I think what I’ve found is this pretty interesting hole in the theory that there’s actually such a thing as a real man or a real woman.
— Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook (Routledge 1997)
“I was just playing whatever my lovely fingers played. That’s the thing I don’t understand. I don’t know where it came from.” Puzzled and also pleased by his ability to play the piano, Marc McKerrow figures there’s a reason for it. If he learned at one point in his life, he can’t remember it. Marc doesn’t have much hold on his own past, for a number of reasons. For one thing, he’s adopted, with no information regarding his birth parents. For another, he says, “I had a horrible accident when I was young, I rolled my truck.” A couple of years later, when he was just 23, he goes on, “I had part of my brain removed, so it’s been a tough one.”
It’s still a tough one. As revealed in the documentary Prodigal Sons, Marc continues to suffer mood swings, sometimes leading to aggression that frightens his family and, when he thinks about it, Marc as well. “The most precise diagnosis he’d gotten,” says filmmaker Kim Reed, “was ‘personality change due to head injury.'” Her movie is partly about Marc, who worries that he’s not the man he wants to be, not a good husband to Debbie or father to their daughter. His focus on family, as a source of both identity and difficulty, is also Kim’s. Not only is she Marc’s sister, but she also used to be his brother, Paul. Now living in New York City, she’s come home for a high school reunion after two decades away from Helena, Montana, where she, Marc, and their other brother Todd grew up.
“My classmates had head about me,” Kim reports as she drives into town, “but this was the first time most of them would actually see me.” The moment of seeing is another tough one. Kim has worked hard to leave her past behind, not discussing her previous life with current friends and not looking at pictures or videos of herself as a high school quarterback (including an announcer’s enthusiastic commentary: “I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if he went to a major college”). “Do you know who I am?” she asks an old acquaintance. When she discovers that her story has preceded her arrival, Kim changes her question: “Does anybody in the city not know who I am by now?”
As Kim comes to discover and discuss in Prodigal Sons, this formulation — “Who I am” — is exceedingly complicated. While most people assume that they possess a single and stable identity, recognizable from moment to moment, even year to year, she and her brothers, along with their mother Carol, are faced with questions concerning their identities and memories, pretty much daily. Here the question of identity is focused through gender — itself an arbitrary binary system. As Kim tries to explain differences between sexuality and gender to a friend at the reunion, the ambiguities and indefinitions only begin to surface.
If Kim, as she says more than once, has left her own memories behind, Marc is struggling to recover and make sense of his. His questions have to do with his birth parents, his physical trauma, and his loss of memory. They also have to do, crucially, with the memories he does maintain, which appear to be primarily of his childhood rivalry with Paul. Awkward and hard-drinking as a teenager, Marc discloses that he resented Paul’s apparent prowess (even as Kim insists on her own turmoil at the time: “If being masculine meant throwing a football, then I was going to throw the perfect spiral. I thought that would fix me and that it would prove to me and to everyone else that I was normal”). The film presents several confrontations (including a blow-out during Christmas when Marc laments Paul being a “pussy”), each ending differently. Kim has one story in mind for her return to Helena, but runs smack into Marc’s. “I just wanted us to be able to move on, but before I knew it, we were exactly where we left off.”
Maybe not exactly. The past in Prodigal Sons is pervasive and formidable, to be sure, but it is hardly fixed. While the film sets events in some sort of chronology — this black and white photo shows the boys as children, that grainy footage captures a 20-year-old football game — and presents exchanges among the siblings in which they recount what happened when, the point is that each has versions of the past, and that none is exactly in tune with the others. At times, the movie’s narration is too explicit (Kim looks out on a sensational Big Sky sunset as she sorts out, “I felt like Marc would have given anything to be the man I’d give anything not to be”), and at times, the camera’s point of view is overtly manipulative (watching Kim walk away from an argument, so frustrated). But if the movie can’t answer the questions it poses — what makes a “real man,” as Marc calls himself, what makes memory, and what makes family — it doesn’t let them go, either.
For all his fury and confusion, Marc articulates the essential irresolution of identity, the shifts in relations that frame and maybe undermine the fiction of coherent selves. “I don’t know about you,” he asserts:
But the truth is the truth, and if you can’t just bring out a little bit and piece of where she came from and what she was all about, then the truth of the story isn’t there, because that’s the reality of what my life’s all about, and that’s the reality of what Kim’s life is all about. She can’t say she’s always been where she’s been.
Marc’s pursuit of a truth, his belief in a “where she’s been,” as well as where he’s been, remains unfinished in Prodigal Sons. As Marc insists, on occasion, to have found “the real me,” the film suggests that the “bit and piece” of each brother’s past can’t result in a single “reality.” The returns of all three sons — to Helena, to Carol, and to one another — lead to painful excavations, some understandings, and occasional revelations. But the returns don’t end anything, they only restart the process of storytelling.