A case of amnesia, part 1

Photo by Andrew Worley on Unsplash

When I was in college, my friends and I used to go crazy over a folk-rock band that had what I considered to be the coolest of names: the Pousette-Dart Band. (The band was named for its lead singer/guitarist, Jon Pousette-Dart, whose father, I’ve since learned, was the artist Richard Pousette-Dart, one of the founders of the New York School and a contemporary of Jackson Pollock’s and Mark Rothko’s. Thanks, Wikipedia!) One of their more popular songs back then was titled “Amnesia,” and though, for copyright reasons, I can’t print the lyrics on this website without permission, you can still listen to the song. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I’ve thought about that song often over the past eight years, because, as every Ronald Tammen aficionado knows, amnesia was one of the earliest theories of why Tammen disappeared. Lots of people bought into that theory, not the least of whom were Carl Knox (the dean of men tasked with investigating Ron’s disappearance) and Oscar Decker (the Oxford police chief). Supposedly, in their minds, the most plausible explanation was that Ronald Tammen had been studying at his desk until, for whatever reason, he forgot who he was and where he was and went wandering off into the night. According to Marcia Tammen, Ron’s mother had also thought Ron had amnesia, though her hypothesis made more sense to me: that Ron had accidentally bumped his head while changing his sheets, causing him to forget who he was and walk away, also into the night. Her explanation was particularly useful because it also supplied a reason why that telltale pillowcase would have been left off of Ron’s pillow.

From what I can tell, the theory of amnesia was first reported in the press on Friday, April 24, 1953. The Hamilton Journal-News said, “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.” According to the Cincinnati Enquirer: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.”

Why was amnesia the most immediate explanation? For one thing, it might have been a sign of the times. In the 1950s, amnesia seemed to be a popular explanation for an otherwise inexplicable memory or behavioral issue, in this case, a disappearance. Don’t get me wrong. Amnesia is a real thing. It’s just that the type of amnesia that was often depicted on 1950s television or in movies is said to be quite rare.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Jason Brandt, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an expert on memory loss, or amnesia. He boiled the disorder down into two primary categories: organic amnesia and psychogenic amnesia, which is also referred to as functional or dissociative amnesia. Organic amnesia, he explained, is by far the most common form, caused by damage to the parts of the brain involved in logging in new memories before they travel to other parts of the brain for further processing and storage. The damage is tangible, in lesion or lump form, and caused by factors such as disease, stroke, tumors, and severe head injuries. The effect of this damage on memory is that the person generally loses the ability to learn and retain new information. Information from the person’s past or information about the person’s identity, on the other hand, is generally unaffected.

In contrast, forgetting one’s identity or certain information from one’s past would fall into the category of psychogenic amnesia, which typically arises from extreme emotional trauma, though mild head trauma can also be a cause. Here’s what Dr. Brandt had to say about this form of amnesia:

“It’s where somebody experiences a severely emotionally traumatic event or series of events and then develops a kind of memory loss where their past is lost. They have severe retrograde amnesia, while their ability to learn and remember new things is relatively retained. And when people don’t know who they are, lose their identity, lose their knowledge about their own pasts, lose their autobiographical memory, that’s typical of psychogenic amnesia. Those patients don’t have gross neurologic problems. There’s nothing wrong with the hardware. There’s something wrong with the software. It’s a programming issue. It’s not a problem of the structure of the brain, but of the functioning of the mind.”

So with those main differences in mind between organic and psychogenic amnesia—physical vs. emotional trauma, hardware injury vs. software functionality, inability to remember new things vs. inability to recall the past—let’s discuss some of the reasons why people were so quick to hop on the amnesia bandwagon to explain Tammen’s disappearance.

Reason #1: Why else would an otherwise responsible person reading at his desk walk away, leaving his book open, light on, etc.?

 To most people who knew Ronald Tammen, the only logical explanation for his walking away from his life and responsibilities was that he could no longer remember who he was. One of the proposed ways in which Ron might have contracted his memory loss was that he had been studying too hard—a condition referred to as “overstudy.” There he was, concentrating excessively on his psychology book—the textbook for a course he’d already dropped—and something must have snapped. In the April 28, 1953, issue of the Dayton Daily News, Everett F. Patten, Ph.D., longtime head of Miami’s psychology department, weighed in on the theory of overstudy as a possible cause of amnesia, effectively shooting it down:

“Overstudy never caused any case of amnesia,” he said. He went even further, stating: “There is no case on record of anyone suffering from amnesia because he has spent too much time in studying.”

The article was written by Gilson Wright, a stringer for several area newspapers who also happened to be a Miami journalism professor as well as head of Miami’s News Bureau. That one person held the responsibility of reporting on the activities of his own employer while, at the same time, handling media requests from competing news outlets would be unheard of today. Do I consider Wright’s many hats a potential conflict of interest? You betcha. While I’ve read nothing but good things about his reporting, there would be an inherent benefit to maintaining a convivial relationship with university sources, which isn’t always a good thing, journalistically speaking. On the other hand, Wright managed to reveal a few zingers of his own about the Tammen case that probably would have never come to light from another reporter. We’ll discuss one such revelation made by Wright in part 3 of this series.

Perhaps one of the reasons Wright sought out Dr. Patten as a resource on amnesia is because, in addition to Patten’s understanding of psychology in general, he had direct knowledge of another type of amnesia, called posthypnotic amnesia. Patten was one of three hypnosis experts on Miami’s campus at the time of Tammen’s disappearance, having studied under renowned psychologist Clark Hull, author of the 1933 seminal book Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental Approach.

