Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Fugue of Ansel Bourne

The first psychologist to provide a reliable account of a man who had misplaced his identity was William James. In his Principles of Psychology, James narrates the case of Ansel Bourne, a 60-year-old carpenter from Greene, Rhode Island. On January 17, 1887, Bourne boarded a horse-drawn streetcar bound for his sister’s house. He never arrived. Two months later, a man named A.J. Brown awoke in a panic. Brown had arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, six weeks before, rented a small shop, and hung out his shingle. He sold candy and toys, made weekly trips to Philadelphia to replenish his stock, and attended a Methodist church on Sundays. Yet now his bed looked unfamiliar. Waking his landlord, Brown demanded to know where he was and how he got there. Brown declared that his name was not A.J. Brown—of whom he knew nothing—but Ansel Bourne. The baffled landlord telegraphed a man in Providence who Brown said was his nephew. The nephew hurried to the scene and confirmed, to general perplexity, that Brown was Bourne. A despondent Bourne claimed to lack any memory of the previous eight weeks. The last thing he recalled was the streetcar.

James labeled the case a “spontaneous hypnotic trance.” Today, it would be called a fugue. The word fugue comes from the Latin fugere, meaning “to flee.” A person in a fugue state suffers a kind of involuntary erasure of individuality. Often, people in fugues use pseudonyms and construct fictitious personal histories. They act mostly normally, though for inexplicable reasons, they generally abstain from sex. Some fugues are peripatetic, causing people to travel long distances. In one study, fugue sufferers migrated a mean distance of 1,200 miles. They are oblivious to their condition until someone tells them, at which point a cognitive crisis usually ensues. Fugues depart as mysteriously as they arrive. Some resolve after a few hours or days; others endure for months or years. Afterward, patients find themselves restored, gradually. Their old identities return, intact, though they remember nothing of their mesmeric episode.


David said...

Absolutely fascinating.

G. Verloren said...

Fugue states have always creeped me out a bit.

I've occasionally had entire, detailed, lucid conversations with other people after sitting up from bed in my sleep that I've later had no scrap of memory of, and those were unnerving enough to hear about after the fact. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to lose months or even years of one's life and not have any notion what happened, except through the accounts of others.

And yet, I think the thing that really makes it unnerving is the notion that nothing seems to have logically led to the condition. If you're in a terrible accident and spend months in a hospital in a coma, you at least can point to the trauma as the logical reason why you've lost all that time, and you wake up to people who understand what happened and help you to come to grips with it. But if you instead just wake up one day in perfect health in some random place, and everyone around you is just as baffled as you are, that'd quite frankly be terrifying, and is the sort of thing that I imagine could drive a person insane.