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Dissociative Amnesia (Psychogenic Fugue) and a Literary Masterpiece

Dissociative Amnesia (Psychogenic Fugue) and a Literary Masterpiece

In the midst of dictating a letter, Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), then president of the Anderson Manufacturing Company, stopped speaking and began to stare down at his feet. His astonished secretary inquired, “Are you feeling ill?” Anderson continued to look down and spoke cryptically, “My feet are cold, wet, and heavy from long wading in a river. Now I shall go walk on dry land.”1 He is reassuring in a note he wrote to his wife, Cornelia: “There is a bridge over a river with cross ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be alright. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair . . .”

That day, November 27, 1912, was pivotal in his life. When he closed the door to his company, he walked for 4 days along the railroad tracks, 30 miles from Elyria to Cleveland, Ohio. He wound up at a pharmacy, disoriented and disheveled, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward of a hospital.

After discharge, Anderson relocated to Chicago where he joined a literary group, sent for his wife and 3 children, divorced her in 1914, immediately married someone else, and began to write Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life.2 The book, published in 1919, would be proclaimed a masterpiece. The flourishing writer’s group—the Chicago Literary Renaissance—along with Theodore Dreiser, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, depicted the contemporary urban environment, decrying the loss of traditional rural values in an increasingly industrialized and materialistic American society. They noted the failure of the romantic promise that hard work would automatically bring material and spiritual rewards.

Anderson later described the events that led to his hospitalization as “escaping from his materialistic existence.” A psychiatrist in the Cleveland hospital where he was a patient might have diagnosed what DSM-5 currently terms dissociative amnesia.3

Dissociative amnesia (DSM-5 300.12) (subtype dissociative fugue) and Journey of the Traumatized Hero
Although it is conjectural for a psychiatrist to make a diagnosis in absentia, presumably Sherwood Anderson appears to have had a condition DSM-5 terms “dissociative amnesia, subtype dissociative fugue.”3 This condition is characterized by a marked but reversible impairment of recall of important personal information, too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.4

There is a connection between the events of Anderson’s life and an archetypal human odyssey I coin the “Journey of the Traumatized Hero.”

In this journey, the first step is “trauma,” and PTSD follows, with symptoms of re-experiencing trauma in flashbacks, nightmares, or fearful daydreams; avoidance symptoms (eg, psychic numbing, emotional anesthesia with trouble remembering the precipitating event); and hyperarousal symptoms (eg, being easily startled, feeling tense, jittery, or “on edge”). The journey is an internal—not geographic—process, but physical relocation (as in Anderson's fugue) may occur. If successful, the hero becomes resilient, a boon is acquired, and egocentricity ends.

Anderson’s inability to move beyond the abyss led to a psychiatric impasse (Figure). In Chicago he was able to shift from participant-observer to the role of a creative participant and transform the misery of the first 3 decades of his life into literature.

Dissociative amnesias reported
•On December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie, disappeared, only to reappear 11 days later with no memory of the events during that time. On the day of her disappearance, Agatha’s husband, Archie, revealed that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. The couple quarreled, and Archie left their house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, to spend the weekend with his mistress at Godalming, Surrey. Around 9:45 in the evening, without warning, Agatha drove away from the house, having first gone upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind.

Her abandoned Morris Cowley was later found down a slope at Newlands Corner near Guildford. There was no sign of her, and the only clue was a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public, many of whom were admirers of Agatha Christie’s novels. Despite a massive manhunt, there were no results at all. Eleven days after her disappearance, Christie was identified as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, where she was registered as “Mrs Teresa Neele” from Cape Town.

Christie gave no explanation for her disappearance. Doctors diagnosed amnesia or a fugue state brought about by depression, exacerbated by her mother’s death earlier that year, and the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Others speculated Christie was trying to make the police think her husband killed her as revenge for his affair.

•Jody Roberts, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, went missing in 1985 and was found 12 years later in Sitka, Alaska, living under the name of “Jane Dee Williams.” While there were some initial suspicions that she had been faking amnesia, some experts have come to believe that she genuinely suffered a protracted fugue state.

•David Fitzpatrick entered a fugue state on December 4, 2005, and he is still working on regaining his entire life’s memories.

•Hannah Upp, a teacher from New York, disappeared missing on August 28, 2008, and was rescued from the New York Harbor on September 16 with no recollection of the time in between. The episode was diagnosed as dissociative fugue.

•Jeff Ingram appeared in Denver in 2006 with no memory of his name or where he was from. After appearing on national television to appeal for help, his fiancée Penny called Denver police and identified him. The episode was diagnosed as a dissociative fugue. Jeff has experienced 3 incidents of amnesia: in 1994, 2006, and 2007.

An internal journey
To understand the psychodynamics of the dissociative fugue, one may analyze some of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio. It is a collection of interrelated vignettes set in small town America, loosely connected by the narrator, journalist George Willard, Anderson’s alter ego. It is a remarkable literary venture. “America should read this book on her knees,” Hart Crane5 wrote. “It constitutes an important chapter in the Bible of her consciousness.” Through George, Anderson gave voice to those who had entrusted him with the story of their lives.


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