As I mentioned in my Shameless Promotion blog for Loving a Lost Lord, I adore amnesia as a plot device, and have written three amnesia books. Nor am I alone—there are plenty of other books and movies that also use amnesia, and a good time is had by all.
But my researcher’s conscience has occasional twinges about using a serious brain condition for fell plotting purposes. When Susan Fraser King’s son, Dr. Josh, made one of his visits to Word Wenches to answer medical questions, I asked him about amnesia in fiction. He said basically that the human brain is so complicated that almost anything is possible, which made me feel better. That supported the information in a book I’d read some years ago which recorded fascinating amnesia cases.
But today, I’m exploring the subject a little more deeply. For starters, there are two kinds of amnesia: organic and functional. Organic amnesia is a result of brain damage from trauma or perhaps drugs, while functional amnesia is a result of psychological factors.
Traumatic amnesia is the one that is used most often in fiction—a character has been bonked in the head and loses his or her memory. There is basis for this in fact—even a car accident with no more than minor whiplash might cause a person to lose memories of the moments before the accident because the impact disrupts the neural mechanism that transfers data from short term to long term memory.
The more serious the injury, the longer the period of amnesia may last, but realistically, that also means more serious brain damage—the kind that would require physical therapy in the real world. In television world, a second bop on the head often brings memories flooding back, where in fact, repeated concussions can cause long term brain damage and loss of cognitive abilities.
Think of boxers who have taken too many hits to the head. Think of all those mystery books where a character is temporarily knocked out with a blow to the head and wakes up with no more than a headache. And think also of the tragic case of Natasha Richardson, who recently died of what had seemed like a minor fall while learning to ski. Brain damage is serious business.
Functional amnesia is psychological in origin and can be the brain’s defense mechanism against unbearable events. Repressed memory syndrome is a popular literary device, often used when a woman has suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse.
There was a brief craze for this in the real world in the ‘90s, with many accusations. It was a messy business. Some earnest psychologists who wanted to ‘find the truth’ ended up accidentally inducing false memories of abuse because the mind is incredibly suggestible. I once watched a PBS show on the subject—it was painful and tragic. Even if a “memory” is falsely induced, it can cause very real pain.
I rather fancy the fugue state, also called dissociative amnesia. It’s pretty rare, but is a loss of all memories related to personal identity. It’s often associated with stress and wandering off somewhere, possibly even creating a new identity in another place. When memories are recovered, the person forgets everything that happened during the fugue state.
Fugue states are particularly useful, fictionally speaking. A character suffers some sort of horrible trauma, blanks out on who she is, and turns up somewhere else as a blank slate. This is the underlying pattern of the “a mysterious person arrives and danger follows” plotline, which is probably the most common form of amnesia story. Someone sees a horrific murder, flees from a murderer in panic, and suffers dissociative amnesia.
Since my characters are so often traumatized <G>, I figure they suffer from a physical blow and the underlying stress helps push them into forgetting who they are. My first two amnesia books, Carousel of Hearts and Uncommon Vows, actually had characters who were injured and developed amnesia when surrounded by people they knew—and since the victims no longer remembered what other people expected of them, different parts of their personalities emerged.
My current release, Loving a Lost Lord, is the more traditional “attractive amnesiac appears and is found by equally attractive person of opposite sex” plot, but isn’t a thriller, though there’s a modest suspense subplot. To me, it made sense that Adam didn’t get all his memories back in a rush, but rather they arrive in chunks of related material until gradually the full mosaic of his life emerges. By the end, he thinks he remembers pretty much everything except the actual explosion and just before—which relates to physical trauma preventing experience from going into permanent memory.
Of course there are tons of amnesia stories, and they play on different kinds of amnesia. Regarding Henry features an unpleasant Harrison Ford who is shot in the head during a robbery, and does a sobering job of showing that head injuries cause really horrific problems. Henry has to go through extensive therapy to function at all, and by the end he has had to give up his career as a Manhattan shark lawyer, but has built a much different and healthier relationship with his wife and daughter.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is a famous amnesia story from 1945 and heavily psychoanalytic in ways that might not entirely hold water today, but it’s a jolly story with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, so what’s not to like? <G>
The Bourne Identity is a novel by Robert Ludlum and was made into the first of a series of successful movies. Matt Damon plays the amnesiac Jason Bourne, who is rescued by Italian fishermen while drifting in the Mediterranean, and who finds that he has a really alarming set of skills. <G>
I believe the reviews panned 2001 movie The Majestic, but I quite liked it. Set during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, it features Jim Carrey as a Hollywood screenwriter whose career and life are destroyed because he went to a Communist meeting once to impress a girl. He drives north out of Los Angeles, has an accident, and ends up being embraced by a whole town as the long lost war hero son they would like him to be.
My favorite amnesia movie is Dead Again, made by Kenneth Branaugh in 1991 when he was still married to Emma Thompson. I recently bought the DVD and watched it again, and it still held up well. It also deals with reincarnation and has a good romance, and lots of suspense. (With a happy ending, of course, or I wouldn't have liked it.)
Do you have any amnesia movies you’re particularly fond of? Or books you’ve loved? Or is it a plot device you’d just as soon forget? <G>