I Know This Much To Be True – a TV Series Review

Why are good movies or novels or stories about twins also about truth, about transformation, about knocking one’s head against a brick wall in one’s efforts at survival and adaptation?

I watch many movies and TV series, but I am inspired to review very few of them. This is one. What finally pushed me to write on the series is that I finished watching the last episode the evening that I received a draft horror movie script from one of my sons who had never seen the series. The opening scene in his script begins with a monologue by an old man who says:

I… I know. I know what I’m about to tell you will probably shock you. And. I know you might not believe me. But. I give you my word that- That this is true. All of it. I am not a liar. And, well. This. This is my word.

I am a philosopher supposedly dedicated to the truth. However, I cannot imagine myself ever insisting that every word I utter is true. That can only be uttered by someone in a totally unbelievable horror film that is made convincing or in the brilliant conviction of a creative writer or director willing to cross over norms and assumptions. I cannot even imagine myself saying that I know something with an unquestioned degree of certainty. But the series I Know This Much To Be True ends on that note of revelation. It is a story of Job. It is a story, believe it or not, of a man who travels a very painful path to embrace the Christian revelation that his brother in his madness declared all along. And the acquired conviction is both totally unexpected yet entirely believable.

I Know This Much To Be True was a very long 1998 novel written by Wally Lamb. It was made into a 6-episode TV miniseries for HBO last year and first aired in May of this year. It is a heavy psychological drama, often difficult and painful to watch. The series is grim and relentlessly so with virtually no comic relief from the downward spiral of Mark Ruffalo who plays both Dominick and his twin brother, Thomas Birdsey, who is a paranoid schizophrenic and insists that Dominick cannot escape his presence because Thomas is Dominick.

There are tales of separated twins who are re-united. Such is The Lying Game by Sara Shepard, a tale of twins separated at birth and the quest of Emma at the age of seventeen when she learns of this to meet up with her long lost sister, Sutton, but who never shows up at the meeting place agreed upon.  There are tales of twins who are different in every way. This series is a tale of identity in difference. As Thomas plummets downward, Dominick himself exhibits more and more uncontrollable rage. Dominick follows a trail of unremitting distress and one tragedy after another. The series can almost be paced by a grave per episode. The decline is riveting. It is not a horror film, but one is horrified in watching it. The series is definitely not for everyone.

The performances by the other characters are a match for the brilliance of the lead role – whether its is of Dominick and Thomas’s passive and put upon mother – Connie – full name: Concentina Ipolita Tempesta (her family name) Birdsey, the family name bestowed upon her by her husband who marries her when she has infant twins. John Procaccino offers a stellar performance as the stepfather who is both cruel and cold, but provides a counterpoint of a wisp of increasing humanity as the film progresses.

There are a small host of odd characters, the oddest being Nedra Frank played by Juliette Lewis as an off-the-wall graduate student of Italian literature hired to translate a memoir Dominick inherits from his arrogant, self-centred grandfather, Domenico Tempesta, acted with absolutely stern verisimilitude by Marcello Fonte. Rosie O’Donnell is an outstanding delight and totally convincing as a professional but heartfelt social worker assigned to assist Dominick as he copes with his brother’s increasingly worsening schizophrenia. Credit for another outstanding minor role goes to Archie Panjabi, a woman, and a beautiful one at that, not a man, who plays Dominick’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rubina Patel. In spite of the psychological terrifying moments, I obsessively watched the series carried forward by the outstanding performances.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Pontius tells Hamlet, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” (1:3) But how can one be true to oneself if one had a divided self, one self that is raging angry at the burden imposed on himself by a twin brother who is himself divided, a paranoid schizophrenic. You may not be able to be true to yourself, but through the experience you may grasp a wisp of truth. This is not a film in the horror genre. It is horrific but not a horror film – think of the creepy twins standing at the end of the hall in The Shining.

