Last week Nancy Brophy, a romance novelist who once wrote a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” was convicted of murdering her husband. When questioned in court about her whereabouts on the morning that her husband died, Brophy claimed to have a “memory hole” that made her unable to remember many details from that morning.
Is it possible that Nancy Brophy truly does not remember what she was doing the morning of her husband’s murder? In short, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean her amnesia is genuine.
Source: Elīna Arāja/Pexels
Amnesia claims, like Brophy’s, are often received with a mix of skepticism and fascination. Traditionally, researchers differentiated between organic amnesia, which has a known physical cause, often a head injury, and psychogenic amnesia, which originates from psychological causes. This dichotomy may seem strange because both organic amnesia and psychogenic amnesia clearly originate in the brain. The difference is that with psychogenic amnesia, the physical cause is unknown.
Dissociative amnesia is now the more widely accepted name for psychogenic amnesia, but it is not without controversy. According to the DSM-5, dissociative amnesia refers to “an inability to recall important autobiographical information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.” Recently, Ivan Mangiulli and colleagues in Belgium and the Netherlands systematically reviewed 128 case studies of dissociative amnesia. They concluded that none of the case studies met all of the DSM-5 criteria for dissociative amnesia, raising questions about the usefulness of the diagnostic label. The vast majority of the case studies failed to rule out other possible explanations for the amnesia, including ordinary forgetting and malingering.
In Nancy Brophy’s case, she could be genuinely unable to recall the details of the morning of her husband’s murder for reasons that can be attributed to everyday forgetting mechanisms. For example, Brophy may have experienced an encoding failure and not fully processed or attended to her activities that morning, which may have been similar to other daily activities. Alternatively, the process of consolidating those memories, which makes memories durable, may have been disrupted by the emotional shock surrounding her husband’s death.
The other possibility, of course, is that Brophy is faking her amnesia. According to Mangiulli and colleagues, approximately 20% of people who have committed violent crimes claim amnesia for their crimes, raising questions about malingering.
Is there a way to differentiate between individuals who genuinely cannot remember the past and those who are feigning amnesia? Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to detect malingering, but there are certain characteristics of alleged amnesia that make it more likely to be false.
Marko Jelicic, a forensic psychologist at Maastricht University, argues that signs of feigned amnesia include an abrupt beginning and end to the period of amnesia and a lack of change in the amnesia. People with genuine amnesia due to a mild head injury or alcohol or drug intoxication typically have a more gradual beginning and end to their period of amnesia, and the amnesia tends to shrink in scope over time.
Jelicic also describes questionnaires that have been developed to detect feigned memory impairments. These tests are based on the premise that malingerers do not know what genuine amnesia looks like. For example, one questionnaire measures whether someone endorses highly atypical symptoms of amnesia, and another simple memory test measures whether an individual performs significantly worse than patients diagnosed with memory disorders. These patterns of responses indicate that the person is feigning their amnesia.
Because Nancy Brophy did not claim to have a broader memory deficit but only claimed to lack memory for the morning of her husband’s murder, tests that measure general memory malingering would not be useful. Instead, one could consider using a procedure known as symptom validity testing (SVT).
As Jelicic explains, SVT can be used to assess whether someone is feigning crime-related amnesia by asking them a series of questions related to the details of the crime. The questions are all forced-choice, meaning that the person has to choose one of two alternative responses for each question. If someone were truly amnesic for the details of the crime, they would have to guess on each item, and they would, on average, get half of the items correct just by guessing. However, if someone gets significantly fewer than half of the answers correct, this suggests that they are purposefully choosing incorrect answers and that they are likely feigning their amnesia.
We may never know whether Nancy Brophy’s amnesia is genuine, but perhaps we can agree that the circumstances surrounding her amnesia certainly make it suspect.