A Science Times story about the condition known as “dissociative amnesia” today jarred a memory I have of one chapter of a friend’s extremely colorful life. My friend is in her 80′s and was married four times; only the final marriage lasted for a significant time, and only it could be described as fairly normal. Her first marriage story can only be described as astounding.
My friend “Annie” got married for the first time near the start of the U.S. involvement in WWII. Her husband became a soldier, but never made it overseas – he was involved in a train accident in the U.S. and suffered brain damage and a long recovery. How Annie coped during this period with no money and a couple of small children is a story itself (it never occurred to her that she could get some assistance from Uncle Sam), but eventually her husband recovered enough to work for the U.S. mint as an engraver after the war. Life went on for a few years but Annie wasn’t entirely happy because her husband was starting to show, in her mind, undue aggression toward her oldest son. She was concerned that sometime he might go too far and hurt her son, but didn’t know what to do about it.
The problem ended up solving itself, because one day Annie’s husband never came home from work. No one had a clue where he was. She tried for awhile to locate him but the effort was a bit halfhearted because in truth, she was relieved for her kids’ sake. She still found it quite odd, though, that he would leave for good without even a word to her. She eventually obtained a divorce due to her abandonment, but his disappearance remained a mystery – no friends or family members knew where he went.
Something like 20 years or more passed before the mystery was solved. The ex-husband’s sister was walking along in Seattle one day, and was shocked to see him on the street. She grabbed him and started talking, and it was only at that point that he himself remembered anything of his life 20 years before. The day he disappeared, he had simply forgotten everything about his life at the time, to the point of not even knowing where he was or how to get home. I know no details of how he dealt with his situation at the time, but at the time he was rediscovered, he had built an entirely new life with a wife and kids without remembering a thing about his original life until the day he saw his sister, when it came back to him.
Eventually, he travelled to visit Annie and her (fourth and final) husband, but Annie’s oldest son refused to talk to him; Annie could not convince him that his father had abandoned him through no fault of his own. By that time enough years had passed that Annie, happy in her current family, was philosophical and did not feel any emotional baggage in meeting him; she did so mainly out of curiosity, and understood that what had happened was some sort of strange by-product of the train accident. She and her husband continued a friendly correspondence with her ex and his family for a number of years.
I had never heard of this type of amnesia before or since hearing this amazing story from Annie, until reading the above article. I’m sending her a copy! Here is the
Merck manual description of the disorder.
My main reaction is that this must happen more than is recognized, because Annie’s ex was able to build a whole new life, and never would have known what happened to him if he hadn’t happened to run into his sister – imagine the odds of that! I do not know if he ever told a doctor about his problem or not, but he coped with it rather well. Perhaps it would be harder in today’s world where ID numbers are so ubiquitous. But if I ever hear again about someone abandoning their family without a trace, I would have to wonder…