The Vanishing of Agatha Christie
“Do you know the feeling you have when you know something quite well and yet for the life of you can’t recollect it?”, is the opening line in Agatha Christie’s semi-autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait. The book was published in 1934, eight years after her mysterious disappearance from her house in Sunningdale.
On the 3rd of December 1926 around 9.30pm, Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodbye, then went outside, climbed into her Morris Cowley and drove off into the night. What happened afterwards is a great mystery. Her car was eventually found at Newlands Corner, near Guildford, yet the lady was nowhere to be seen. Her disappearance caused a great public stir, keeping the police and media on their toes. Thousands of police officers and volunteers got involved in the search of the great writer. For the first time in history aeroplanes were used in the search and a £100 reward was offered by one of the newspapers. What is more, two of Britain’s most famous crime writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Dorothy L. Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey series), took part in the investigation, seeking help among spiritual mediums or trying to solve the mystery by applying scenarios from their crime novels. After imagining all sorts of possibilities, including murder and suicide, on the 14th of December 1926, Agatha Christie was finally found in a spa hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she had registered as ‘Mrs Teresa Neele’ from Cape Town.
So, what happened during those eleven days? The writer never really explained the true motives behind her disappearance. Therefore, a number of speculations followed this memorable incident. There were voices that she had planned the whole thing herself to help with the promotion of her upcoming book. But it is rather hard to believe, as at that time Christie had other things on her mind that touched her deeply. First of all, her private life was shaken by her husband’s infidelities and the phantom of divorce hanging in the air. So, one of the possible explanations was that Christie staged this event to embarrass her husband, plotting on making it look like a ‘murder’ by her husband’s lover. This would be later portrayed in the 1979 film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton. On the other hand, her emotional state could have been affected by her mother’s death earlier that year. In fact, after being seen by two doctors, she was diagnosed with psychogenic fugue, which could have lead to a temporary memory loss. According to Andrew Norman, the author of The Finished Portrait, “This kind of fugue state, which is much better understood these days fits the symptoms that Christie showed during her stay in Harrogat.”
“The word fugue is derived from the Latin word for flight. The patient suffering from dissociative fugue wanders or travels while unconsciously blocking out a traumatic event. During the Fugue state, he usually assumes a different identity and later can’t recall what has happened. The degree of impairment varies, depending on the duration of the fugue and the nature of the personality state it invokes. Dissociative fugue may be related to dissociative identity disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and sleepwalking. Although the age of onset varies, it almost always affects adults only. The fugue state is usually brief (hours to days); however, it can last for months and carry the patient far from home. The prognosis for complete recovery is good, and recurrences are rare.” (Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, Disease & Drug Consult: Psychiatric Disorders)
Christie’s disappearance is not the only case of fugue noted in history. In fact, in 1995, actor Stephen Fry, known for his reoccurring depressive states, left for Bruges without leaving word with his family and friends. Another famous case is that of Shirley Ardell Mason, also known as ‘Sybil’, who would disappear and then reappear throughout her lifetime with no recollection of where she had been during the time span. Mason suffered from blackouts and emotional breakdowns, and eventually entered psychotherapy with a Freudian psychiatrist, Cornelia B. Wilbur. Their sessions became the basis of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s novel Sybil. The book was made in 1976 into a TV movie, starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward and remade in 2007 with Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard as Sybil.
There are also examples of fugue depicted in fiction, as for example the one of Walter White’s in the famous TV series Breaking Bad. However, Walter only fakes memory loss to cover up his kidnapping. Going back to Agatha Christie then, one may ask, whether her disappearance was a true example of mental indisposition or an alibi for something she did not want the public to know? Either way, it is undeniable that the whole incident is worthy of the master of suspense herself.