originally published October 18, 2013

Is there anything scarier than the thought of losing your memory? Forgetting your identity? Your loved ones? Your years of acquired wisdom? Well sure, there’s axe-wielding sharks spewing up from a sudden chasm in the middle of Fifth Avenue – I suppose that’s a little scarier (back off, Sci-Fi Channel! Shark Axe-plosion: Manhattan is mine!). But apart from being a convenient soap opera plot device, amnesia is real. And it’s terrifying.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly not remember any of the details about my life. Sure, there are one or two abysmally embarrassing moments of my youth which stick like old fetid peanut butter to the roof of my brain, and yes, there were those endless hours of my childhood spent staring at the Brussels sprouts my mother tried to force me to eat… but no, overall I’d rather keep my memories. I’ve never known anyone with amnesia and have heard only second or third-hand accounts of the condition. But it sounds wholly unpleasant.

But what if you had amnesia and no one was there to help you figure things out? What if the mystery couldn’t be solved? This is the bizarre case for a man named Benjaman Kyle – at least he has that name right now. Prior to August 31, 2004, no one knows who he was.

Imagine you’re a manager at a Burger King. You’re working the opening shift, all set to be awash in Croissan’wiches, sausage biscuit meals and lost dreams of what you could have done with your life, when suddenly you spot a naked man lying by the dumpster. He’s unresponsive, redder than a spilt jar of Prego from the sun, and covered in bites from fire ants. What would you do? You’d call the paramedics and have this little snippet of morning weirdness hauled out of your life.

Now imagine you’re that naked man, waking up among the squinty eyes and poking fingers of the staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Richmond Hill, Georgia. You have no idea who you are, where you’ve been, or what your place in the world is. You think you’ve been mugged, and something blunt appears to have thwacked your skull, possibly leaving behind some neurological damage. Also you can’t see.

Oh well. No worries. Someone will file a missing persons report and track you down, right?

The doctors determined that the man had dissociative amnesia. This is the variety that is mainly attributed to stress or trauma, not so much a blow to the head. Unlike anterograde amnesia, in which a person cannot create new memories (fans of Memento or 50 First Dates know the Hollywood version), this man simply has a massive chunk of his adult life cordoned off, isolated by every possible pathway from his conscious mind.

He vaguely recalled the name ‘Benjaman’ (with the odd spelling) and adopted it as his own. The last name ‘Kyle’ was arbitrary, but he liked that it gave him the initials ‘BK’, just like the fast food restaurant where he was first found. Hey, it’s hard to embrace the joys of nostalgia when your life as you know it started less than a week ago.

Doctors at Memorial Health University Medical Center donated some free cataract surgery to restore Benjaman’s sight, and for over a year they allowed him to live and eat for free in exchange for doing some chores around the hospital. But that couldn’t go on indefinitely, and eventually Benjaman needed to head into the world and literally “find himself”.

There were a few clues clinging to the murky walls of Benjaman’s rickety mind. Recollections of Indianapolis as a child, notions of having spent time at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and the glimmer of an idea that he was ten years older than Michael Jackson. He was pretty sure he’d attended Catholic school, and could recall some of the sights, smells and experiences of having lived in Indianapolis in the mid-1950s.

His fingerprints were run through the FBI database. Whoever he used to be, Benjaman wasn’t a criminal, nor was he a government worker or a member of the armed forces. There was nothing on file. DNA testing was carried out. The guy even dropped in on the Dr. Phil show in 2008, just to get the word out there.

Suddenly the question wasn’t “Who is this guy?”, it was “Why doesn’t anybody step up and claim they know this guy?”. His face was splattered all over the news and all over the internet, he’d appeared on NPR and the BBC, and they’d even run facial recognition software to try to match him up with anyone who’d ever had a driver’s license in Indiana. Nothing.

His DNA testing had unearthed a few distant relatives, but no one who’d met Benjaman before. He was the ultimate missing person, except that everyone knew where he was, just not where he had been. And behind all the media attention was a guy without a Social Security number. A man who couldn’t land a legitimate job or find a place to live.

He stayed with friends that he’d met at the hospital for a while, and got a job washing dishes. He has a small air-conditioned shack to stay in, courtesy of some kind soul who saw his story. Of course some eyes have fallen upon this tale and declared it to be uncomfortably suspicious.

They point out the lack of certifiable evidence of a beating, though the one report I’d read indicated some possible dents in his skull and besides, a trauma or stress-induced amnesia doesn’t need a croquet mallet to the temple to set it off. There’s a lengthy discussion at websleuths.com as to the veracity of Benjaman’s claim, though I can’t imagine why anyone would boast such a quirky tale when there’s nothing to be gained from it.

Benjaman Kyle has been alive and conscious for over nine years now, and nobody can be found who can place his face. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy in the entire twisted story – whoever Benjaman might have been, he hadn’t lived a life in which anyone cared enough about him to report him missing, or noticed him enough to identify him when his story showed up in the news. That’s 50+ years of living completely anonymously, flying below the entire world’s radar.

It’s almost as though he had nothing to lose.

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