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10 Bizarre Cases Of Amnesia
One of the most popular plot devices in fiction is for a character to develop amnesia and lose their memory. Of course, in real life, amnesia cases don’t happen nearly as often as they do on soap operas, and they come in many different forms. But when these cases do occur, they make for some interesting stories, even when they turn out to be a complete hoax. We’ve already profiled the story of Benjaman Kyle, a middle-aged man who lost his memory after an assault and still hasn’t uncovered his true identity, but his is not the only bizarre case of amnesia (not by a long shot).
10 Ansel Bourne
One of the most well-known amnesiacs in pop culture is Jason Bourne, a character who is forced to uncover his past as a government assassin after losing his memory. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Jason Bourne was named after one of the first known amnesiacs. Ansel Bourne was an evangelical preacher from Greene, Rhode Island, who took a trip to visit his sister in Providence on January 17, 1887. However, for unexplained reasons, he ended up withdrawing his savings instead and traveling to Norristown, Pennsylvania. While there, he decided to open up a variety store under the name Albert J. Brown and started a new life.
When Bourne woke up on the morning of March 15, he had no idea where he was. He became very confused when residents told him his name was Albert J. Brown. In his mind, it was still January 17 and he had no memory of his previous two months in Norristown. After returning home, Bourne was studied by the Society for Physical Research. Under hypnosis, he would assume the persona of Albert J. Brown. The hypnotized Bourne told a back story about Brown that was similar to his own, but denied knowledge of anyone named Ansel Bourne. It was probably the first documented case of a psychiatric disorder known as the “fugue state,” a dissociative form of amnesia that causes a person to lose their identity for a period of time before their memory suddenly returns. After the hypnosis, Ansel Bourne lived out the rest of his life without incident and never assumed the persona of Albert J. Brown again.
9 Clive Wearing
After suffering a serious brain injury, the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film Memento is afflicted with anterograde amnesia. Even though he still remembers his past, he is unable to create new memories. While this condition is real, it is far less common than retrograde amnesia, which involves losing memories from one’s past. However, a British musicologist named Clive Wearing has the dubious distinction of suffering from both forms of amnesia at the same time. On March 27, 1985, the 46-year-old Wearing contracted herpesviral encephalitis, a very rare form of the herpes simplex virus that attacks the central nervous system. As a result, Wearing cannot remember events from his past or store new memories in his brain.
The virus severely damaged Wearing’s hippocampus, the area of the brain that transfers memories from short-term to long-term. As a result, his brain can only store new memories for several seconds before he forgets them again. Wearing also cannot remember most of the details of his life before 1985. He can recall that he had children from a previous marriage, but cannot remember their names. While Wearing can still remember that he loves his current wife, he often forgets that they’re married. However, his procedural memory is still intact, meaning that even though he cannot remember his musical background, he still knows how to play the piano. It sounds like a nightmarish situation, but Wearing has managed to live day-to-day life under these difficult circumstances for the past 28 years.
8 Sywald Skeid
On November 28, 1999, a young man in his mid-twenties wandered into the emergency department of a hospital in Toronto, Canada. He had a broken nose and appeared to be the victim of an attack. The man spoke with a foreign accent, but carried no identification and claimed to have no idea who he was. He was treated by doctors, who diagnosed him as having post-concussive global amnesia. When the press picked up on his story, they gave him the nickname “Mr. Nobody.” After being released from the hospital, Mr. Nobody stayed at a shelter for a few weeks before being taken in by an Ontario couple. The young man went through various name changes throughout the years, but finally settled on Sywald Skeid.
Skeid’s photographs and fingerprints were circulated in an attempt to uncover his identity, but he refused all offers of treatment for his amnesia. He moved to Vancouver and met with a lawyer in order to lobby for a Canadian citizenship and eventually married the lawyer’s daughter. Police received a lead suggesting that Skeid was a French model named Georges Lecuit, but subsequently discovered that the real Lecuit’s passport had been stolen in 1998. Skeid and his wife fled the country and were later found living in Portugal, where he was attempting to obtain Portuguese citizenship. Skeid finally revealed his full story in an exclusive interview for the June 2007 issue of GQ magazine. He hailed from a poor Romanian peasant family and his real name was Ciprian Skeid. In the end, Skeid admitted to faking the whole amnesia episode in order to escape his past and seek citizenship in another country.
