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The childhood that never was: When Alex lost his memory, his twin helped rebuild tales of childhood

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The accident itself was terrible enough. When the motorcycle he’d hitched a lift on came down at a corner, Alex Lewis, then 18, sustained a serious brain injury. For a time, his survival hung in the balance.

While the driver escaped with a broken thumb, Alex suffered total memory loss. 

He remembered nothing and no one; his name, his past life, the circumstances of the accident — not a thing, apart from, extraordinarily, his twin brother Marcus, to whom he said: ‘Hello, Marky,’ upon waking from a three-week coma.

Alex (left) and Marcus Lewis (right), who grew up at home in Sussex, were abused throughout their childhood by their mother Jill Dudley (pictured)

Alex (left) and Marcus Lewis (right), who grew up at home in Sussex, were abused throughout their childhood by their mother Jill Dudley (pictured)

There was much else that Alex’s mind had erased, too. He remembered nothing of his mother, Jill Dudley, who was hardly forgettable. 

Tall, striking and exuberant, she was a former debutante who was presented to the Queen at 18 and was distantly related to Clement Attlee, the former Labour Prime Minister.

Wildly eccentric, she was an obsessive hoarder who, among other things, collected Chihuahua dogs, to the point where, at one stage, there were more than 60 rattling around the family home. 

She had other obsessions: sexual, mainly. Her affairs were numerous, as was common in the louche, aristocratic circles in which she moved. Few, it seemed, raised eyebrows at her rapacious appetites. 

But then, the full extent of her sexual perversions was not widely known. Because the family was concealing a monstrous secret: Jill Dudley had spent years sexually abusing her twin sons.

Alex and Marcus Lewis (pictured as young boys) were also 'passed around' by their mother to a series of upper-class sexual deviants until the age of around 14

Alex and Marcus Lewis (pictured as young boys) were also ‘passed around’ by their mother to a series of upper-class sexual deviants until the age of around 14

Not only did she commit unspeakable acts in their rambling 16th-century Sussex home, she had also ‘passed around’ her boys to a group of upper-class sexual deviants with whom she associated. 

All this, however, Alex had, astonishingly, completely forgotten after his accident and head injury. 

For Marcus, however, the abuse was still painfully present. Yet now, he was presented with a tantalising opportunity: to give his twin the ‘gift’ of a happy childhood, without all the horror.

So, extraordinarily, that’s what he did. When Alex asked him questions about who he was — from the minutiae, such as where they had holidayed as children, to the broadly overarching, like the intricacies of the relationships that existed within their family unit — Marcus completely recreated the story of their life, turning the reality of a life scarred by horrific abuse into a tale of a happy clan with a loving, albeit eccentric, mother.

Alex (left) was involved in a motorbike accident at age 18 and suffered a serious brain injury which meant that he could no longer remember any of the past abuse. His twin brother Marcus (right) made the decision to keep the full details of their childhood a secret

Alex (left) was involved in a motorbike accident at age 18 and suffered a serious brain injury which meant that he could no longer remember any of the past abuse. His twin brother Marcus (right) made the decision to keep the full details of their childhood a secret

‘At first, it was easy,’ Marcus admits today. 

‘Alex trusted me totally. But then he started to ask more complicated questions, and that’s when I started to leave stuff out because I didn’t want to go to that place. I deliberately made stuff up.

‘Once you go down that path, there’s really no place to go. Eventually I realised I was so far in I was never going to go back.’

Rewriting the story of their childhood was also therapeutic for the deeply traumatised Marcus.

It became good for me. I was living his life for him. It was becoming beneficial for both of us. It was a coping mechanism advantageous to me, too.’

Marcus was so dedicated to his task that he managed to sustain this happy family myth for 13 years after Alex’s accident in 1982 — but the fantasy he meticulously constructed was to utterly collapse after their mother’s death in 1995.

Alex (left) and Marcus (right) have since released a book about their story which has been made into a Netflix documentary

Alex (left) and Marcus (right) have since released a book about their story which has been made into a Netflix documentary

While clearing their home of her possessions, Alex discovered an indecent photograph of them as children, with shattering ramifications for them both.

