Last September, 39-year-old Jeff Ingram climbed into his weathered Dodge Neon, pulled away from his home in Olympia, Washington, and disappeared.
A Canadian citizen living with his American fiancée, Penny Hansen, he was bound for remote Slave Lake, Alberta, a 988-mile journey he knew well. Jeff had worked in the sawmill there until March.
The couple had met in 2003, in a chat room on pogo.com where they both enjoyed a slots game called Vaults of Atlantic. Beginning in the summer of 2005, Jeff started crossing the border frequently to visit Penny, a regulatory policy analyst for the state of Washington. Soon they found it painful to be apart. “We had a really hard time saying goodbye to each other,” says Penny. Eventually Jeff quit his job, sold his house in Slave Lake and moved into Penny’s modest home.
Their partnership was almost childlike in style. They both enjoyed cooking, a pastime that occasionally got messy. “We have food fights in the kitchen,” admits Penny. They shared a passion for games—board games, card games, computer games—and once a month hosted a game night, inviting friends over to play Texas hold ’em or Yahtzee. In the summer, they would camp near Mount Rainier, where they fished and panned for gold.
But on that autumn day in 2006, Jeff was headed back north to visit his mother and comfort a friend’s wife, who was dying of cancer. “I had the weirdest feeling,” says Penny, 41. “He touched my heart and said, ‘When you miss me, I’ll be right there.’ But when he got to the end of the stairs, it was the glance he gave back. There was something in his eyes.”
Jeff was supposed to call from his cell phone after crossing the border into Canada, which would have been on Wednesday afternoon. On Friday, his mother, Doreen Tomkins, phoned Penny from Slave Lake: “Have you heard anything?”
“At that point,” says Penny, “we knew we had a problem.” And the women had a good idea what the problem was.
Jeff Ingram was hardly the reckless type. Balding, bespectacled and quiet, he never drank alcohol, abhorred drugs and, according to Penny, “drove like a grandma.” He was, by his own admission, a boring guy. But even before their first meeting, Jeff confided to Penny that in 1995, while living in Slave Lake, he had disappeared for nine months. When he was found, in Seattle, he had no clue who he was or what he’d been doing for nine months. He never regained his memory from that incident. Although he went on to marry a Canadian woman named Melanie (they later divorced), everything he knew about his past—from his mother’s name to his passion for poker—had to be learned from others. It was like taking a history class, but the subject was his own life.
Amnesia is a general term that encompasses a range of short- and long-term forgetfulness caused by either physical trauma or psychological stress, or both. But cases where someone loses all memory of his entire personal life are extremely rare.