7 Jody Roberts
In 1985, 26-year-old Jody Roberts lived in Tacoma, Washington, working as a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune. In May of that year, Roberts’ friends and family started to notice some strange changes, as she stopped taking care of herself and began to drink significantly more than usual. On May 20, she mysteriously vanished and would not be seen by her loved ones for 12 years. Little did they know that five days later, a disoriented Roberts was found wandering around in a mall in Aurora, Colorado, over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) away. She carried no identification, but had a key to a Toyota, which was never found. She was admitted to a Denver hospital, where doctors determined that she had entered a fugue state and developed amnesia.
Unable to uncover her true identity, Roberts started a new life after leaving the hospital. She gave herself the name Jane Dee, got a job at a fast food restaurant, and enrolled at the University of Denver. After moving to the town of Sitka, Alaska, Roberts married a commercial fisherman and had two sets of female twins while starting a new career as a web designer. In 1997, one of Jane Dee’s Alaskan co-workers saw Jody Roberts’ picture on a Seattle newscast and recognized her. Roberts eventually reunited with her old friends and family in Tacoma, but still had no memory of them. While it’s theorized that severe stress might have brought on her fugue state, it remains unknown how Jody Roberts ended up in Colorado.
6 Raymond Robins
Raymond Robins was a noted economist and advocate of organized labor who often worked closely with the White House on such issues as prohibition and establishing diplomatic relations with Russia. On September 3, 1932, Robins had a meeting scheduled with President Herbert Hoover, but never showed up. He was last seen leaving the City Club in Manhattan. Robins’ disappearance made headlines, leading to speculation that he might have been the victim of organized crime, but there were also reported sightings of him acting strangely while wandering the streets of Chicago. On November 18, Robins was discovered living under the name Reynolds H. Rogers in Whittier, a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.
Robins had apparently arrived in the town one week after he disappeared, claiming that he was a miner from Kentucky. He lived in a boarding house, spent most of his time prospecting, and became a popular figure in the community. However, even though Robins had a grown a beard by that time, a 12-year-old boy recognized him from a photograph in the newspaper and contacted the authorities. Robins’ nephew went to Whittier to identify him, but Robins did not recognize him and had no memory of his previous life. After reuniting with his wife and undergoing psychiatric treatment, Robins finally started to regain his memory. It was speculated that a combination of stress and emotional strain might have caused Robins to enter a fugue state, prompting him to assume a new identity.
5 Barre Cox
In 1984, 31-year-old Wesley Barrett “Barre” Cox had a wife and a six-month-old daughter and worked as a minister in San Antonio. On July 11, Cox had just taken a trip to Lubbock and phoned his wife to tell her he was planning to drive to Abilene to see friends. The next day, Cox’s vehicle was found abandoned and ransacked on a rural road in Jones County, and the contents of his wallet were scattered across the ground. In the early hours of the morning, Cox had been seen at a nearby convenience store buying two jugs of fuel. He claimed his car had run out of gas and a policeman gave him a ride back to his vehicle. Cox was not seen again until 2000, when he was recognized working at a gay church in Dallas as a minister named James Simmons.
Cox claimed he had been beaten and found unconscious inside a car trunk in a Memphis junkyard. He was taken to a hospital and remained in a coma for two weeks. When Cox woke up, he had no idea who he was and learned that he had amnesia. After leaving the hospital, Cox started a new life and eventually became a minister at a gay church. However, authorities could find no police or hospital records to verify Cox’s story. The policeman who drove Cox back to his vehicle had noticed a motorcycle in the car’s trunk. This motorbike was missing when the abandoned car was found, and witnesses saw a man fitting Cox’s description riding it later that day. This has created suspicion that Barre Cox chose to stage his own disappearance and seek a new life after realizing he was gay.
4 Michelle Philpots
In the comedy 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore plays a woman who suffers a serious head injury in a car accident. As a result, she develops a rare form of anterograde amnesia which causes her memory to reset whenever she goes to sleep. After she wakes up, all her new memories have been erased and she believes that it’s the day of her accident. Believe it or not, this story actually has some basis in reality. In 1985, Michelle Philpots of England suffered a head injury a motorcycle accident. Five years later, she re-injured her head in a serious car accident. These injuries did enough cumulative damage to Philpots’ brain that she eventually started having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. By 1994, she was suffering from anterograde amnesia and had completely lost the ability to create new memories.
