Early one summer morning, Son Yo Auer, a Burger King employee in Richmond Hill, Georgia, found a naked man lying unconscious in front of the restaurant’s dumpsters. It was before dawn, but the man was sweating and sunburned. Fire ants crawled across his body, and a hot red rash flecked his skin. Auer screamed and ran inside. By the time police arrived, the man was awake, but confused. An officer filed an incident report indicating that a “vagrant” had been found “sleeping,” and an ambulance took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah, where he was admitted on August 31, 2004, under the name “Burger King Doe.”
Other than the rash, and cataracts that had left him nearly blind, Burger King Doe showed no sign of physical injury. He appeared to be a healthy white man in his middle fifties. His vitals were good. His blood tested negative for drugs and alcohol. His lab results were, a doctor wrote on his chart, “surprisingly within normal limits.” A long, unwashed beard and dirty fingernails suggested he had been living rough. But the only physical signs of previous trauma were three small depressions on his skull and some scars on his neck and his left arm.
Psychologically, though, something was obviously wrong. Doe refused to eat or speak. He kept his eyes shut. Whenever a doctor touched his chest, he thrashed his limbs. After several days, Doe ate some ice chips and spoke a few words to a nurse. He said he had lived in the woods for 17 years. Asked his name, he replied, “They call me B.K. around here.” No, she said, your real name. “B.K.,” Doe said. “But you’re getting me confused.” Then he went silent.
On the eighth day, Doe became agitated. He cursed at the nurses, calling them “beasts” and “demons.” When they tried to get near him, he swung his fists and spit. Doe asked to see a priest, then denounced him as an imposter. “You’re all devils,” he murmured. Doctors diagnosed him with catatonic schizophrenia and prescribed Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic.
Doe was transferred to the psychological ward at Memorial, a public hospital across town. When questioned, he claimed not to remember his name, or where he lived, or how he had arrived in Georgia. He suspected, he said, that he was from Indianapolis, and that he had three brothers, though he could not recall their names or faces. In fact, Doe said, he could not think of a single person he knew. His memory contained only a few dim images: the inside of an old movie theater, a long road through a cornfield, some streets in a city he believed to be Denver. The only thing about himself of which he was certain, Doe said, was his birthday: August 29, 1948.
The doctor treating Doe suspected he was feigning amnesia. Doe seemed too lucid to be suffering from schizophrenia, and his memory for impersonal facts remained unimpaired. He was aware, for example, that George W. Bush was president and that, in 2003, the United States had invaded Iraq for the second time. Only his own past was hazy. Pretending to lose your memory in this way is an old trick, not uncommon among people running away from something. Other staff at the hospital, however, believed Doe. The man’s distress seemed genuine.
In January 2005, four months after he was found, Doe was transferred to the J.C. Lewis Primary Health Care Center, a residence for the homeless and indigent in downtown Savannah. He told Micheal Elliott, who oversaw the center, that he was tired of everyone calling him “B.K.” Doe said he thought his real name was Benjaman, spelled, unusually, with two “a”s. He couldn’t remember his last name, but he decided on Kyle as a replacement until his real name could be found.
Benjaman Kyle quickly became a favorite of the nurses, who took turns trying to jog his memory by peppering him with questions. One nurse remembered him as “higher functioning” than the other residents, most of whom were chronically homeless, and he enjoyed reading his way through the shelter’s tiny library. He was also an inveterate pleaser who constantly volunteered for chores—fetching food, stripping beds, mopping floors. Because of the cataracts, he could see only a few feet in front of him, so he moved the mop in small circles on the floor around his shoes until the room was clean. In the absence of a fixed identity, Kyle adopted a provisional one as a member of the shelter’s staff. He soon became indispensable, accumulating a thick ring of keys that he kept in a loop on his belt. One day, Elliott watched him assemble an ersatz uniform of a white shirt, white shoes, and white pants taken from the donation closet.
Two years after Kyle arrived at the shelter, Katherine Slater, a middle-aged nurse with a warm, grandmotherly manner, began working night shifts. Kyle was often up late, and the two became close. Slater wasn’t sure she believed he had amnesia, but she felt badly that he had been separated from his family. She resolved to help Kyle figure out who he was.
“I figured it would take six months to figure out his real name, tops,” Slater later recalled. “Someone had to know him. He didn’t just drop out of the sky.”
