The Identity Behind the Supremacy
A.J. Brown had no memory of the past two months. He had woken up to the sound of a gunshot, and found himself in a strange bed in a strange city. When he frantically woke his neighbors, they were confused: his name wasn’t Brown, it was Bourne... and he had been sleeping in the back of his own candy store.
Sadly, it’s not a teaser for The Bourne Confectionery, in which Matt Damon strangles enemies with Twizzlers and puts jawbreakers to literal use (don’t steal this screenplay idea). It is, however, the story that inspired the Bourne films. On the big screen, Damon plays Jason Bourne, an amnesiac CIA agent who battles would-be assassins and struggles to remember his true identity. Ansel Bourne, his historical namesake, is the guy described above. His story is lighter on the hand-to-hand combat and heavier on the religious awakenings, but it’s still got blockbuster written all over it.
In 1857, Rhode Island carpenter Ansel Bourne was walking from his home to a neighboring town when he was struck by the thought that he should go to a prayer meeting. Since he was an atheist, this was an unusual thing for him to consider. In a later account, he reported that “his spirit rose up in decided and bitter opposition, and he said within himself, ‘I would rather be struck deaf and dumb forever, than to go there.’” He put the thought out of his mind and continued along for a bit, but soon started to feel dizzy. Sitting down on the side of the road, “it seemed as though some powerful hand drew something down over his head, and then over his face, and finally over his whole body; depriving him of his sight, his hearing, and his speech, and rendering him perfectly helpless...it seemed that God had truly taken him at his word, and given him what he had chosen.” Bourne was suddenly blind, deaf, and mute.
He spent the next several days telling God he was super sorry. When his speech and hearing were restored, he told everyone else, too. His sight finally came back to him 18 days after it disappeared. The only lingering symptom of the episode was some partial memory loss. Bourne was so grateful to God that he became an itinerant preacher.
For the next thirty years, Bourne lived a quiet, religious life. In January 1887, at the age of 61, he went to bank in Providence and withdrew $551 to pay for a farm he hoped to buy (I guess 19th century ATMs didn’t force you to take out cash in $20 increments). He was supposed to visit his sister after running the errand, but never showed up. To friends and family, it seemed that Bourne had vanished. They feared for the worst.
Flash forward to March of that year. Bourne woke up in the back of a “stationary, confectionary, fruit, and small animals” store. It was 5 am, and he had been startled awake by what sounds like a gunshot within his head. He had no idea where he was, and was informed by his bewildered neighbors that the shop has been open for 6 weeks, with him as the proprietor. He was in Norristown, Pennsylvania, almost 300 miles from Providence. He had introduced himself to the locals as A.J. Brown.
Bourne was horrified. He couldn’t remember anything that had happened since the bank withdrawal. His nephew came to pick him up and take him back to his family in Rhode Island, and was shocked to see his uncle twenty pounds lighter, sporting a shorter beard, and extremely distraught. Bourne would later tell a newspaper that, were it not for his nephew’s gentle care in the days after he ‘woke up,’ he might have killed himself. He reported that he “felt most miserable and completely broken down.”
The family tried to piece together what in the world had happened. The first two weeks of his absence were unaccounted for. After that, neighbors’ reports made things somewhat clearer. Bourne rolled up to Norristown, and struck the locals as “taciturn, orderly in his habits, and in no way queer.” Despite having no experience in business, “Brown” set up his small shop, made regular trips to Philadelphia to replenish his stock, went to church, and cooked himself meals in his apartment. In other words, he had seemed totally normal.
In 1890, Bourne was hypnotized in an effort to uncover more details. His doctor wrote that, while under hypnosis, his patient spoke as Brown- even saying that he “didn’t know as he had ever met” anyone named Ansel Bourne. When asked about his time in Norristown, Bourne/Brown said that there was “trouble back there” and he had needed a break. “I’m all hedged in,” he said. “I can’t get out at either end.”
We’ve all felt overwhelmed, burnt out, and desperate to start over as a Paper, Peppermints, Pomegrante, and Puppies franchisee. So what pushed Bourne’s brain to such an extreme dissociation? He was the first documented sufferer of what are known as ‘dissociative fugues.’ The word fugue comes from the Latin for ‘flight,’ and the episodes are triggered by extreme stress. People suffering from the disorder temporarily lose their grasp of their identity, and begin to impulsively wander. They seem normal to those they meet, showing no signs of the mental break. Most of these episodes last a few days to a few weeks.
Fugues like Bourne’s still pop up in the news. In 2003, a young teacher in New York disappeared while on a jog and was discovered three weeks later floating face-down but alive in New York Harbor. She had no memory of where she had been. In 2006, a man woke up on a Denver street with no idea who he was, and was identified by his girlfriend only after going on the Today show to ask for help. Last year, a Detroit woman suffered a fugue brought on by a stressful divorce. She has only recently begun to recover the bulk of her memories.
Ansel’s story may be short on wagon chases, but it’s an interesting insight into an action star’s historical pedigree. Remember it.
American Society of Naturalists. The American Naturalist. Philadelphia: The Edwards and Docker Company, 1896.
Bourne, Ansel (written under the direction of). Wonderful Works of God: a Narrative of the Wonderful Facts in the Case of Ansel Bourne. Fall River: Wm. Roberston, 1877. http://ia600402.us.archive.org/35/items/cu31924050939804/cu31924050939804.pdf
Cleveland Clinic. “Dissociative Fugue.” http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/dissociative_disorders/hic_dissociative_fugue.aspx
“A Dual Existence. Mr. Bourne's Curious Story Fully Confirmed by His Nephew.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 03-19-1887.
“The Man Who Dreamed. Ansel Bourne Story Partially Corroborated-Dr. Hammond Explanation.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 03-17-1887.
Rieber, Robert W. The Bifurcation of the Self: History and Theory of Dissociation and its Disorders. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006. http://books.google.com/books?id=ECky4zXim3MC&pg=PA140&dq=ansel+bourne&hl=en#v=onepage&q=ansel%20bourne&f=false