Alex’s search for the truth, and Marcus’s painful reluctance to share it with him, is now the subject of a moving Netflix documentary, Tell Me Who I Am, which was also released in cinemas last month.

‘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.

But, while Alex’s quest for knowledge was driven by desperation to fill his mental void, both brothers admit they had a profound need to re-establish their twin bond.

‘We have a thing,’ says Alex, now 55. ‘This is how we explain it. Most siblings operate on 100 per cent. Twins, identical twins, operate on 110 per cent. Some of that was missing and that’s what I wanted back. I felt incomplete.’

Any secrets, then, would come between that bond.

And there was much Marcus was concealing from Alex… The twins were born seemingly blessed, their arrival announced in The Times newspaper, published on February 3, 1964, telling of the birth on January 31 of twin sons to Jill and husband John Langford-Lewis. 

Three weeks later, however, a second posting was published in The Times. This announced the death of John Langford-Lewis, ‘darling father of three-week-old twins, Alexander and Marcus’.

John was killed in a car crash. What the notice did not say was that baby Alexander was also in the car when it was hit by another vehicle in Wandsworth, South London, on the way home from hospital after his birth (fortuitously, Marcus had been kept in with a chest infection). 

When they were hit side-on, Alex, who was cradled on his mother’s lap in the front seat, shot through the windscreen with his father. His mother, unlike his father, was wearing a seatbelt and escaped unscathed.

Alex and his father were both put on life support. Alex made it — but his father succumbed.

If the kindly John Langford-Lewis had been wearing a seatbelt, it’s possible the twins’ story might have turned out differently. But he wasn’t. Instead, the boys were left in the care of their mother, a twist of fate with horrific consequences.

Seven years after John’s death, their mother married Jack Dudley, a cold, forbidding man. The twins had little to do with him, apart from entering his study each evening, shaking his hand and saying: ‘Good night, Sir.’

However, as Alex recovered after his motorbike accident many years later, Marcus painted a rosier picture of family life. Their mother and stepfather, for example, never took the twins on holiday. 

But Marcus found a photo of them on a beach, holidaying with friends, and told Alex it was a family holiday.

It’s not difficult to understand why Marcus was so eager to forget their childhood and spare his brother. ‘The abuse started when I was about eight, possibly earlier. I don’t have many memories before I was eight because I was so traumatised,’ says Marcus.

‘Over many years, it happened sporadically.’

His mother hid behind her background, which gave her carte blanche to do what she wanted. ‘Sexual abuse has no boundaries,’ he says.

The last time it happened, adds Marcus, was when he was about 14. His mother drove him to the house of a well-known artist in London whom Marcus had never met. They all had dinner and some wine. Then, as she always did, his mother left him and went home.

The evening proceeded as it usually did when Marcus and Alex were left with strange men by their mother: the man took him to bed.

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But, on this occasion, Marcus told the man he did not want this, and left. He took the train back to Sussex and got Alex to open the window when he arrived home.

‘Mum was very surprised to see me at breakfast the next morning,’ says Marcus. ‘But she didn’t say a word. That was the last time it happened.’

What happened was simply not discussed, either between the twins or with other members of their family. 

‘If our stepfather had not been a tyrant, we’d have gone to him and he’d probably have done something about it,’ says Marcus.

‘He wasn’t a very nice man, but I have no evidence to say he was involved.’

Following that final night in London says Marcus, he and his brother moved into an unheated shed outside the house, where they remained.

‘It became a safe space for us. They called it a studio, but it was a shed. Better out of the house than in.’

On the night of Alex’s accident in 1982, Marcus woke with a jolt, feeling anxious. Such was their intuitive bond, he told his mother he knew his twin was in hospital. Yet it was some hours later that she took the call from doctors.

As for the scale of his catastrophic injuries, Alex says: ‘From the brain surgeons I’ve spoken to, they think the first car accident compounded the second accident.’

Alex could remember how to speak, but nothing else.

