Jeff’s amnesia was what doctors call a dissociative fugue—a memory shutdown accompanied by a willful wandering far from home, presumably to escape some stressful event. “We don’t know for sure what causes it,” says David Spiegel, MD, a Stanford University psychiatrist and an expert on memory disorders. “It’s probably a combination of personality factors—people who tend to deal with problems by putting them out of their mind.” That a person could be predisposed to amnesia has unsettling implications. Says Dr. Spiegel, “They remain vulnerable to subsequent episodes.”
Which is why Penny didn’t believe Jeff had slid off the road or been killed by robbers. “I was convinced it was amnesia,” she says.
Convincing authorities proved more difficult. “The police said, ‘He’s an adult,’” Penny remembers. “‘You two could have had a fight, maybe he left you, he’s from Canada …’”
Frustrated, Penny began calling Washington hospitals. “There are 400 between here and the border,” she says. But she and Jeff weren’t married, so the hospital, because of medical privacy laws, could give her only limited information. Finally on Sunday, September 10, four days after Jeff had gone missing, a friend of his in Slave Lake managed to get a missing-person report issued through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
That same morning, pedestrians in downtown Denver were veering across the sidewalk to avoid an annoying vagrant. “Help me, please! I need to get to a hospital!” the man pleaded. He was clean-shaven, and his clothes were neat—but his eyes projected a scary desperation.
Jeff’s mother says her son was a happy kid. “He always did things to please you,” she says. “I had no signs of anything that would be wrong with him.” Born in Nova Scotia, where his father served in the Canadian armed forces, Jeff was five when his parents broke up.
Doreen, who remarried and moved with Jeff to Slave Lake, says her son was very good with his hands. He had a natural talent for drawing, and he designed and made intricate LEGO models. Funny pets were another passion; he once had a cat that he groomed like a poodle, with a puff-ball tail. (He and Penny have a Chihuahua named Taco.)
After high school, Jeff enrolled in college, planning to study math with hopes of becoming a doctor or veterinarian. But after a year, says Doreen, “he started getting bad headaches and took time off. Then he just kind of worked, and it never happened.”
The first thing about his life that Jeff Ingram remembers is “picking myself up off the ground” in Denver, although he didn’t know where he was at the time. He had no identification but was wearing a ring and a watch, had eight dollar bills in his pocket (he’d left with $700 in cash) and seemed unhurt—suggesting he had not been the victim of a crime. (His car has not been found.) He hadn’t lost his functional memory—retaining the ability to speak, for example. But at some point, he gave up asking for help and walked for six to eight hours until he found Denver Health Medical Center.
“I don’t know who I am,” he told the desk attendant.
“What do you mean?” she asked, handing him an admittance form—an absurdity for someone with no name. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Disbelieving hospital staffers fired questions at him: “Who are you?” “Where are you from?”
Recalls Jeff, “I just had no answers.”