Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Long Read: The Missing Man

Maybe the last great "Memento" style story in America by TNR's Matt Wolfe: A man found naked behind a Burger King dumpster in Georgia in 2004 couldn't remember who he was, or why he was there, and in the age of information it still took years for anyone to figure out who he was.

Early one summer morning, Son Yo Auer, a Burger King employee in Richmond Hill, Georgia, found a naked man lying unconscious in front of the restaurant’s dumpsters. It was before dawn, but the man was sweating and sunburned. Fire ants crawled across his body, and a hot red rash flecked his skin. Auer screamed and ran inside. By the time police arrived, the man was awake, but confused. An officer filed an incident report indicating that a “vagrant” had been found “sleeping,” and an ambulance took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah, where he was admitted on August 31, 2004, under the name “Burger King Doe.”

Other than the rash, and cataracts that had left him nearly blind, Burger King Doe showed no sign of physical injury. He appeared to be a healthy white man in his middle fifties. His vitals were good. His blood tested negative for drugs and alcohol. His lab results were, a doctor wrote on his chart, “surprisingly within normal limits.” A long, unwashed beard and dirty fingernails suggested he had been living rough. But the only physical signs of previous trauma were three small depressions on his skull and some scars on his neck and his left arm.

Psychologically, though, something was obviously wrong. Doe refused to eat or speak. He kept his eyes shut. Whenever a doctor touched his chest, he thrashed his limbs. After several days, Doe ate some ice chips and spoke a few words to a nurse. He said he had lived in the woods for 17 years. Asked his name, he replied, “They call me B.K. around here.” No, she said, your real name. “B.K.,” Doe said. “But you’re getting me confused.” Then he went silent.

On the eighth day, Doe became agitated. He cursed at the nurses, calling them “beasts” and “demons.” When they tried to get near him, he swung his fists and spit. Doe asked to see a priest, then denounced him as an imposter. “You’re all devils,” he murmured. Doctors diagnosed him with catatonic schizophrenia and prescribed Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic.

Doe was transferred to the psychological ward at Memorial, a public hospital across town. When questioned, he claimed not to remember his name, or where he lived, or how he had arrived in Georgia. He suspected, he said, that he was from Indianapolis, and that he had three brothers, though he could not recall their names or faces. In fact, Doe said, he could not think of a single person he knew. His memory contained only a few dim images: the inside of an old movie theater, a long road through a cornfield, some streets in a city he believed to be Denver. The only thing about himself of which he was certain, Doe said, was his birthday: August 29, 1948.

The doctor treating Doe suspected he was feigning amnesia. Doe seemed too lucid to be suffering from schizophrenia, and his memory for impersonal facts remained unimpaired. He was aware, for example, that George W. Bush was president and that, in 2003, the United States had invaded Iraq for the second time. Only his own past was hazy. Pretending to lose your memory in this way is an old trick, not uncommon among people running away from something. Other staff at the hospital, however, believed Doe. The man’s distress seemed genuine.

In January 2005, four months after he was found, Doe was transferred to the J.C. Lewis Primary Health Care Center, a residence for the homeless and indigent in downtown Savannah. He told Micheal Elliott, who oversaw the center, that he was tired of everyone calling him “B.K.” Doe said he thought his real name was Benjaman, spelled, unusually, with two “a”s. He couldn’t remember his last name, but he decided on Kyle as a replacement until his real name could be found.

Benjaman Kyle quickly became a favorite of the nurses, who took turns trying to jog his memory by peppering him with questions. One nurse remembered him as “higher functioning” than the other residents, most of whom were chronically homeless, and he enjoyed reading his way through the shelter’s tiny library. He was also an inveterate pleaser who constantly volunteered for chores—fetching food, stripping beds, mopping floors. Because of the cataracts, he could see only a few feet in front of him, so he moved the mop in small circles on the floor around his shoes until the room was clean. In the absence of a fixed identity, Kyle adopted a provisional one as a member of the shelter’s staff. He soon became indispensable, accumulating a thick ring of keys that he kept in a loop on his belt. One day, Elliott watched him assemble an ersatz uniform of a white shirt, white shoes, and white pants taken from the donation closet.

Two years after Kyle arrived at the shelter, Katherine Slater, a middle-aged nurse with a warm, grandmotherly manner, began working night shifts. Kyle was often up late, and the two became close. Slater wasn’t sure she believed he had amnesia, but she felt badly that he had been separated from his family. She resolved to help Kyle figure out who he was.

Their journey takes years, but it's a fascinating mystery for your Sunday reading.  Put aside some time for this one, it's a meaty read even by SLR standard, and enjoy.

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