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Curious Minds: J.S. Monroe, author of Forget My Name, writes about the fear of forgetting

October 3, 2018

About the author:

J.S. Monroe read English at Cambridge, worked as a freelance journalist in London and was a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4. Monroe was also a foreign correspondent in Delhi for the Daily Telegraph and was on its staff in London as Weekend editor. He has written six novels, including the international bestseller Find Me.

Purchase a copy of Forget My Name here 

Read our review of Forget My Name here

I like to dig myself a deep hole at the beginning of a book and then see if I can get out of it. Forget My Name opens with a woman who arrives off the train in a remote English village. She is unable to remember her own name and is without any form of identification, having lost her bag at the airport. All she has is a train ticket and a vague sense that she lives in the village. How did she get there? And who is she? When she approaches the house that she thinks is hers, she peers in through the window and sees a young couple preparing dinner.

I was haunted by such an image when I was commuting from my own village in Wiltshire to London every day. It was an acutely stressful time of my life. I had a young family and the trains were always running late. On my return in the evenings, I often used to wonder what it would be like if I glanced through the window of my own house and saw strangers seated around the kitchen table.

It turns out that the woman in my novel has psychogenic amnesia, a not uncommon, usually temporary condition brought on by stress and anxiety. The village GP also suspects that she might be suffering from something called a dissociative fugue. This is a much rarer form of amnesia, once known as a fugue state. The sufferer often travels long distances (the latin word fuga means flight), forgets who they are and adopts a new identity.

I spent a lot of time researching psychological experiments when I was writing Find Me, my first J.S. Monroe thriller. Forget My Name required considerable medical research too and I particularly enjoyed reading around the subject of amnesia. It was news to me that Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum’s brilliant creation and the protagonist of the Bourne films, was most likely named after a 19th century preacher who suffered from dissociative fugue.

Jason Bourne, of course, is introduced as a man who has no recollection of his past and who only slowly begins to recall snippets of his previous life as David Webb. Ansell Bourne, an evangelical preacher in Rhode Island, enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety when, in 1887, he traveled to Pennsylvania by horse, called himself A.J.Brown and set himself up as a shopkeeper selling stationery.

It wasn’t until two months later that ‘A.J.Brown’ woke up one morning, confused and puzzled by his whereabouts. He only knew himself to be Ansell Bourne and had no recollection of the preceding two months. His case became well known in medical circles and is often cited as one of the earliest documented cases of a dissociative fugue. Ludlum himself once suffered from a temporary bout of amnesia, losing all recollection of 12 hours of his life. He drew on the experience (which he was at pains to point out had nothing to do with alcohol) to create the character of Jason Bourne.

We all forget things and, as we get older, begin to wonder if it’s innocent forgetfulness or early onset Alzheimer’s. I wanted to push those anxieties to the limit in my new book and there’s nothing more frightening than not being able to recall your own name. It’s unsettling for others too. Everyone in the village has a theory about the mystery woman who has turned up in their midst. A local journalist is struck by her uncanny resemblance to his first girlfriend; someone else thinks she might be a Russian sleeper (the village, after all, is not far from Salisbury, where the recent Novichok attack too place); and the GP begins to wonder if she’s a local woman who was sent to Broadmoor after committing a violent murder 12 years earlier. The truth might be any one of these theories – or it might be something far more sinister. If only someone could remember her name…



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