Slater was wrong. For years, every attempt to restore Benjaman Kyle’s identity ended in failure. Police, the FBI, journalists, missing persons experts, countless amateur detectives—they all tried to figure out who Kyle was, and they all wound up stumped. Incredibly, the man seemed to lack not just a legal name, but a past, a provenance. The government could find no record of Kyle’s previous life. Even more mysteriously, no one seemed to recognize him. His picture, appearing repeatedly on television and the internet, was viewed by millions, yet not a single person stepped forward to say they knew him. A decade after he was discovered in front of the dumpsters at Burger King, he was still called Benjaman Kyle.
We live in an age of extraordinary surveillance and documentation. The government’s capacity to keep tabs on us—and our capacity to keep tabs on each other—is unmatched in human history. Big Data, NSA wiretapping, social media, camera phones, credit scores, criminal records, drones—we watch and watch, and record our every move. And yet here was a man who appeared to exist outside all that, someone who had escaped the modern age’s matrix of observation. His condition—blind, nameless, amnesiac—seemed fictitious, the kind of allegorical affliction that might befall a character in Saramago or Borges. Even if he was lying about his memory loss, there was no official record of his existence. He lived on the margins, beyond the boundaries mapped by the surveillance state. And because we choose not to look at individuals on the margins, it is still possible for them to disappear.
Several centuries ago, anonymity was rare. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived the entirety of their lives in the rural villages of their birth. Neighbors recognized each other by sight. Visitors, if they appeared, were conspicuous. Only travelers carried identification papers. Churches maintained informal sets of birth records, but no government authority was needed to keep track of who was who. Personal identity was common knowledge. Your name, your family, your history, followed you throughout your entire life.
Then, in the eighteenth century, these insular provincials, lured by factory work, began migrating into cities. As people crossed borders and took on new jobs, traditional markers of region and class—clothing, language, demeanor—became confused. The old order broke down. “Business and social transactions, once based on trust, took on a new air of suspicion,” writes the sociologist Simon Cole. “People in modern cities might not be who they claimed to be. They could be anyone; they could come from anywhere.”
Feeling besieged, anxious authorities sought a way to affix names to this sea of strangers. Special attention was visited on criminals. Ever since the old practice of marking convicts by mutilating their ears or branding their skin had been abolished, police had lacked a reliable system to determine if a person had a criminal record. Some larger departments assembled photographic rogues’ galleries, but photos were imprecise: People could look alike, or alter their appearance. And matching a suspect to his rap sheet might require leafing, one by one, through hundreds or thousands of pictures. Police chiefs began offering cash bonuses to any officer who successfully recognized a felon.
A solution was engineered in 1881 by Alphonse Bertillon, a sickly, 26-year-old record keeper for the Parisian police. The black sheep in a family of social science luminaries—his father had co-founded the School of Anthropology in Paris—Bertillon worked in the basement at police headquarters, tasked with transcribing physical descriptions of criminals, most of them incomplete or ambiguous. Frustrated, he sought to apply to his work some of his family’s scientific precision. Using a pair of calipers, he studied the physical attributes of prison inmates and found eleven measures unlikely to alter with age or a change in weight, such as sitting height, arm span, and the length and breadth of the head. He concluded that, while two people might share one measurement, the odds of sharing eleven were infinitesimally small. These figures—human flesh rendered into numbers—were placed on a single index card. This system, known as Bertillonage, was quickly put into wide use. An officer could now locate a suspect’s file in minutes, verifying his identity and hitching him, eternally, to his criminal record.
Bertillonage was far from infallible—after several embarrassing incidents in which innocent citizens were confused with criminals, police soon switched to the comparatively accurate practice of fingerprinting—but it proved to be a turning point in the relationship between a person’s physical form and his given name. No longer could the two be so easily separated. The body had become, in effect, its own signature.
Such methodical identification gradually become a regular function of government. Colossal bureaucracies arose to distinguish not just criminals, but ordinary citizens. By the twentieth century, the U.S. government had mandated the registration of births and deaths. Driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers became required forms of personal identification. The need to present state-issued ID seeped into everyday life, becoming a prerequisite for everything from buying a drink at a bar to taking out a mortgage. The weft of these transactions gradually sutured individuals into a single, inescapable self. Physical identification precluded anonymity, and with it a certain kind of reinvention. “Metamorphosis,” writes the French historian Alain Corbin, “became impossible.” Our present, panoptic age was created, in short, to ensure that there could never be a Benjaman Kyle.
