Robert survived the plane crash, walked away, and disappeared for two days before he was found, waking up and returning to himself only when the police knocked on the hotel room door he was occupying with a woman he did not recognize. The diagnosis was dissociative fugue: a rare psychological disorder characterized by a complete loss of identity and unplanned, unintentional wandering, caused by extreme trauma.
When he’s released from the hospital and home again with his wife he starts researching online other documented cases of dissociative fugue. He comes across the same handful of cases no matter what search terms he uses. There was Hannah Upp, a young schoolteacher in New York, who disappeared and was found sixteen days later clinging to a shipping buoy in the New York Harbor; and then a few years later she disappeared again for seven days from her new job as a Spanish teacher at a Montessori school in Maryland. Each time she had no recall of the fugue episode. She disappeared a third time from the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean after a hurricane swept through, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Jeff Ingram, from Olympia, was found wandering the streets in Denver and made an appeal on national television for help in identifying who he was; his fiancé called the police and claimed him, but he’s been unable to recall any of his past, even from before his fugue state. When Jeff disappeared he’d been on his way to visit a friend who was dying of cancer.
Agatha Christie—yes, the famous author—went missing for eleven days until authorities found her in a resort on the English coast; she claimed no memory of what happened during the time she was gone, although before she disappeared her husband had informed her that he was leaving her for another woman.
Then there was the nineteenth century case of Ansel Bourne, a preacher who moved from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania, assumed a different name, and became a confectioner. He “woke up” two months later having no memory of what happened. His name was picked up by the author Robert Ludlum for his Bourne series of novels.
And now there is Robert. To dive deep into his crippled neural circuits and struggle to make sense of his dissociative fugue was akin to carrying out a self-inflicted terrorist act, because if you gaze at your navel intensely and long enough, you may not find the insight you’re looking for but you’ll unearth the hidden lint and crud: the shortcomings, the lapses, the casual cruelty, the misguided motivations, the shallow needs and humiliating weaknesses. He’s been scaring himself to within a heartbeat of hell by reading about dissociative disorders—their range and complexity are staggering. There existed an almost countless array of afflictions that could lay siege to your mind. And you can’t just put it behind you. Because once afflicted, you were always, always at risk. The mental virus stayed within you, able to attack again. You didn’t gain immunity.
There were seldom definitive root causes of a dissociative fugue—only conjectures, theories, that the person was fleeing something they feared. For Hannah Upp, perhaps she was overcome by stress because she was starting a new job teaching school. But is the position of elementary school teacher that traumatic? Agatha Christie had been jilted by her husband, who confessed to an affair. But if everyone who’d ever been tossed aside by a lover went into a fugue state we would be a planet of nomadic zombies. In 1887, Ansel Bourne never understood why he walked from Delaware to Pennsylvania and assumed a new identity. Jeff Ingram, who has suffered dissociative fugue on three separate occasions, has no clue what sets him off.
For Robert, he survived a plane crash that he expected to destroy him. Now he’s safe, but not free of his fear. He senses he is being followed by another person, one that lives inside him, who he can never see and never escape from. Correction: not followed by that interior person, but led by him. Controlled by him. No telling what he’ll do next.