I’ve written several times about the strangeness of having most of my adult life defined by an event I can’t remember. The moments that shaped how I now navigate the world, how I perceive myself, and what I do for a living exist in my mind only because others have told me what happened.
When thought of this way, I find it discomfiting that who I am arises out of emptiness, a void I’ve filled with other people’s stories and the unalterable fact that the space where my left leg used to be proves that I survived my accident. Without my own memories of that night, I fight conflicting impulses: to recover them – after all, they’re mine, even if locked away from my conscious memory – and to keep them safely stashed in the deepest parts of my subconscious. But since working towards either of these goals is impossible – I can’t remember what I can’t remember, nor can I bury what’s already entombed – I find myself periodically trying to fill the void with an imagined version of my own experience. However, the enormity of what I felt in the middle of a New York road 18 years ago eludes me; I can’t independently conjure it up because, for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t there.
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Rarely and randomly, certain movie scenes have left me displaced, my heart racing and my mind foggy. I’ve previously described my reaction the first time I saw Band of Brothers and its depiction of Joe Toye lying in the icy woods outside Foy, his leg blown off, calling for help as the rest of Easy Company remains pinned down under a barrage of German bombing. While I can’t remember what it was like to lie in the middle of Northern Boulevard on a winter night, a mangled mess, I thought to myself while watching two-legged Kirk Acevedo act, “That feels like it could be what I went through.”
I went more than a decade before having this experience again, but then got hit with it twice in less than 6 months. It happened first when I watched 50/50, the Joseph Gordon Leavitt/Seth Rogen vehicle that tells the story of Adam Lerner (Leavitt), a twenty-something whose cancer diagnosis sends his safe, controlled life careening towards the reality that he may die. Adam has a complicated relationship with his mother (Anjelica Huston), who he tries to keep at a distance while going through his treatment. But she’s there when he has to undergo life-threatening surgery, and his cries to her as they wheel him away to the operating room threw me back into that place of combined terror and recognition with a sudden jolt.
Unlike Band of Brothers, which depicted a soldier violently losing his leg, Leavitt’s performance had no direct connection to limb loss or my personal experience: I’ve never had cancer; I don’t remember getting wheeled into surgery; and my mother died more than a year before my accident. But the sense of primal fear, of the mind disconnected from its moorings, casting wildly about for a way to understand events beyond its comprehension made me believe that if I could remember that winter night, this is what it would have been like.
This feeling swept over me again at the end of Captain Phillips. Having protected his crew, his cargo, and survived his experience as a hostage, the Navy extracts Phillips (Tom Hanks) from the small craft his captors held him in, bringing him onboard a U.S. battleship. As a naval doctor walks him into the examination room, Phillips – who has stayed in control throughout most of his ordeal – disintegrates. While the physician tries to assess him he breaks down, the enormity of what he has just lived through sending him into shock. The doctor keeps trying to coax him back to the present, to his injuries, to what he physically feels. But Hanks poignantly inhabits that space between connection to the present and becoming completely untethered, trying to answer her questions while uncontrollably shaking and sobbing, his responses monosyllabic and mechanical.
Unlike either of the other stories, Hanks portrays someone who emerges from his trauma physically intact. But as I experienced the same reactions to Hanks’ performance as the two preceding it, I realized that the resonance comes not from the facts but from the feelings. And it’s the feelings I’m looking for, as it seems like a violation of a universal law that I could endure a trauma so severe and not be able to remember how it felt.
I suppose each of these stories could have had exactly the same impact on me if I had never walked into that intersection. Perhaps being me means being uniquely susceptible to actors portraying these specific kinds of life-changing events, and perhaps I have always been that way. However, I suspect that’s not the case. I think these scenes overwhelm me because they’re the closest I can come – after the fact – to feeling what I think I should have felt that night. It’s a bizarre way to reconstruct one’s personal history – through the lens of able-bodied actors playing roles that in no way resemble my own experience. I’ve never tried to do this; it just happens. And I accept it, even though I’m not sure I understand it.