and my therapist said, 'You need to talk to your brothers and sister. I think there's been abuse in your family'."
Alex asked Marcus, who wouldn't say anything. Then he approached Oliver, who admitted that he had been abused by their mother. This was the first time the word had ever been uttered aloud, the first time Jill's behaviour had been given a name. Via therapy, Alex continued the slow excavation of his buried past life, even though Marcus was very reluctant that he do so. By that stage, Marcus almost believed the happier version of events he had invented, had lived with it so long that it become his narrative as much as Alex's. But clearing out Jill's house and sorting through her things, the twins began to discover other, odd fragments of the story. For all the years that Jill had claimed poverty, and lived like someone with no money, she had been hoarding a fortune -- "millions" apparently -- left to her by various members of her family over the years. Her house was full of the usual obsessive clutter of the compulsive hoarder -- endless newspapers, scraps of paper, knickknacks, old clothes, lumped in with family heirlooms and antiques. There were birthday cards and letters addressed to the twins going back many years, some with money or postal orders from relatives, that Jill had hidden in drawers and cupboards, further fuelling the sense of being so isolated that Alex and Marcus had as boys.
Most disturbing was the discovery of a locked drawer in Jill's bedroom, containing, along with the usual rubbish they had come to expect, sex toys, underwear and a naked photograph of the twins, aged about ten, with their heads cut off. Jill's explosive nature, her lack of boundaries (often a euphemism for bizarre and inappropriate behaviour), instinct for hoarding and miserliness all seem to hint at a personality disorder. However, as Alex has said: "It would be easy to label her as mentally ill or a monster, but it's not that simple. You could put any label on her and it wouldn't be enough."
As the story was gradually uncovered and pieced together, Alex found that his numbness began to vanish, the frozen feeling that had accompanied him since the accident, thawed, often with violent effect as the enormity of his childhood was brought home to him: "It felt like a fresh trauma, knowing I'd been living a false life. I had to start over a second time." But at least he now had feeling. "When I found out my real life story, all my emotional responses came flooding back, good as well as bad: anger, relief, sadness."
Within months of the discovery, Alex met the woman who is now his wife, the mother of his children, and embarked on what he considers to be the third phase of his life.
Both Alex and Marcus have done far more than survive. Despite the dyslexia, neglect, bullying and abuse, they are highly successful in business and run a hefty property portfolio together. More than that, they are happy family men, with children of their own. Their understanding of the events of the past is complete, and they have, together, assimilated the betrayals and cruelties of their childhood. "You could argue he denied me my past," Alex says of Marcus, "but I feel he saved me."
Ultimately, the truth will always seep out somehow -- enormous deception is never a solid basis on which to build -- but there is huge redemption in Marcus's bizarre, Quixotic choice. In fabricating a happy version of their childhood, a benign story to tell his much-loved brother, he bought them both time, a kind of hiatus of misery, following which both were strong enough to gradually confront and uncover the reality, together. As for forgiveness, well, it is not that simple. "I think you can have some sort of understanding on an intellectual level, but forgive? I don't know. That's a big word." And anyway, in the end, the story is less about Jill and what she did to them, than it is about two brothers, and what they did for each other.
Tell Me Who I Am by Alex and Marcus Lewis (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99).