Dissociative Fugue: The Mystery of Agatha Christie

Very few of us are what we seem. - AC

In dissociative fugue, a traumatic event may prompt a person to embark on an unexpected journey that may last for up to several months. During this journey, there is memory loss and confusion about personal identity or assumption of another identity. Once the fugue ends, the memory of the journey is lost. The celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England, on the evening of December 3, 1926. Her mother, to whom she had been close, had died some months earlier, and her husband Colonel Archibald Christie (Archie) was having an affair with one Nancy Neele. Archie made little effort to disguise this affair, and on the day that Agatha disappeared he had gone to the home of some friends in Surrey to be reunited with Nancy. Before vanishing, Agatha had written several confused notes to Archie and others: in one, she wrote that she was simply going on holiday to Yorkshire, but in another that she feared for her life. The following morning, Agatha’s abandoned car was discovered with headlights on and bonnet up in Surrey, not far from a lake called Silent Pool in which she had drowned one of her fictional characters. Inside the green Morris Cowley, she had left her fur coat, a suitcase with her belongings, and an expired driver’s license. Fearing the obvious, the police dredged the lake, organised as many as 15,000 volunteers to beat the surrounding countryside, and even (for the first time in England for a missing person) flew aeroplanes overhead – but all without any trace of Agatha. In fact, Agatha had checked into a health spa in Harrogate, Yorkshire, not under her own name but under that of ‘Teresa Neele’. Her disappearance soon made the national headlines; several people at the spa thought to have recognised her, but she kept to her story of being a bereaved mother from Cape Town. Only when, on December 14, the police brought Archie up to Harrogate could she be reliably and conclusively identified. As Archie entered the spa, Agatha simply said, ‘Fancy, my brother has just arrived.’ Agatha never discussed this perplexing episode and also excluded it from her biography. Perhaps she contrived it as an act of revenge, maybe even as a publicity stunt, but a dissociative fugue is an equally likely explanation and also the one upheld by her then doctors. In any case, it should be borne in mind that, just like dissociative fugue, revenge and fame can also be construed as ego defences. In Agatha’s own words, ‘Most successes are unhappy. That’s why they are successes – they have to reassure themselves about themselves by achieving something that the world will notice.’

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Positive illusions

Most people regard themselves in more positive terms than other people regard them, and have an unduly optimistic outlook on their circumstances and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an unrealistic optimism about the future, and an illusion of control over external occurrences. For instance, most people think that they are a better than average driver, citizen, or parent, collectively implying that the average driver, citizen, or parent is in fact not at all average. A couple on the verge of getting married is likely to over-estimate the odds of having a gifted child but underestimate the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced. Positive illusions may confer certain advantages such as an ability to take risks, persevere with major undertakings, and cope with traumatic events. In the longer term, however, the loss of perspective and poor judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to set us up for failure and disappointment, not to mention the emotional and behavioural problems (such as anxiety and anger) that are associated with a defended position.

It is interesting to note that positive illusions are particularly prevalent in Occidental and Occidentalised cultures; in East Asian cultures, for example, people do not tend to be self-enhancing and may even be self-effacing. Positive illusions are also more marked in unskilled than in highly skilled people, who tend to assume, falsely, that those around them enjoy a similar level of competence. This so-called Dunning-Kruger effect is encapsulated in a short line from Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

In contrast to most, people who might be diagnosed with depression are prone to a number of cognitive biases or distortions that might be thought of as ‘negative illusions’. Three examples of cognitive biases that occur in depression are ‘selective abstraction’, ‘dichotomous thinking’, and ‘catastrophic thinking’. Selective abstraction involves focusing on a single negative event to the exclusion of other, more positive ones. For instance, a depressed student may focus on a test that he has failed at the expense of all his previous academic achievements and all the other good things in his life, his strong physical health, confiding friendships, supportive family, and so on. Dichotomous thinking is a form of thinking in which an outcome is either all good or all bad, with no room at all for shades of grey. A common example of dichotomous thinking in hospital in-patients with depression is, ‘If he doesn’t come to see me today then he doesn’t love me.’ Another, more subtle, one is, ‘If I am not out of hospital by Jack’s birthday, he’ll know that I do not love him.’ Catastrophic thinking involves exaggerating the possible consequences of an event or situation, as in, ‘The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m in a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and living in the street.’

People who might be diagnosed with depression may be prone to a number of such cognitive biases, but the scientific literature suggests that they can also display more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events which may or may not occur) and a more realistic perception of their qualities, abilities, and limitations. This phenomenon of so-called depressive realism is most pronounced at the milder end of the depressive spectrum, and it may be that the most accurate perception of self and reality belongs not to the tranquil or joyful but to the mildly discontented.

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