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Memory suspended – a true detective story

Our daughter has read all the books at least once and often more, but for me it is the TV versions of Poirot and Miss Marple which entertain and intrigue me on many cosy family evenings. It is being in their world which I enjoy, the triumph of quiet and thoughtful observations by these unlikely heroes – an oddly, but smartly dress small, fairly old ‘foreigner’ (David Suchet), and a distinctly old and occasionally distrait woman (in various representations from schoolmarm to twinkly). There is never any rush – but a measured and patient exploration of the facts and the people, and motives.

So we have been pleased to follow Lucy Worsely’s exploration of Agatha Christie, their creator: BBC Two - Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen, Series 1, Cat Among the Pigeons

The second episode included an account and analysis of the strange events of December 1926, when Mrs Christie disappeared.

We had learned that Agatha was born and brought up in Torquay. She was the youngest of three children, and ten years younger than her brother and sister. It is said that she preferred to play with her pets and had a number of imaginary friends she would talk to and have make-believe and games with. Her schooling was at home, rather than in the discipline and rough and tumble of a school. She was very close to her mother, a closeness which became greater when her father died when she was only ten. This background almost certainly disposed her to think creatively and feel at home in worlds of fantasy. It would also leave her vulnerable to the effect of disasters involving those closest to her.

In the spring of 1926 her mother died. Agatha became very depressed and sought treatment to help her recover. On the 3rd of December her husband and she quarrelled – he had fallen in love with another woman and was planning to spend the weekend with her. The next morning she had disappeared from their home. Her car was found abandoned miles away, having crashed at the edge of a quarry. There was no clue as to her whereabouts. It was feared she might have died.

Some days later, she was identified at a hotel in Harrogate – many miles north. She had booked in under an assumed name, using the surname of her husband’s girlfriend. She was convinced of her new identity and read with interest, and disapproval of the disappearance of the famous Agatha Christie.

Agatha was demonstrating a ‘fugue state’ - a dissociative phenomenon – which can occur when people find themselves under extreme emotional pressure or danger. It was seen quite commonly during World War One – as one form of ‘Shell Shock’.

Agatha was rescued and reclaimed - coming to stay with her sister in Abney Hall, Cheadle. Here she gradually recovered with the help of a neurologist from Manchester and a Psychiatrist from Harley Street, who had learned the technique of hypnotism and used it to good effect with patients during the war.

Fugues may be mobilised by physical brain disorder, most notably epilepsy, or by other severe mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia. Fugues such as those demonstrated by Agatha Christie can and do still occur but are perhaps less common than in earlier times. An understanding of their nature and the mechanisms of their causation, were important stepping stones in establishing the respectability of the concept of mental disorder, dispelling some of its mystery and reducing its stigma.

As Agatha recovered, her first marriage was terminated. She used another name when resuming her writing, but eventually wrote more in her own name. She remarried – happily – and continued to write and be published into her eighties. It is suggested that changes in her vocabulary in the later years represent evidence of a degree of dementia.

I am not aware of any study which has looked for an association between a fugue in the early years, and the development of dementia in late life. You would think that such an association would be unlikely. Memory lost during fugues may not be fully recovered, but then new memories are made and kept and memories laid down before the fugue remain intact.

And a short review of fugue states in Wikipaedia: Fugue state - Wikipedia

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