The Man Who Was Bourne Again (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

After Brown/Bourne returned home, publicity over his case was enough to attract the attention of the American Society for Psychical Research and the eminent psychologist, William James.  

A founding member of the Society and one of its first vice-presidents, James became fascinated with spiritualism and unusual psychological experiences following the death of his young son in  1885.  Along with attending numerous seances, he became an active supporter of paranormal research and helped launch the career of spirit medium, Leonora Piper, among others.   Though later skeptics questioned how easily James was fooled, his reputation as a scientist provided a major boost for the spiritualist cause.  

Due to his fascination with spiritualism, James also devoted himself to researching what he called "anomalistic phenomena", including cases like Ansel Bourne's.  After learning about Bourne through the Society, James arranged for Bourne to come to Boston for five days so that he could examine him in person.   James hoped that Bourne's lost memories of his time as Albert Brown could be recovered through hypnosis and Bourne agreed to give it a try.  

The hypnosis sessions took place in Boston and at Bourne's home in Greene, R.I.   Not suprisingly, Bourne was an excellent hypnotic subject and James was able to get him to recall being Brown fairly quickly.  This persona known as "Albert Brown" proved to be quite a puzzle though. 

While "Brown" denied any knowledge of Ansel Bourne, the biographical details of his life were very similar to Bourne's.   He claimed that he was born in New Hampshire and provided a birthdate that was the same as Bourne's.    Much like Bourne, Brown claimed to be a widower whose wife died in 1881 (the same year that Bourne's first wife passed away) and that he had three adult children (Bourne only had two).   He was confused about many of the other details of his early life though he claimed to be a retired professor of religion and that he had once operated a store in New Hampshire.  Brown reported settling in Norristown and running his shop there though his memories ended at the point when "Ansel Bourne" regained his old identity.

Though James was able to use hypnosis to have Bourne/Brown switch identities fairly easily,  his attempts at unifying the two personalities failed completely.  As far as Ansel Bourne and Albert Brown were concerned, they were separate individuals with no real awareness of one another.   When "Albert Brown" was introduced to Mrs. Bourne, he denied knowing her.   Though Brown and Bourne shared some memories, including memorable incidents that had happened to both of them,  Bourne was mystified over why he would choose Albert Brown's name.  He also denied ever living in New Hampshire or having any experience with running a trade store.

Bourne also admitted to suffering from chronic depression (he called them "the blues") that had begun in childhood.   These depressive episodes would vary in length from a few hours to more than a week during which he would avoid all contact with people.   There were also frequent "wandering" incidents during these episodes in which he found himself miles away from where he had last recalled being. 

His wife also reported that Bourne was prone to "fainting fits" during which he would remain unconscious for hours.   Based on this information, James suggested that Bourne was suffered from epileptic seizures and that his disappearance in 1887 may have been due to a "post-epileptic partial loss of memory" during which he took on a new personality.   After his sessions with James were done, Bourne apparently returned to his life with no further bizarre episodes (likely to the relief of his family). 

As for William James, he included Ansel Bourne's case in his monumental 1890 work, The Principles of Psychology, and classified it as a "spontaneous hypnotic 41eHYRn7MsL._SY396_BO1,204,203,200_[1]trance persisting for two months."   Though he linked it to the "secondary personalities" often shown by spirit mediums during seances, he had no further explanation for what had happened to Bourne.

The case of Ansel Bourne is now regarded as an early example of psychogenic fugue (or possibly dissociative identity disorder).   In his 1986 work, The Passion of Ansel Bourne, Michael Kenny suggested that the two strange episodes in Bourne's life, both the one that led to his becoming a preacher and, later, to Albert Brown, may have occurred as a way of escaping problems in his life.   Though there was no indication of deliberate fraud in Bourne's case (everyone who examined him was impressed by his sincerity), he seemed unusually prone to dissociation, or the psychological detachment from reality, which was likely what made him such as good hypnotic subject. 

According to the DSM-5, psychogenic fugue is classified as a dissociative disorder similar to dissociative amnesia.   People suffering from this condition can lose their identity for months, or even years, while taking on a new identity in another place.   In one recent case study involving psychogenic fugue, a woman lost her memories of her old life and had still not regained them even eleven years later though she had been found and identified by family members.  Her dissociative amnesia was believed to be due to the significant trauma she had sustained before her memory loss.  Additional testing showed no neurological damage that could help account for her amnesia and her memories of her old life apparently remained lost.  

Other cases of psychogenic fugue, including that of William Horatio Bates (of Perfect Sight Without Glasses fame), suggest that psychogenic fugue can often become a way of escaping from stressful life problems and some researchers have suggested that this kind of fugue may simply be a form of malingering.   Much like Ansel Bourne however, most people experiencing psychogenic fugue often appear confused and emotionally distraught over losing their identity and malingering seems an unlikely explanation for many of these cases. Ludlum_-_The_Bourne_Identity_Coverart[1]

Whatever the ultimate explanation for psychogenic fugue, it seems to have become a popular plot device on movies and television programs such as Breaking Bad (in which Walter White fakes a fugue state), One Tree Hill, and The Mentalist, among others.   Whether or not what is shown to audiences actually corresponds with  real psychogenic fugue case reports, it definitely has entertainment value.

One last point about Ansel Bourne.  Though Robert Ludlum has never confirmed that Ansel Bourne's case inspired his 1980 spy thriller, The Bourne Identity, the similarities are hard to ignore.   In the novel (which spawned a series of sequels and numerous films), the lead character Jason Bourne is suffering from severe amnesia leading him to forget his own name and identity.   While the amnesia is caused by brain injury rather than being a psychogenic fugue, speculations about where Ludlum got the idea for Jason Bourne has given Ansel Bourne a strange form of immortality, even long after his death.

Such is life.





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