Before she was a nurse, Katherine Slater was an accountant, a profession she admired for its exactitude and high ethical standards. She had always had a soft spot for underdogs. When they met, Kyle struck her as smart, shy, and deeply wounded. He was a big man, thick in the chest and legs, with a long, narrow nose and a bristly push-broom mustache. Kyle spoke in a monotone, in a voice that was thin, high, and slightly whiny, with a hint of a Midwestern accent. He read a lot, mostly science fiction, and he liked to fix things and listen to NPR. He loved to talk about restaurant equipment: industrial-grade stoves, high-end coolers. Mostly, though, he stayed inside his own head. Slater felt safe around him. He never expressed romantic interest in her, or in anyone. She wondered about his family. He seemed, she thought, like the kind of man that people would miss.
Slater began her search for Benjaman Kyle’s identity with the assumption that someone was looking for him. She started browsing missing persons web sites, and posted pictures of Kyle on message boards, asking if anyone recognized him. No one did.
Slater next reached out to the police. She had assumed, too, that immediately before he was discovered, Benjaman had been attacked by someone who had beaten him up and stolen his clothes. She was surprised to learn that the police in Richmond Hills had, in fact, never opened a criminal case. There was no evidence, they explained, that Kyle had been assaulted. When Slater contacted the FBI’s field office in Savannah, they were similarly unwilling to investigate. While tragic, it is not a crime not to know who you are.
Special Agent Bill Kirkconnell agreed to take fingerprints from Kyle and feed them into the FBI’s national database. The FBI fingerprint database is the largest in the world, containing more than 113 million sets of prints. The FBI also placed Kyle’s photo on its Missing Persons page. He was the first person ever to be classified as missing, in Kirkconnell’s recollection, even though his location was known. Neither the fingerprints nor the photo revealed any leads. Kirkconnell also sent copies of the prints to Interpol and Canadian authorities. He made discreet inquiries to the U.S. Marshals Service, on the off chance Kyle was enrolled in the witness protection program. Nothing turned up. It appeared that Kyle was either not a criminal or was too clever to be caught. He was listed in the FBI database as an “Unidentified Living Person.”
Bo Preston, an employee of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who trained officers in how to use the FBI database, wondered if Kyle was already in there under a different name. At any one time, the database contains approximately 80,000 active missing persons cases. Preston asked the system to provide her with a list of missing persons who were physically similar to Kyle, dating back to the 1970s. Over the next year, Preston and a friend pored over 350 cases generated by the system. Several times, she thought she had found Kyle’s true identity, but ultimately, none matched. Saddened, she incorporated Kyle’s case into her lesson plan, on the off chance that an officer might eventually recognize him.
In 2007, having grown frustrated with the lack of progress, Slater decided to contact the media. If enough people saw Kyle’s picture, she reasoned, someone would eventually come forward to identify him. That September, Kyle was featured in the Savannah Morning News under the headline “a real live nobody.” Media outlets from all over the country began calling for interviews. Kyle was dubbed “Nowhere Man” and “the living John Doe.” As each story ran, more tips poured in, but they all led nowhere.
Time after time, Slater allowed her hopes to be raised, only to have them broken. But as her disappointment increased, Kyle became more detached. While she made more phone calls, he read more science fiction novels. There was often a kind of blankness to him, a distance that was most pronounced at odd moments, especially when he was pressed about what he remembered from his past. His lack of affect was difficult to interpret. Was he unconcerned about his identity because he was faking his amnesia? Or was he trying to maintain his composure in the face of great pain? Slater wondered whether, under the surface, he was feeling more than he let on.
Then Dr. Phil called. The daytime talk show, hosted by the avuncular pop psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, decided to devote an episode to Kyle. But first the producers wanted to vet his story, to determine if he was faking. Harold Copus, a former FBI agent turned private detective, spent several months interviewing Kyle, as well as the Burger King employee who found him, the EMTs who treated him, and the nurses who cared for him. Copus also ran a background check on “Benjaman Kyle” and its variations. “The producers trusted me,” said Copus. “They knew, quite frankly, I could smell bullshit a mile away.” He concluded that he was “90 percent” sure that Kyle was telling the truth. A neuropsychologist from Atlanta named Jason King also administered a battery of psychological tests—including one that showed Kyle ranked in the ninety-fifth percentile of verbal IQ. King concluded that Kyle was suffering from “dissociative amnesia,” a form of memory loss brought about by trauma-related stress.
