The Anatomy of a Thriller

By Daco S. Auffenorde


Imagine waking up chained to a bed. A weight bears down on your body. Your brain’s interior crackles. Harsh, white lights blind you.

A nightmare? No. You’re in a hospital. You’ve suffered a tremendous fall, a doctor says. It’s a miracle you’re not dead.

“What’s your name?” the doctor asks.

You don’t answer. You can’t answer, except for your first name—Blue. Of your life, you recall nothing else.

The above scenario mirrors the opening scene in my new thriller The Forgotten Girl, about a woman who awakens from a two-week coma after plummeting out of a fourth-story window. She survived only because an awning broke her fall. And although her injuries are minor, she suffers from what doctors call (among other names) dissociative autobiographical amnesia. Fiction? Of course, and a great launchpad for a thriller novel.

Two questions arise: could a real person survive a four-story fall like Blue’s, and is she lying to the authorities about her amnesia?

Survival at such a height seems unlikely. When my then-five-year-old brother donned a towel in lieu of Superman’s cape and jumped from a tree limb, he suffered a compound fracture of his arm, which dangled horrifically. If my brother suffered such a severe injury from falling only five plus feet, can someone really survive a fall from a great height? Yes. Blue’s survival has precedent in real life. In 1944, Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade of the No. 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force, flew on a mission into Germany. The Germans attacked his plane, which spun out of control and caught fire—leaving Alkemade without a parachute. His choice: die a horrible death from burns or jump. Alkemade jumped, falling 18,000 feet. Pine trees broke his fall, and he landed on snowy ground. Miraculously, he suffered only a sprained leg. He was unconscious for a time, but when he came to, he lit a cigarette and had a smoke. The Germans took him prisoner, but reportedly, even they were impressed that he’d survived the fall.

Then there’s flight attendant Vesna Vulović, who fell from more than 33,000 feet and lived to tell the tale. In fact, she holds the Guinness world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute. She was trapped by a food cart in the fuselage, which broke off from the rest of the plane and landed in a snow-covered area. Another factor helped save Vulović—she had a history of low blood pressure that might’ve prevented her heart from bursting on impact.

Despite these and other unusual cases of people surviving falls from great heights, most people don’t survive falls of more than four stories. The general consensus is that the fatality rate increases when a person falls from more than ten feet. About 12% of victims die from falls of 6 to 10 feet; and 20% die from falls of 11 to 15 feet. Many factors play into surviving a fall, including where the fall occurs, the type of ground surface, the weather conditions, and the victim’s age. Survival often depends on sheer luck.

People who manage to increase their time through the fall, even if in milliseconds, have a higher chance of survival. It’s all in the physics. A slower descent lessens the force of impact upon landing. So how do you slow your descent? Increase your surface area. More energy is required to push air out from underneath you and out of your way. So if you ever find yourself in a long fall, splay out your body like a flying squirrel, play Superman. The idea is to fight air and beat gravity. In The Forgotten Girl, Blue fell from four stories, or approximately 48-50 feet. At that height, there’s a 50-50 chance of survival—except her odds increased when she landed on an awning, which broke her fall.

My novel raises a second question—Blue claims she remembers nothing but her first name. Can a person really lose all memory of their past without physical brain injury?

There are several types of dissociative amnesia. With localized amnesia, a person fails to recall an event or events during a specific time period. For example, someone in an auto accident might remember nothing shortly before and shortly after the event. As a means of self-protection, the brain blocks out traumatic events like this.

A person with “selective” amnesia recalls only some, but not all, of a traumatic event. In a documented case study, a man involved in a life-threatening auto accident could recall that the passenger in the front seat of the other car had worn a flowery hat, that the driver of the other car, a red Honda, had swerved into his lane, and that a black-and-white soft toy was dangling in their back window. He remembered nothing else about the auto accident.

Still another category is dissociative fugue, in which a person has generalized amnesia and adopts a new identity. Often depression, suicidal ideation, or a stressful traumatic injury precipitate this condition. The individual often begins to wander. A person might relocate, start a new job, and develop new friends, all without recalling their past lives, especially if nothing triggers their old memories. For example, just before final exams, a college student lost his grandfather, with whom he had a close relationship. The student was found in a park eight days later with no memory of what had occurred. Depression was clearly the underlying stressor.

In The Forgotten Girl, Blue suffers from dissociative autobiographical amnesia—she loses all memory before her fall from the building. Think Robert Ludlum’s fictional Jason Bourne, a soldier who’s been in combat and later recruited by the CIA. He can’t remember his past—which included his training to become the perfect assassin. A real-life example arose out of the massive March 2011 earthquake in Japan, which caused a devastating tsunami. Five years after the event, local habitants in a Japanese city alerted police about a haggard and exhausted man in his forties who was wandering the streets aimlessly. Physical and neurological examinations revealed no physical injuries. Yet, the man could remember nothing about his life before the earthquake. His earliest memory was of himself lying under a broken wall of a house and of people telling him to run for his life because a tsunami was coming. Apparently, in the ensuing five years, he’d gone from shelter to shelter and worked as a laborer without knowing who he was.

Unlike someone suffering from amnesia caused by organic brain injury, via accident, drugs, alcohol, or accident, a person suffering from dissociative amnesia can recover. It might take hours, days, or years. There’s no guarantee that all or any of the memories will surface. A mother who witnesses a horrible accident to her child might never recall that event, nor would she want to. Various treatments can include psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, creative therapies such as music and art, meditation, and rarely medication for depression and/or anxiety.

Amnesia plays a significant role in the criminal justice system. As many as 70 percent of criminal cases involve amnesia. And many in the medical community find crime-related amnesia legitimate. The judicial system isn’t as open to the concept. Most courts reject amnesia as grounds to establish insanity or lack of competency to stand trial. While scholars suggest that malingers can be exposed via tests like include polygraphy, sodium amytal interviews, hypnosis, and personality tests, skepticism remains, because amnesia is easy to fake.

In fiction, the most notable sufferer of dissociative amnesia is Jason Bourne who uses clues to discover his past. Like Bourne, Blue in The Forgotten Girl goes in search of her past too. She uses clues—store receipts, encounters with strangers, emotional reactions to clothing or jewelry—to try to recover even a fragment of memory. She discovers that she can speak fluent French when she sees a box of French chocolates. She doesn’t know if she’s a good person or a bad person, or even whether she jumped, fell, or was pushed out the window. What if she was suicidal? If she was pushed, who tried to murder her and why? Or is Blue lying about her amnesia because the cops aren’t fully convinced? No matter. Because Blue realizes very soon that someone is after her and that leaves her with a serious problem. If she doesn’t remember who The Forgotten Girl is, she’s as good as dead.