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How did an American amnesiac wake up speaking only Swedish?
Authorities are baffled by a Navy vet who woke up in California with a Swedish persona, Chinese bank accounts, and no memory of his past
 
Michael Thomas Boatwright may be suffering from a condition known as dissociative fugue.
Michael Thomas Boatwright may be suffering from a condition known as dissociative fugue. Screen shot

After police found Navy veteran Michael Thomas Boatwright unconscious in a motel room in Palm Springs, Calif., they brought him to the Desert Regional Medical Center, where he awoke with no memory of his name or past.

Even stranger, he spoke only Swedish, despite the fact that his identification listed him as an American from Florida. Calling himself Johan Ek, Boatwright couldn't remember anything about his family members, or how to do things like exchange money or take public transportation.

His doctors blamed either transient global amnesia, a dissociative fugue, or both, although they didn't rule out the possibly that the condition could be something entirely new.

In the movies, amnesia is usually a gateway to adventure, a la The Bourne Identity. In reality, it's much more depressing.

"Sometimes it makes me really sad and sometimes it just makes me furious about the whole situation and the fact that I don't know anybody, I don't recognize anybody," Boatwright told The Desert Sun through a translator.

There is also the problem of what to do with him. Boatwright, 61, is pretty much helpless, with no income, no insurance, and access to only $180.

How likely is it that someone could wake up in a similar condition?

Not very. The Mayo Clinic sees about 24 to 100 cases of transient global amnesia — in which you can't form new memories — every year. Most of the time, it lasts only a few hours. Boatwright's social worker Lisa Hunt-Vasquez told The Desert Sun that his condition was probably caused by emotional or physical trauma.

Dissociative fugue is an extremely rare condition that can cause long-term memory loss, sudden and unplanned travel, identity confusion, and adoption of a new identity — which would explain his Swedish persona and the fact that he had several Chinese bank accounts that he couldn't access. He also had one emergency contact located in Japan, whom authorities couldn't reach.

So far, authorities have theorized that Boatwright was a graphic designer who taught English in China and Japan for several years, and that he learned Swedish later in life, possibly while living in the country in the 1980s.

Of course, he could be faking the whole thing. Cases like this — such as the man who reportedly became gay after suffering a stroke, or the girl who woke up from a coma with a completely different personality — always raise suspicion, especially when they sound like something that came out of a movie.

Viola Wyler, a member of the local Swedish-American community who meets with Boatwright regularly, said she doesn't think he is faking it.

"I don’t think so," she told The Desert Sun. "But you never know for sure."

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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