In October 2008, Kyle and Slater flew to Los Angeles to tape the show. Lacking legal identification, Kyle had to board the plane with a police officer. Slater was hesitant to appear, but the producers said that without her, Benjaman’s guardian angel, the show wouldn’t work. She reluctantly agreed. The search had been going on for more than a year, and Dr. Phil would provide by far their biggest audience yet. Surely, someone had to recognize Benjaman.
The producers had Kyle shave off his mustache, and Slater picked out a brown suit and thick necktie for him to wear. On tape, sitting across from McGraw, he looks ill at ease.
“What has this been like for you?” McGraw asked.
“Frustrating,” Kyle said.
“Do you have any idea what you were doing in Georgia?” McGraw asked.
“I think I came down to see the ocean,” Kyle said.
Kyle told Dr. Phil about his little storehouse of memories—the three brothers, Indianapolis, Denver. He explained that he was certain his birthday was August 29, 1948, because he knew he was born exactly 10 years before Michael Jackson, who was born August 29, 1958.
“Is this something that you don’t really remember, but you just have a sense that it sounds right?” McGraw asked. “How does that work for you?”
“You know, I don’t really know how it works,” Benjaman said. “I wish I could explain it. It’s just instinctive maybe.”
Slater, sitting in the audience, told viewers how she had initially been inspired by Benjaman’s work ethic.
“This man could have stayed and done nothing and served himself, but he chose not to,” she said. “His moral character, his fiber was so strong that I couldn’t believe someone’s not missing him.”
Kyle concluded the segment with an anecdote. Several months after arriving at the men’s shelter, he had surgery, paid for by a charity, to remove his cataracts. Once he could see again, he inspected himself in a mirror. He was surprised by how old he looked. He had expected to see a man in his thirties. Yet the face staring back at him was deeply lined, with graying hair and sunken eyes. He didn’t know, he claimed, that he was so old. The audience gasped.
McGraw shook his head. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.” Behind him, a big screen showed several computer- generated images of what Kyle might have looked like at earlier ages. “Take a look at this man,” McGraw ordered his viewers. “If you’ve seen him, we want to hear from you.”
The episode, which aired on October 16, 2008, was entitled “Who Am I?” It was watched by more than four million people, and an almost equivalent number in reruns. The show set up a special hotline for viewers, which received hundreds of tips. Most were hopelessly vague (“I just had a feeling I have been around this man”). Some people said he looked like an old acquaintance—a neighbor, an army buddy, a classmate, a priest—whose name they couldn’t quite remember. Several advanced exotic theories of his amnesia—mutant fire ants, electroshock therapy gone awry. One woman suggested that Kyle resembled her ex-husband. “He had a history of alcoholism and schizophrenia,” she wrote. “He always associated with types who would leave a person behind a dumpster.”
After the taping, as Slater and Kyle flew back to Georgia, she couldn’t bring herself to ask him how he felt. She was keenly aware, though, that the dream of finding his identity had curdled into a new kind of nightmare. It is one thing to be missing. It is far worse to realize nobody is missing you.
The first psychologist to provide a reliable account of a man who had misplaced his identity was William James. In his Principles of Psychology, James narrates the case of Ansel Bourne, a 60-year-old carpenter from Greene, Rhode Island. On January 17, 1887, Bourne boarded a horse-drawn streetcar bound for his sister’s house. He never arrived. Two months later, a man named A.J. Brown awoke in a panic. Brown had arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, six weeks before, rented a small shop, and hung out his shingle. He sold candy and toys, made weekly trips to Philadelphia to replenish his stock, and attended a Methodist church on Sundays. Yet now his bed looked unfamiliar. Waking his landlord, Brown demanded to know where he was and how he got there. Brown declared that his name was not A.J. Brown—of whom he knew nothing—but Ansel Bourne. The baffled landlord telegraphed a man in Providence who Brown said was his nephew. The nephew hurried to the scene and confirmed, to general perplexity, that Brown was Bourne. A despondent Bourne claimed to lack any memory of the previous eight weeks. The last thing he recalled was the streetcar.
