Authors lives can sometimes be as intriguing as their work. In this first install meant of Real Life Author Mysteries, let's examine the mystery of Agatha Christie's disappearance.
We’ve all heard that adage “Truth is stranger than fiction,” which rings true, mostly because truth often inspires fiction. That’s especially true in the lives of writers who have had their share of experience with odd occurrences. Some events in the lives of famous authors are unsolved mysteries, some are brushes with the paranormal, and some just plain weird. Here is one real life author mystery unsolved to this day:
Agatha Christie's Disappearance
It’s December 1926 and a 36 year-old mystery writer with a young daughter and unfaithful husband is at her wits end. At the end of a bitter husband-wife argument, Agatha Christie, leaves her Sunningdale home, gets into her Morris Cowley car and drives - apparently into a ditch. Christie’s car is found days later half hanging over the edge of a chalk pit with no sign of the author anywhere in sight.
Details come slowly, first the missing car, then letters. As it turns out, Christie had written to her secretary in an urgent sounding note saying that she “had to get away.” The second letter, to her brother-in-law, had been destroyed. The third, to her husband, remains a mystery as he refuses to divulge its contents. Most intriquing of all is a letter said to have been written by Christie to be opened in the event her body is found and to be handed back to her otherwise. The letters spark further intrigue.
Was the author abducted? Killed? Pulling a publicity stunt? The third speculation sparks more ire than intrigue from Christie’s friends and family. Her husband says she had a nervous breakdown. Some, sadly, suspect suicide. Others blame ghosts, literally suggesting Christie had been driven mad by spirits (the Sunningdale home may have been haunted). Christie’s secretary insists its all in the normal routine for Christie to take drives or cancel appointments to clear her head - the only thing amiss is the fact that she is still missing.
But not for long, depending on your definition of long. 11 Days, 10,000 plus searchers, six bloodhounds, and a dozen other dogs of all kinds, and a seance later, Christie turns up - alive - in a hotel at Harrogate. The hotel, a Yorkshire Spa, had booked Christie under the name “Mrs. Tressa Neele” - the name of her husband’s mistress. Agatha Christie professes she has no idea why she used the name, claiming she suffered from memory loss and believed the name was her own. Her memory came back to her slowly, but she would never, publicly anyway, recall the events of her 11 mysterious days.
We’ll never know for certain what happened. If it was a publicity stunt, it worked. Her serials sold papers faster than they could print them (I’m exaggerating, but barely). But if it wasn’t a stunt, what could it be?
My personal theory is dissociative fugue - a condition in which an extreme life stressor can trigger a dissociative episode. The brain basically separates itself from all sense of reality and emotion in order to protect itself. When one dissociates, the person may act normally, even talk with other people, but the person isn’t feeling anything, the brain doesn’t create memories during the episode, and it takes time to wear off. I’ve seen articles ascribing her actions to dissociative fugue, a condition which specifically, adds a sense of urgency expressed in the need to get away. But evidence suggests that Christie had planned to go to the spa before she lost her memory, so she might have just been acting out her plan as normal, with the hitch that she dissociated in the middle of it - perhaps triggered by the near accident in the chalk pit or perhaps her dissociation triggered the near accident itself. Either way, if we believe Agatha Christie about the memory loss (and I do), it’s not hard to imagine that she found out about her husband’s affair, had a breakdown, nearly drove off a cliff in her emotionally distressed state, dissociated, and made her way to the spa, where she finally relaxed and recovered her memory from before the car accident.
Or maybe she had a traumatic encounter with an alien, like that episode of the British TV Show Doctor Who.
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