Although posthypnotic amnesia is neither organic nor psychogenic, it has been likened to the latter because certain memories become inaccessible even though nothing is wrong with the brain structurally. The difference is that, instead of emotional trauma being the cause, a hypnotic subject forgets because he or she is instructed to forget.

When a subject is put into a trance, he or she becomes highly receptive to suggestions supplied by the hypnotist. Sometimes, the suggestion is more for demonstration purposes: do five push-ups, take a drink of water, cluck like a chicken, whatever. Sometimes the suggestion has a specific purpose, such as: “Whenever you light up a cigarette, you’ll feel sick to your stomach.” If the subject is instructed to forget what transpired while under hypnosis, that’s where posthypnotic amnesia comes into play. If all goes as intended, the subject, once awakened, will do what was suggested, but will have no recollection of why he or she is doing it. The information is there, it’s just not readily accessible.

“That’s what hypnotic amnesia does,” Dr. Brandt explained. “It makes things not available to conscious recollection…It’s as if it’s suppressed below a level of conscious awareness.”

Dr. Patten didn’t raise the possibility of posthypnotic amnesia in the Dayton Daily News article. Rather, he described how a certain form of amnesia can cause a person to leave his or her surroundings and start a new life as someone else. It’s also worth noting that nowhere in the article does Patten rule out amnesia as a possible explanation for Tammen’s disappearance. He just wasn’t buying the overstudy part. How Tammen might have contracted his potential bout with amnesia, Patten didn’t hazard a guess.

Reason #2: Ronald Tammen’s psychology book may have been open to a section on ‘posthypnotic suggestion’

Carl Knox notes -- 3 profs
Among his other notes, Carl Knox wrote down the names of three professors in his notebook–Ron’s sophomore adviser plus two psychology professors.

If Ronald Tammen’s book was open to a section on posthypnotic suggestion when he disappeared, as I have argued, then that, too, could have given investigators pause about a possible amnesia connection. Not wishing to alarm the public, they might have put forth an alternative reason for his amnesia—the overstudy hypothesis, for example—but deep down, they could have been wondering if Ron had wandered off as a result of a hypnotic suggestion he had no memory of.

There’s some indication that Carl Knox took the open psychology book fairly seriously. The reason I say this is that, on one page of his notes, he’s jotted down the names of three men at the university who had something to do with either the subject of psychology or Tammen’s decision to drop his psychology course shortly before he disappeared. Knox underlined each man’s name and set the list apart from the rest of the page’s jottings by placing them beneath a large and uninspired header—“Name.” He provided no further explanation for their being there. In order of appearance, they are:

Prof. Dennison

As we already know, J. Belden Dennison was Tammen’s academic adviser, and it makes sense that his name would be at the top of the list. Carl Knox probably had a lot of questions to ask Dennison concerning his various meetings with Ron over the academic year. He’d want to know if anything had been bothering Ron lately, as well as what was going on with him academically. Moreover, he might have asked Dennison for the reasons Ron gave for dropping his psychology course, which Dennison would have approved in advance.

Prof. Delp

At the time of Tammen’s disappearance, Richard Delp held the title of assistant professor in Miami’s psychology department, though he never earned a Ph.D. Eventually, he would move to the Department of Education to teach educational psychology. It seems odd for his name to be on this list, since, again, Tammen was no longer enrolled in psychology when he disappeared and, moreover, Delp wasn’t his instructor. Perhaps Mr. Delp was counseling Tammen to help him with his grades. In a 1956 letter to the provost, Delp claimed to be an “informal personal counselor to a number of students.” There’s also no indication that Delp knew anything about hypnosis. For these reasons, the man in the number two spot on Carl Knox’s list is an obvious outlier and one more question mark in this mystery.

Prof. Switzer

The third person on Carl Knox’s list was St. Clair Switzer, a longtime professor in Miami’s psychology department. It was Dr. Switzer’s course that Tammen had dropped the semester he went missing. Knox might have wanted to ask Switzer a few questions about that as well. Things like: “Why did Ron Tammen drop your course?” and “Why do you suppose he was reading his psychology textbook the night he disappeared?” Or possibly, if he was feeling especially daring: “Was Ron Tammen being hypnotized?” That wouldn’t have been such an off-the-wall question to ask because, as it so happens, Dr. Switzer was also a hypnosis expert at Miami. He’d earned both his master’s and Ph.D. degrees under Clark Hull, and he also assisted with Hull’s book.

Unfortunately, if Dean Knox ever spoke with Drs. Dennison or Switzer, or Mr. Delp, no notes appeared to have been taken, or, if they were, they weren’t retained. But that’s OK, I suppose. Because sometimes clues can turn up in the most typical of places, and in the most casual of conversations. One was disclosed a week after Ron’s disappearance, buried deep in a news article written by Gilson Wright. Another turned up much later, in an email I received from a former Miami psychology student.

Carl Knox notes--Tammen's schedule
Ronald Tammen’s schedule the semester that he disappeared, along with the names of his professors. Among this group, Dr. Switzer, Ron’s psychology professor, and Prof. Dennison, penciled in at the top righthand corner, were listed on a separate page in Carl Knox’s notes.

To be continued–A case of amnesia, part 2: Things in Ron’s background


Hi all — good to be back, and I have a lot to share in the coming months! I do want to point out one change to the website. I’ve decided to open the floor to questions and comments on an intermittent basis as opposed to a continuous basis. I think that may facilitate our having active and energetic discussions on various topics every so often while enabling me to continue my research and writing activities in earnest. I’ve explained the change on the FAQs page as well. Thanks again for your interest!