James labeled the case a “spontaneous hypnotic trance.” Today, it would be called a fugue. The word fugue comes from the Latin fugere, meaning “to flee.” A person in a fugue state suffers a kind of involuntary erasure of individuality. Often, people in fugues use pseudonyms and construct fictitious personal histories. They act mostly normally, though for inexplicable reasons, they generally abstain from sex. Some fugues are peripatetic, causing people to travel long distances. In one study, fugue sufferers migrated a mean distance of 1,200 miles. They are oblivious to their condition until someone tells them, at which point a cognitive crisis usually ensues. Fugues depart as mysteriously as they arrive. Some resolve after a few hours or days; others endure for months or years. Afterward, patients find themselves restored, gradually. Their old identities return, intact, though they remember nothing of their mesmeric episode.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies fugues as a catastrophic form of dissociative amnesia. Sometimes, amnesia can act as a kind of circuit breaker, cutting off the input of traumatic thoughts to spare the brain further suffering. A fugue is thought to be an exaggerated version of this impulse. Dissociative amnesia is common in combat veterans, survivors of natural disasters, and victims of prolonged physical abuse, particularly abuse experienced as children. But unlike other amnesias, a fugue occludes not just the memory of events, but of the person who endured them.
In 1980, Daniel Schacter, a graduate student in psychology, examined a 21-year-old man who had been admitted to a hospital in Toronto after approaching a policeman on the street and complaining of stabbing back pain. He recalled nothing of his life, other than his nickname, Lumberjack. Schacter, who is now a professor at Harvard, subjected Lumberjack to several tests. As with most dissociative amnesiacs, Lumberjack’s ability to make new memories remained intact. His memory for impersonal facts also appeared to be unharmed: He knew, for example, that Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada. But Lumberjack could remember almost nothing about himself. This led Schacter to suspect that the brain encodes memories drawn from personal experience—episodic memories—differently than it encodes rote facts—semantic memories. Curiously, Lumberjack still retained a few scattered islands of personal memory, most of which centered on working at a courier service. When Schacter contacted the service, they confirmed that Lumberjack had been an employee; it was his co-workers who had given him his nickname.
According to Schacter, there’s no reliable way to distinguish dissociative amnesia from malingering. Most cases of feigned amnesia have an obvious motive, such as the desire to escape financial difficulties or criminal charges. In a fugue, the person is also escaping. But what he is escaping from is pain.
In February 2009, Katherine Slater heard from a woman named Colleen Fitzpatrick, who calls herself a “genealogical detective.” She received a Ph.D. in physics from Duke University and later started her own optics company in her garage, where she made laser measurement equipment for nasa. In the early 1990s, she took up genealogy, writing several books explaining how to use public records and DNA databases to explore your family history. Soon, she began consulting on tricky genealogy cases. She helped identify the remains of a child found on the Titanic and identified a person from an arm preserved in the Alaskan snow since a 1948 plane crash. When a colleague asked her to consult on Kyle’s case, she quickly agreed.
Fitzpatrick, who lives in Orange County, California, flew to Georgia to meet Kyle. Slater was growing desperate. She had left her apartment in Savannah and moved with Kyle to a house outside town. Kyle had quit working for the shelter in a dispute over pay. (“He left very dramatically,” recalls the shelter’s president, Micheal Elliott. “He just hung up his ring of keys and walked out the door.”) Now he was earning some money mowing lawns for Slater’s neighbors—but without a Social Security number he couldn’t get on-the-books work.
Kyle’s plight had become dire. The Social Security Administration had informed him that he was barred from receiving a new number, as it was assumed that he had already been issued one. As a result, he was ineligible for government benefits or food stamps. In losing his legal identity, Kyle had suffered a kind of civil death. Though a de facto resident of the United States, he was effectively a man without a country, trapped in bureaucratic purgatory.
As his situation worsened, though, some of his memories grew more specific. He remembered attending the Indiana State Fair as a child and buying grilled cheese sandwiches for a quarter. He remembered arriving in Boulder, Colorado, shortly before the Big Thompson Canyon flood. In Denver, he loved the Mexican food at Mama Elena’s, and hated the service at a restaurant called Azar’s. He recalled reading copies of Restaurants & Institutions magazine in a University of Colorado library and watching the 1976 film Car Wash at a movie theater in Denver. Together, these memories placed him in Colorado from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. After that, his memory was all but blank.
