originally published November 23, 2013
Have you ever had one of those days when you simply wanted to disappear? Okay, we’ve all had those days, often tucked into the cruel early hours of a Monday. But how deep have your fingers dug into the sand of this notion? Have you contemplated where you’d relocate? Pieced together the process in your mind? Had your fingerprints sand-blasted off and surgically reconstructed, just in case?
Think about it – all your problems (barring health and medical concerns of course) would disappear. Your debt, your harpie wife, your glommy kids, your imposing siblings, your ass-mustard boss, your hobbling debt, that spot on the stairs that squeaks like a Jawa with a paper cut every time you step on it… they could all be kicked behind your mental furniture.
Or maybe you’ve got a more compelling reason to take flight than the day-to-day detritus of modern life. Maybe the dark shadow of your nefarious wrong-doings is haunting you. Perhaps something unspeakable is bubbling beneath your epidermis and the only way you feel you can spare yourself and those you love is to fall off the grid. Was this the reason behind the strange story of Toronto’s Mr. Nobody?
On a Sunday in late November, 1999, a man staggered into a Toronto hospital emergency room, bleeding from a broken nose and having difficulty maintaining his verticality. He had no idea who he was, where he’d come from, or how he had been injured, though staff suspected he had been mugged. He felt some kinship with Australia, though his accent was identified by experts as being possibly English, maybe from Yorkshire.
The mystery man also spoke fluent French and Italian, and knew how to read Latin. He was dubbed “Mr. Nobody” in the media.
But unlike the story of Benjaman Kyle, the guy from Georgia who woke up behind a Burger King in 2004 and still searches for his identity to this day, Mr. Nobody’s backstory is a touch murkier. He was diagnosed with post-concussive global amnesia, but the evidence to support this diagnosis was shaky at best.
Mr. Nobody adopted the name of Philip Staufen – it had apparently drifted past the windshield of his consciousness so he and the hospital staff assumed it to be his name. His wallet was gone, and even the labels of his clothing had been cut out, which seems a bit elaborate for a mugging.
A kindly British couple offered Philip some temporary lodging. He collected welfare while his face and fingerprints were shuffled about the globe to no avail. Also unlike Benjaman Kyle, Philip was not willing to seek out all avenues of help. In fact, he turned down the offer of expert medical assistance with his amnesia. His face showed up on TV shows in the English-speaking world, but Philip quickly disappeared from the spotlight, shuffling off to Montreal then Vancouver.
Philip sought a Canadian passport, offering another familiar chime – the date of June 7, 1975 – as his likely birthdate. He recruited a lawyer, and while he was denied a passport and birth certificate to establish Canadian citizenship, he was offered a Minister’s permit to stay and work in Canada for 18 months. This was late May, 2001, 18 months after he’d first “reawakened”. Philip turned down the permit.
In June things got weird. Just as he was announcing his hunger strike in an effort to get the paperwork he wanted, a gay porn model named Sean Spence stepped forward and claimed that Philip was a man named Georges Lecuit, also a gay porn model who had been working in England a few years back. He offered photographic evidence to Toronto Police detective Stephen Bone (who with that name probably gets all the gay-porn-model cases). Indeed, the man calling himself Philip Staufen did resemble the model.
Mr. Nobody was not particularly eager to adopt the identity of Georges Lecuit, though whether that was because he was embarrassed by the man’s profession or simply convinced that the photos were of someone else, he didn’t say. In July of 2001, Philip changed his mind about the work permit and married Nathalie Herve-Azevedo, his lawyer’s daughter.
I told you things got weird.
Philip and Nathalie scooted around the country, while Philip changed his name to Keith Ryan and then Sywald Skeid. In early 2004, the press discovered that a French man named Georges Lecuit had reported his passport missing back in 1998, a year before Sywald had turned up at that Toronto hospital. Sywald was tossed in jail, released only on the condition that he report to Citizenship and Immigration Canada on a regular basis. By October 4, Sywald and Nathalie disappeared.
Nathalie had flown to Portugal – she was a dual-citizen, and her mission at this point was to obtain a passport for her husband. Sywald was biding his time in Victoria homeless shelters, awaiting the outcome of Nathalie’s efforts. Around this time another alleged former friend stepped forward, claiming that “Georges Lecuit” used to work as a gay masseur in London, and had once admitted that his actual origin could be traced to a poor Romanian family.
Now things were becoming unraveled and messy, like the aftermath of a battle between a puma and a sweater-vest. CBC’s The Fifth Estate dug around and found a Romanian woman who was looking for her missing son. The photo looked to be a match. Finally, Sywald Skeid dropped that long-awaited truth-bomb in a 2007 interview with GQ, who for some reason were following this story.
The amnesia was fake. The Yorkshire accent was phony. Sywald Skeid had been born Ciprian Skeid in Timisoara, Romania. At the age of eighteen he had served his time in the army, a year which he later described as “hell”. He shuffled about Europe for a few years, then left his life, apparently to go to America.
So why would Ciprian Skeid drop his old life and put on this ruse in a Toronto hospital? If he was after fame, I suppose he achieved a tiny amount of that, but it didn’t pay off in any financial way. It doesn’t appear he was eluding a criminal past or some shameful secret.
As Mr. Skeid said in his GQ interview: “I came from Romania, a place I loathe. I’d rather be a fake nobody than the real me. At first I tried not to be anyone at all. Then I tried to become someone – and then someone better.”
That seems like a lot of work to find oneself.