‘You’re taught how to walk, go to the bathroom. You don’t know how to do your shoelaces up, you’ve never watched a TV. All you have is speech. I don’t think even Marcus realised how hard living in a blank world was,’ he says today.

Once home, Marcus played out a complex charade that their family life — sleeping in the unheated outhouse; their cruel stepfather who called them ‘the dim twins’; their erratic mother — was all normal.

Marcus never confronted his mother about the abuse, and she never acknowledged it — though, they presume, was aware that Alex remembered nothing of it.

Unaware of his mother’s real nature, Alex even grew to love her. For, vile though her actions had been, she could also be warm and maternal.

Little wonder, then, that Alex was distraught to find his mother at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious, in March 1995, some 13 years after his car accident.

She was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which was to prove fatal, and she died aged 64 (her second husband had died five years earlier).

Alex was surprised by his brother’s reaction: ‘He didn’t even cry.’ Marcus, meanwhile, admits he felt nothing after his mother’s death. Rather, he was determined to keep the past buried.

After the funeral, the twins started clearing out the family home. In the attic were boxes of old Christmas cards for the twins sent by friends and family, some with money inside, none of which their mother had given them. 

And they found a large stash of love letters from men with whom their mother had clearly had affairs.

While Alex now says he began to experience a disconcerting sense that his mother was not the woman he thought she was, it wasn’t until they cleared her bedside table that the horrific truth became apparent.

In it, they found a picture of themselves aged around ten, naked, with their heads cropped off.

‘For me, everything just disintegrated at that point,’ says Alex. 

‘My mind was going all over the place. I asked Marcus what it was all about it, this photo, but he wasn’t giving me anything.

‘A few weeks later, I hit him with the question. “Did Mummy abuse us?”

‘He said: “Yes.” I just went into meltdown.’

Alex begged Marcus to tell him the truth, but Marcus wanted to protect Alex — and, he now admits, himself.

Eventually, however, he told Alex in broad terms what happened, both with her and her ‘male associates’.

Yet so traumatic were the memories and so strong his desire to protect his twin that Marcus was still unable to share the full truth. Outwardly, the twins somehow went on as normal. They travelled and, thanks to a substantial inheritance, invested in property and opened a hotel in Zanzibar.

Alex settled in North London; Marcus bought a property in Hampshire. Both married and both had two children. Alex says his wife helped him through much of the aftermath of his horrific discovery.

The brothers’ relationship was good, but, says Marcus, ‘operating at 100 per cent, not at twin level’.

While they wrote a bestselling book about their experiences, Tell Me Who I Am, which was published in 2013, it was only during filming for the documentary (it took five years before they agreed to tell their story on camera) that Marcus finally opened up about the abuse.

Alex says that hearing his brother revealing the whole truth has miraculously shrunk the monster he had created in his head. His trauma has begun to come to a close, although he wishes his brother had told him earlier.

Marcus, too, concedes that he should have revealed all sooner — but was motivated only by a wish to protect his beloved twin.

As if all this wasn’t enough to cope with, there had been further shock for the twins, when, researching their book, they learned their mother had put them up for adoption at a year old.

‘We didn’t know that,’ says Marcus. ‘Our ghostwriter, Joanna Hodgkin, who did the book with us, found letters from friends of hers urging her to come and get us from a foster home. She was shamed into getting her kids back.’

When asked if they loved their mother, the twins have, in the past, given remarkably similar answers. ‘That’s a hard question,’ said Marcus in one interview. ‘It would be too easy for me to say no. The answer is, I probably did.’

As for Alex, he says: ‘That’s a hard one. I was very angry with her over the years. If I could understand why she did it, I probably could. In that period I was a child, I didn’t know anything different and she was my mother.’

After they finished the documentary, the whole truth in the open at last, the brothers went to the pub. ‘We sat in the pub and bought a beer,’ says Alex. ‘Marcus said: “Are we good?” And I said: “Yeah, we’re good.” ‘

Tell Me Who I Am is in cinemas and on Netflix now. 

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