Fitzpatrick found Benjaman friendly and articulate. Like Slater, she couldn’t imagine that there wasn’t someone out there who wanted to find him. She had begun her search by placing articles about Kyle in newspapers in Indianapolis, Denver, and Boulder. She also contacted the departments of motor vehicles in Georgia, Colorado, and Indiana and had them run facial recognition searches on driver’s licenses. Kyle remained adamant that his birthday was August 29, 1948, so Fitzpatrick checked birth announcements from that time. She also pored over birth certificates, church records, and military draft records. She passed out flyers at several major restaurant conventions, and mailed them to a handful of homeless shelters in Indiana. At Slater’s urging, Kyle even met with a hypnotist, who could extract nothing useful from him.
Fitzpatrick next turned to Kyle’s body. Benjaman wore no wedding ring and had no tattoos, piercings, or birthmarks, but he did have several scars. An inch-long scar above his collarbone appeared consistent with a cervical discotomy, while two arc-shaped scars, roughly parallel, ran across his left elbow. These last two scars, Kyle suspected, were related to falling off a loading dock in Indiana when he was in his twenties. An x-ray was taken of his elbow, which showed the bone had been secured with two screws. The type of screw, though, was too common to be traced.
Finally, Fitzpatrick looked even deeper, into Kyle’s genetic makeup. She knew the FBI had already run Kyle’s DNA through its database of seven million samples and produced no matches. But Fitzpatrick wasn’t looking for matches: She was looking for relatives.
Over the past decade, several companies have created large, private databases of DNA. These databases are much smaller than the FBI’s, each of them composed of no more than two million people, but customers can send in a sample of their saliva to learn if they are related to any of the other people who have submitted samples. Using a testing kit donated by an ancestry service called 23andMe, Fitzpatrick submitted a sample from Kyle. Using the results, she could potentially build out a family tree, working from the higher branches of distant relatives until she narrowed it down to the trunk: Kyle’s parents.
The test showed that Kyle shared a significant amount of DNA with a family named Powell. This didn’t necessarily mean that his last name was Powell—only that he shared a common ancestor sometime within the last century. He appeared to have a number of particularly close genetic matches in the western Carolinas, particularly in Transylvania and Pickens counties. Fitzpatrick placed his picture in a Transylvania newspaper, and began to contact other Powells and collect their DNA, to see if they were related to Kyle. After more than a year of work and hundreds of hours of donated time, she finally felt that she was on the verge of a breakthrough.
“I was going to get it,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “It was only a matter of time.” Her initial curiosity had morphed into a full-blown obsession. Kyle, in effect, had become her white whale.
But then, just as she felt she was getting close, Kyle abruptly cut off all contact with her.
One day, I drove to the Burger King in Richmond Hill where Kyle was first found. The building had since been bulldozed. All that remained was its weedy foundation, and a low, three-sided wall that once enclosed the dumpsters. The Burger King was one of a couple dozen corporate chains massed around an off-ramp on Interstate 95. It seemed somehow appropriate that a man with no identity should be discovered in a place that felt so transient. For years, drifters and hobos used to hop off the trains that rattled past a nearby dirt field and bivouac in the woods. Across the street, outside a run-down motel, two shirtless kids played with a pit bull puppy next to a stack of soiled mattresses. It struck me as an entirely plausible place to get your ass kicked.
Katherine Slater lived an hour away, in a portion of the state that turns abruptly rural. When I arrived at her house, her curtains were drawn. “My first impression of Kyle was someone who was very, very smart,” she told me, sitting in her living room. “Highly intelligent. But all facts. He had a photographic memory for streets. He’d tell you about all different kinds of meat slicers. Zilch, though, in the emotional intelligence department.”
Slater, who wears small, wire-rim glasses, retains her Bronx accent after years of living in the South. She had felt sorry for Kyle, but she had also relished the idea of solving the mystery of his identity. “I guess I’m a problem solver,” she said. “I’ve always liked problems to solve. I couldn’t resist solving this one. I was so sure I could, too.” Her DVD shelf, I noticed, leaned heavily toward BBC detective series.
Kyle, though, seemed less than eager to aid in the search. She tried repeatedly to pin him down. “Why don’t you seem more interested?” she would prod.
“Well, you know, I’ve been in this identity, Benjaman Kyle, for a long time,” he told her. “And even if they figure out who I am, I’m probably going to feel like Benjaman Kyle.”
At first, Slater found his response both reasonable and sad. “OK,” she thought. “That makes sense.” But as the years passed, her doubts grew. She began to wonder whether Kyle’s amnesia was genuine. “I’m dead sure there was trauma,” she said. “But I think he likes being stuck in the place he’s stuck in.” His motives didn’t seem to be financial. Several times, Slater tried to raise money from supporters to help Kyle get an apartment, but he refused all donations. Perhaps, she thought, he was hungry for an obscure sort of power. “All these people, all over the country, trying to solve this case?” she said. “That’s a hell of a drug.”
