Dissociative Fugue: The Mystery of Agatha Christie
Thinking about Success.
Posted March 17, 2012
[Article revised 4 May 2020.]
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 very 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, her abandoned car, with headlights on and bonnet up, was discovered 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 worst, the police dredged the lake, organized as many as 15,000 volunteers to beat the surrounding countryside, and even (for the first time in England for a missing person) flew airplanes 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—significantly—under that of ‘Teresa Neele’. Her disappearance soon made the national headlines. Several people at the spa thought to have recognized her, but she stuck 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 defenses.
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… The happy people are failures because they are on such good terms with themselves that they don’t give a damn.
Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.