For the past 20 years, Philpots has had all her memories wiped clean after she goes to sleep. When she wakes up, she believes that it is still 1994. Even though Philpots was in a relationship with her husband long before she suffered amnesia, they did not actually get married until 1997. As a result, Philpots’ husband has to show her their wedding pictures every morning in order to remind her that they’re married. During an appearance on The Today Show with Matt Lauer, Philpots actually forgot Lauer’s name in the middle of their interview. Even though an operation was performed to remove some of Philpots’ damaged brain cells and put an end to her seizures, it seems unlikely that her condition will go away or that her erased memories will return.
3 Doug Bruce
On the morning of July 3, 2003, an unidentified British man walked into a New York police station and told them he didn’t know who he was. He had recently woken up on a subway train having no idea how he got there, and since he carried no identification, he did not even know his own name. The man was checked into a nearby hospital for a few days until a phone number was discovered inside his knapsack. The number belonged to a female acquaintance, who came forward to identify the man as Doug Bruce. Bruce was a British citizen who had earned millions by working as a banker in Paris before moving to New York to pursue a degree in photography. But even after Bruce was escorted home to his fancy loft in Manhattan, he did not remember the place or any other details about his life.
Bruce is believed to be suffering from a very rare form of retrograde amnesia, and he became the subject of an acclaimed documentary called Unknown White Male. The film became the subject of controversy as there have been allegations that Bruce’s story is an elaborate hoax. Experts have been unable to pinpoint a specific traumatic incident that could have caused Bruce’s amnesia and some have expressed doubts that it is genuine. Shortly before the incident, one of Bruce’s friends had gone through his own bout of short-term amnesia after suffering a head injury, leading to speculation that the incident might have inspired Doug to perpetrate a hoax. Whether Doug Bruce is faking it or not, he has yet to show any signs of regaining his memory.
2 Anthelme Mangin
On February 4, 1918, a disoriented French soldier was discovered wandering around on a railway platform at the Brotteaux train station in Lyon, France. The soldier carried no identification, but after being questioned, he said that he believed his name was Anthelme Mangin. However, he didn’t know anything else about his life and could not recall how he’d ended up on the railway platform. Mangin was placed in an insane asylum and was moved around from institution to institution for years as they attempted to work out who he was.
Mangin’s photograph was widely circulated in newspapers and over 300 families came forward to claim his as their own. However, Mangin did not remember any of them, and none these families could be verified as his relatives. Finally, in 1930, a family from the commune of Saint-Maur, Indre positively identified Mangin as a former waiter named Octave Monjoin, who had gone off to fight in World War I and never returned. In August 1914, Monjoin had been wounded and taken prisoner alongside 65 other French soldiers on the Western Front. After spending the next 3.5 years in a series of prison camps, the soldiers had been sent back to France in January 1918. However, Monjoin’s paperwork was lost, so his family never found out he’d returned home. It is believed that Monjoin’s traumatic experiences in the war caused him to lose his memory.
1 Agatha Christie
Since Agatha Christie was arguably the most famous mystery writer of all time, it’s only appropriate that she became the center of her own bizarre mystery in 1926. On the evening of December 3, the 36-year-old Christie mysteriously vanished from her home in Sunningdale, England. The next morning, her abandoned car was discovered one hour away in Newlands Corner, but she was nowhere to be found. Christie’s disappearance became a huge story and once word spread that her husband, Archibald, had recently asked for a divorce, speculation ran rampant that he’d murdered her. Finally, on December 14, Christine was found alive and well, registered under the name Teresa Neele at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate. She claimed to have no memory of how she’d ended up there.
There has always been debate over what happened to Christie during those 11 days. At the time, many believed she staged her own disappearance for publicity or as a way of getting back at her husband—especially since Teresa Neele happened to be the name of his mistress. However, there is evidence that Christie might have entered a fugue state and genuinely lost her memory. On the morning of her disappearance, a witness encountered her walking down the road. In spite of the cold weather, she was wearing nothing but a thin dress and seemed upset and confused. It has been theorized that Christie’s impending divorce and the recent death of her mother caused her to enter a deep depression. Crashing her car might have been the breaking point that caused her to develop amnesia and forget who she was. Agatha Christie died in 1976, and took the full truth about what happened to her grave.
Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopaedic movie knowledge to publish numerous articles at Cracked.com. He is also the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and recently worked on a sci-fi short film called Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow. Feel free to contact him here.