When Kyle moved in with Slater, it quickly became clear that he was a hoarder. He would go to a dump and come back with catalogs, file cabinets, broken tools. He didn’t drink or smoke, but he collected old lighters and wine bottles. Slowly, the house filled up with detritus. Kyle also started signing himself up to receive catalogs on the internet—for restaurants, which he’d read cover to cover, but also for office supplies and swimming pool equipment. He even started receiving right-wing political newsletters.
“I think he liked a lot of things coming in his name,” Slater said.
Kyle also began making repairs on the house, and soon had projects in every room. After he tore up her bedroom floor, Slater slept on the couch for 18 months. It seemed Kyle was creating problems just so he could fix them. “One of his things is to make himself indispensable,” Slater said. “He thought if he had unfinished jobs, he couldn’t be kicked out.”
In February 2011, Slater had finally had enough. She gave Kyle a deadline to get out. She found a shelter in Savannah, bought him a prepaid cell phone, and said she’d be happy to keep helping him in his search. The day before the deadline, Kyle asked to burn some of his old mail in the back yard. Slater refused, saying that it was windy and dry, and he didn’t have a burn permit. Kyle started a fire anyway. Slater ordered him to stop, but Kyle didn’t even look at her. When the mail had finished burning, Slater told Kyle that he had to leave, immediately.
She offered him a ride into Savannah, but Kyle refused. He walked out the door, carrying a backpack. That was the last time Slater spoke to him.
Years later, Slater still felt betrayed by all the time and energy she spent helping Kyle. “I feel like an idiot for putting up with it,” she said. “But when you’re in the middle of it….” She trailed off.
Listening to her talk, it occurred to me that Slater was drawn to Kyle not just because his legal identity posed a mystery that cried out to be solved, but because his personality seemed almost engineered to elicit sympathy. His blankness, his sense of being lost and unwanted, his eagerness to please—to people of a certain disposition, Kyle came across as a wounded puppy, just waiting to be given a name. Slater was angry at Kyle, but she was also angry at herself, for seeing in him a quality that might not really be there.
After leaving Slater’s, Kyle began walking south towards Florida. He made it only a few miles before he was stopped by two Georgia sheriff’s deputies, who recognized him from Bo Preston’s training on the FBI database. They offered to give him a ride to the Florida border. When they arrived, Kyle got out and continued to walk.
When he got to Jacksonville, Kyle tried to enter a homeless shelter. But lacking a driver’s license or Social Security number, he was turned away and wound up sleeping in a field behind the sheriff’s office. Desperate, he called John Wikstrom, a 21-year-old film student from Florida State University who had contacted him about making a documentary about his case. Kyle told Wikstrom that he had moved to Jacksonville because Slater needed to take care of her sick parents. Wikstrom, seeking to help, called a local TV news station, which ran a short segment on Kyle. Josh Schrutt, the owner of Crazy Fish, a restaurant on the water, saw the report and, feeling sorry for Kyle, offered him a job washing dishes.
Kyle, it turned out, had an encyclopedic knowledge of restaurant equipment—how to work the grill, calibrate the deep fryer, store the pans, clean the equipment. He quickly became Schrutt’s best employee, always working past his shift, never turning down a task. Kyle also had a penchant for dry one-liners, heavy on word play. “We have no coleslaw today,” he would quip. “The cole miners are on strike.”
“I’m a very suspicious person,” Schrutt said. “I have an alarm on my house, a gun next to my bed, and a Doberman Pinscher for a pet. I’m extremely paranoid. And I trust the guy.”
Crazy Fish sat on a thin spit of land that juts out into the Intercoastal Waterway. It was housed in a rickety wooden shack, previously used by the regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a holding cell for poachers—space it now shared with a colony of 40 semi-feral cats. When I arrived to meet Kyle for the first time, in 2014, I found him sitting on the restaurant’s front deck, smoking a Clipper mini-cigar and reading a tattered science fiction novel. He was wearing a baseball cap, camouflage pajama bottoms, and prescription glasses from Walgreens with a +2.00 sticker on the frame. His bushy mustache was stained orange from nicotine. A bicycle—his primary means of transportation—was chained up next to him.