Neither is this a great allegory like the tale of Jacob and Esau, two rivals who both want God’s exclusive recognition for their way of life – farmer or rancher/hunter. Their tale is not of their identity with one another but their total absence of identity even though they are twins. Stories of twins offer many variations on the identity and difference equation and of identity in difference and difference in identity. Rarely are twin stories used to reveal kindred hearts.

One clear exception might have been Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of Cyanee (Byblis), the absolutely gorgeous twin sister of Caunus. (IX:439-516) Smitten with her twin brother, Caunus, however, her entreaties were not reciprocated but rejected. (IX, 595-655) Caunus, appalled by the thought of incestuous love, flees. Cyanee follows and ends up driven mad and forever weeping, then changed into a spring or a fountain as the children of gods are transformed into features of nature.  

Quite aside from the literary gifts of wit and wisdom, soaring rhetoric and sound realistic descriptions, there are constants in the twin genre of fiction and myth, at least when they aspire to be classics. The narrative is always about a transformation that takes place against the will of he or she who is transformed. Second, there are laws of nature that determine both differences in identicals and the tragedy that ensues from either the effort to permanently separate identicals or, alternatively, makes them exact replicas. They are fated to live in dialectical tension.

Sometimes the tension is inverted to produce a comedy. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, identical twins are separated and the humour results when they are mistaken for one another. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare told the story of the twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated by a shipwreck but doomed to be “reunited”. Viola dresses as a man and Countess Olivia falls in love with him/her, but Viola as the male Cesario is mistaken for her brother and mayhem ensues. However, it is not just Shakespeare’s last comedy, but a haunted one, for Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, twin brother of Judith, had died a few years before he wrote the play in which he was “determined to smile again,” I believe, by resurrecting his son as a fictional persona.  

Sometimes tragedy occurs simply because twins in themselves create problems – of royal succession for example. In Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, when King Louis of France died, he had twin sons. King Louis XIV had his twin brother put into a locked iron face mask and imprisoned in the Fortress of Pignerol. It is a case of choosing absolute power through the absolute rejection of one’s identical twin by creating a false world in which a person is absolutely imprisoned from even being able to see or recognize himself.

Contemporary fiction does not offer these types of extreme opposition, though there are exceptions. Eldonna Edwards story in This I Know of Grace, whose twin brother died in childbirth, is a tale of a young girl who comes to realize as she comes of age that she has the gift of clairvoyance. Like I Know This Much To Be True, death of the twin, though at a very different age, allows Grace to be transformed into a woman who can recall her traumatic birth and who hears her brother’s voice that facilitates her remarkable insight or “knowing”.

Somehow, the magic of twins facilitates lines to be crossed – between fiction and fact, between the laws of natural selection and the rules of creative writing. In the movie, Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman, the troubled screenwriter who is a neurotic mess, as well as his brother Donald, an affable, carefree optimist. How does transformation actually work? How do you adapt a short story into a screenplay? How does an orchid adapt to its environment so that it can reproduce itself? How do the twin brothers transform one another? It was Ovid’s problem. It remains an issue in modern fiction always explored in the twin genre.

One more example – Barbara Kingsolver’s novel of colonialism and imperialism, married to fanatical fundamentalism – The Poisonwood Bible. Orleana Price shares with us the mishaps of the family saga when her husband, a Baptist missionary, stubborn and sanctimonious, determined and doomed, fanatical and foolhardy, took her and their four children to Africa. Leah, the supposedly intelligent twin, adores her father while her “retarded,” disabled and mute twin, Adah, sees through him as if were as translucent as a window pane. They tell the story along with their mother, older sister, Rachel, and younger sister, Ruth May. It is a tale of the horrors they encountered in the Congo of Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu. In this novel, the effort at transformation, at conversion to Christianity by an evangelical, is portrayed as a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, transformation does take place – not among the natives, but in the hearts and minds of the children, especially the twins and especially Adah. And in our view and understanding of her hidden wisdom.

When you watch a “twin” movie or read a “twin” novel, recall the twins that preceded it.

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