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.
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.”
He was sent to the neurology ward, where he underwent a week of grueling MRIs and CT scans, spinal taps and blood tests. Doctors found no physical injuries. Next came a week of observation in the psychiatric ward. “They wanted to make sure this wasn’t a put-on job,” says Jeff, who took IQ tests and solved puzzles. Under hypnosis he told doctors his wife and children had been killed by a drunk driver. In fact, Jeff’s ex-wife, Melanie, was still alive, and they had no children; experts say it’s not unusual for patients to come up with false memories under hypnosis.
Tantalizingly, Jeff said he remembered his wife’s first name: Penny.
The real Penny still had no idea that her fiancé was alive in a hospital in Denver, where officials were now referring to him as Amnesia Al. By then, hospital staffers had summoned police to help search for his identity. They ran his fingerprints through crime databases, but nothing matched.
Jeff didn’t know it, but on October 18 he turned 40. Penny made him a cake. Friends and family continued to scour Washington State and western Canada for signs of him. They checked banking and telephone records (no activity) and even asked if Jeff’s cell phone could be located with tracking technology (it couldn’t).
Back at the hospital, staffers realized they could do no more for Jeff, and he was transferred to a halfway house. Most of the tenants were mentally ill or had drug dependencies. “They all had Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous,” says Jeff, “but there was no Anonymous Anonymous for me to go to.”
As Jeff sank into despair, two Denver police detectives, Virginia Quinones and Sonny Jackson, decided to publicize his plight, hoping a relative would come forward. “I felt for the guy because everybody has memories to talk about,” says Quinones, “but he had nothing to share.”
On October 22 Jeff walked into a Denver studio to appear on network news. “I’m asking for help to find out who I am,” he said to the cameras.
The phone rang that morning at Penny’s house. It was her brother Greg: “Jeff’s on TV!”
Within minutes, Penny was e-mailing photos of Jeff to Denver police.
“They start laying pictures out on the table,” says Jeff, “and I’m just shocked. I’m going, ‘That’s me, and that’s me, and that’s me.’ And I just started bawling my face off. ‘Somebody knows I’m here!’”
That afternoon, Jeff and Penny spoke on the telephone.
“Do you remember me?” Penny asked.
“Well, I am Penny, and I am your fiancée. We used to know each other quite well.”
Aristotle believed that memory resides in the heart, and you won’t get much argument from Jeff and Penny. On Sunday evening, Jeff and Detective Jackson boarded a plane for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Waiting in the terminal, Penny was frightened. What if Jeff didn’t want her? “Everybody said, ‘He fell in love with you once, he’ll fall in love with you again,’” she recalls. “But the what-if was there.” She told herself she would let him go if that’s what he wanted, and they met and hugged for the first time, again.
“I’ve been looking for you,” said Jeff.
“I’ve been looking for you too,” said Penny between tears.
They’d been apart for 47 days—a lifetime to Jeff. And even though he had no memory of Penny, his heart was his guide. “That’s all I had to go on,” he says. “I had to trust something. And it just felt right.”
When they arrived home, Taco the Chihuahua practically leaped into Jeff’s arms. Bedtime was only briefly awkward. Intent on giving Jeff the space he needed, Penny said, “I can go to the spare room or you can go to the spare room …”
“No,” said Jeff. He just wanted to be hugged and touched.
They were married on New Year’s Eve. Taco, the ring bearer, wore a tuxedo. In his vows, Jeff said, “Penny, today you honor me by being my wife. You never gave up on me when others might have.”
Penny said, “Jeff, I fell in love with you not once but twice. The first time we met face-to-face, I knew we were meant for each other.”
After the wedding, the couple began going to therapy together. One goal of the treatment is for Jeff to regain his memory. “Your past is what makes you who you are,” he says.
“Most people do eventually recover their pre-fugue memories,” says Dr. Spiegel. To try to bring back his past, Jeff is working with Stephen Langer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Olympia. Part of the therapy, paradoxically, will be getting Jeff to stop thinking so much.
Says Langer, “He remembers things through the intellectual process of remembering facts. I’m trying to get him to remember things based on the feeling.”
“I’m always trying to think things through,” says Jeff. “I can’t turn it off. It’s overwhelming. I deal with panic attacks.”
So does Penny. Nights can be especially difficult. “Sometimes I’m out here crying or she’s out here crying,” says Jeff, referring to the inevitable frustrations of trying to rebuild their relationship. Sometimes in the wee hours, Penny or Jeff will draw a bath in their oversize Jacuzzi tub. “We’ll light candles, crawl in there and just talk,” Jeff says. “We can’t afford to be lazy in our relationship.” Both occasionally take sleeping pills.
The other goal of therapy has been to help Jeff and Penny recognize the warning signs of another amnesia incident. Langer believes Jeff’s amnesia was likely triggered by a series of negative emotions, including distress over his friend’s cancer. “The challenge is to get Jeff to be aware of those factors,” he says. “We want him to get stronger in terms of dealing with emotions instead of the primitive defense of blocking it all out.”
To help identify him if he gets lost again, Jeff got a tattoo on his right biceps in March: a flaming orange and yellow phoenix rising from its ashes. Clutched in its beak is a banner that reads “Jeff Ingram” followed by his Washington State ID number.
It was that tattoo that led to his quick identification on April 25, when he went missing again. At work that day, Penny got a funny feeling around 4 p.m. After getting no answer at the house, she raced home to find Jeff gone. She quickly filed a missing-person report. When Jeff turned up that evening in downtown Olympia not knowing who he was, he called 911 from a nearby phone booth. Police, when they arrived, matched Penny’s description of the tattoo with the one on Jeff’s arm. Sadly, Jeff had again lost all his memory.
“Dr. Langer thinks Jeff could have been on the verge of a breakthrough and something overwhelmed him,” says Penny. She’s hopeful that his memories will come more quickly now. “I know it sounds crazy, but we could be making progress.”
The couple have resumed watching the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, with Jeff eagerly absorbing facts. He isn’t ready to work yet, so he stays home alone all day, drawing pictures and writing in a journal that may someday become a book. Parenthood is a distant dream. “Jeff wanted to have several children before this happened,” says Penny. “But now he doesn’t want to have any.”
“I’m afraid that I’ll walk out,” he says, “leave the kid unattended or forget that I even have a kid.”
Penny is looking into new GPS tracking technology that could locate Jeff anywhere in the world if he disappears again. Meanwhile, Jeff says, he’ll work hard on regaining his memory for at least two years. And if it doesn’t come back by then? He doesn’t hesitate: “We’ll continue on and make new memories.”