For quite a while now, I’ve been hoping to have some screenings combined with workshops and/or discussions with medical experts and practitioners. But not until yesterday’s event in Würzburg did all the elements fall into place. 100 psychologists, neuropsychologists, psychotherapists, other members of the medical profession, and interested viewers from Würzburg and the surrounding area attended the afternoon screening at the Cinemaxx multiplex in Würzburg – quite a sizable crowd for a 3 p.m. screening on a Wednesday. Afterwards, I had the great honor of participating in a Q & A with Germany’s leading memory researcher Prof. Dr. Hans J. Markowitsch
from the University of Bielefeld. While researching for FORGETTING DAD many, many years ago, I came across an article about an English soldier with amnesia, whom Prof. Markowitsch had examined in Der Spiegel. When I was asked to discuss the film together with him, I leapt at the opportunity.
Prof. Markowitsch was generous enough to let me pick his brain all night long. I was hoping he might provide me with some more insight into my father’s amnesia, but he more or less concurred with the opinions of the neuropsychologist and the psychiatrist who evaluated my father after his amnesia began, and who diagnosed him with a dissociative disorder. Prof. Markowitsch was skeptical of the diffuse axonal injury diagnosis a neurologist from Helsinki made after seeing FD on Finnish television last year. Others present in the room, however, were more open to the DAI diagnosis, which would suggest that my father did indeed suffer physical damage to his brain, as he continues to claim.
During the two-hour workshop Prof. Markowitsch gave later in the evening, he presented an excellent overview of the various types of memory loss, and how they might come about, whether organic, functional (psychological) or both. He presented plenty of brain scans, including some illustrating how different sections of the brain are activated by authentic vs. fictitious memories. Because he is often called in to give an expert opinion in court cases involving people who are supposedly suffering from memory gaps, Prof. Markowitsch has a lot of experience with malingerers or ‘fakers.’ He doesn’t see any indications that my father might be faking his amnesia, however, which some people think after watching the film. Unfortunately, my father still believes that the film is all about proving he’s faking his amnesia, and that I’ve been expending enormous amounts of time and energy trying to convince our family and the rest of the world of that. Hopefully he’ll watch the film someday and realize that that’s not at all the case.
Prof. Markowitsch tied all the strings together by discussing the various stressors which can contribute to memory loss – physical, psychic, environmental, biological, ethnogenetic – and how any combination of these can add up to cause the keg to overflow (the German expression for “the straw that broke the camel’s back”). Whether the amnesia is organic or psychogenic, the effects are the same. But different causes require different kinds of treatment. Unfortunately, there was no discussion of the stigmatism surrounding psychogenic amnesia and mental illness in general, and how this is detrimental in preventing and treating mental illness.
As is often the case, some of the most interesting discussions took place after the official events. During dinner, I brought up a few issues which have always bothered me, and which we were unable to thematicize in the film. One of the major ones is my father’s relationship to his therapist Dr. Karen, whom he called ‘Mom’ or ‘Karen Mom’. I met her two or three times during the ten years or so that she treated my father, and always felt very uneasy about their relationship. He hung on her every word, and often seemed either unwilling or incapable of making any important decisions on his own without first consulting her. I had the distinct feeling that the goal of their relationship was not to get to the bottom of what was causing my father’s amnesia and to treat it, but rather to protect my father from all the doctors who were ‘poking and prodding him’ and to help him adjust to life as ‘New Richard’. They seemed to do away with ‘Old Richard’ rather swiftly, and Dr. Karen didn’t seem terribly interested in talking to ‘Old Richard’s’ family to find out more about his past. It always felt like they’d made some kind of pact, and the rest of us were deliberately being kept in the dark.
The various psychologists and neuropsychologists around the dinner table last night certainly perked up their ears at the mention of ‘Mom’ and were not at a loss of words about what all that meant. When I mentioned that my father once let it slip out that ‘Mom’ advised him against participating in the film because there would be too many uncertainties involved and the film could cause more harm than good, the therapist across the table from me said he could understand why my father followed ‘Mom’s’ advice. So can I. When my father told me that six years ago, I knew immediately the real reason for his resistance to the film, and that it wasn’t about protecting his and Tracy’s privacy, which is what he usually claimed if he gave any explanation at all.
So no big lights went off in my head as a result of this, but an environmental doctor present got me thinking about factors I’d never considered before – environmental stressors such as pesticides and other toxins my father might have been exposed to while working on farms as a teenager, and as a result of all our moves and renovations during my childhood. These accululate in the body and can be one of the stressors which can help set off amnesia. Unfortunately, very few doctors think to test for such things. However, biochemical therapy such as enzyme treatment can be very helpful in combatting these toxins and in helping rebuild membranes in the brain and increasing the flow of energy in damaged sections.
This doctor found my father’s complaints about his brain stem and the increased difficulties he’s had there since his heart attack four years ago quite plausible and not as bizarre as the doctors who treated my father at the time apparently considered them. Maybe his memory cannot be restored – if that would even be desirable twenty years after his amnesia began – but the tissue damage in his brain stem area could possibly be treated so that his extreme discomfort there could be alleviated and blockages in his brain reduced. This would greatly improve his quality of life. But would he be willing to undergo such treatment? Would he simply interpret it as another attempt on the part of ‘Old Richard’s’ family to try to restore his memories? At this point, I think he’d be happy if he never saw another doctor again.
In all, it was a delightful event. I’d like to thank several persons for making the whole thing happen: Prof. Markowitsch for agreeing to speak and give his workshop, Herbert König and Gerhard Müller from the Akademie König & Müller for the fantastic organization, Hans Fuchs from the Hotel Weisses Lamm in Veithöchsheim for the excellent venue and delicious dinner (I was treated to the Franconian specialty: a scrumptious stuffed duck with the best dumplings and red cabbage I’ve ever had), and to Miriam Pflüger from W-Film for making all this happen.