“I appreciate you coming down here,” he said. “But every journalist promises that their story is going to be the one to solve my case. And none of them do.”
Ten years on, Kyle told me, he had all but given up on the idea that his real identity would ever be found. He reeled off his media appearances—CNN, the BBC, ABC, NPR, CBS, Fox News, The Guardian, Dr. Phil. Indeed, Kyle had the friendly, well-rehearsed manner of someone who has given a lot of interviews. He spoke of catastrophic amnesia in the nonchalant way another person might speak of seasonal allergies. He still received emails from people offering tips, but none of them had ever come to anything. A last-ditch visit to a psychic had yielded nothing useful. He had more or less resigned himself to remaining Benjaman Kyle.
“I’m not pounding my head against the wall,” he said. “I mostly avoid thinking about it. It doesn’t really do very good to keep thinking about a problem you can’t solve.”
Fictionalized depictions of amnesia usually portray the condition as inherently terrifying, an existential nightmare of the highest order. Kyle, though, didn’t seem distressed. Despite his memory loss, he explained, he retained an implicit sense of himself as a person. The personality he had before the amnesia—the likes and dislikes, habits, emotional architecture—remained intact. He didn’t know who he was, but he knew who he was. Politically, he was a die-hard liberal. Spiritually, he was a lapsed Catholic. He suspected he had long worn a mustache, and had almost always smoked—“I’m pretty sure I stopped smoking once, about 30 years ago, then I took it up again last year and haven’t been able to shake it.” He abhorred physical contact, and had a deep-seated love of movie theaters, tools, and science fiction novels. Sometimes he’d begin reading one, only to realize he’d already read it.
“I always had a sense of myself,” he said. “You can’t lose that. You’d have to be brain dead or in a coma.”
Did he ever miss his family?
“I’m not sure how I’d miss them, because I don’t remember them,” he said. “I don’t need too many people. I’m not antisocial, but I’m not super social either.”
I asked him if he ever wondered what his old life was like. He winced.
“Everyone asks me ‘What if you did this? What if you did that?’ I don’t do the what-ifs. It’s just a way of driving you nuts. Every once in a while, I’ll get on the internet, two or three days in a row, I’ll start looking at pictures of Denver on Google Maps, the street view. After I while, I get fed up, leave it alone. Just frustrating, I guess.”
I pointed out how strange it would be, if he did figure out who he was, to be told what his life had been like, but not recognize it.
“It would be like reading a book,” he said. “When it happens—if it happens—I don’t think it’s going to be a fun process. I don’t see how it could be anything but difficult. I’ve got two separate lives that have to merge into one. As far as personality-wise, I don’t think they’re going to figure out I’m an ax murderer.”
As we talked, I found myself searching for a sign that Kyle was lying: an unconscious tell of some sort, an indication that would prove his story was a fiction. That, or a clear demonstration of the opposite, some evidence in his affect that would let me conclude he was being sincere. Neither sign appeared. Instead, he offered fulsome answers to all my questions. He never tried to convince me that he was telling the truth. When I expressed doubts about his claims, he didn’t seem to care. He clearly didn’t need me to believe him. After a while, I got the sense that he was humoring me.
The next day, Kyle had the morning off from work, so we visited the local flea market. As he made his way through tables of off-brand perfume, plastic flip-flops, and holographic Jesus prints, the abundance of junk seemed to make him boyishly happy. With the vendors, he drove a hard bargain—“What kind of guarantees do you have on your used batteries?” Two hours later, when we left, he emerged, beaming, with a butter scoop, a tomato corer, a box of aluminum oxide sandpaper, a kitchen strainer, an electric outlet tester, four two-for-a-dollar bottles of cologne, and 15 used DVDs, all for less than $25.
I asked Kyle why he still kept up the search for his real identity.
“The only reason I keep going is Social Security,” he said. He was deep into his sixties, he guessed, and soon he wouldn’t be able to work. His retirement plan was six Lotto tickets a week—all Powerball, no scratch-offs. “Tomorrow, if I won the lottery, managed to get a trust, I’d say the hell with it and stop looking.”
“Wouldn’t you still be curious about your family?”
“Well,” he said, “for one thing, when word gets out that I won the lottery, I think I’d suddenly have a couple hundred new relatives.” He laughed.
John Wikstrom, the documentarian, helped Kyle set up a web site and a Facebook page, which quickly filled up with supportive messages. He also arranged for Kyle to appear on two “Ask Me Anything” interviews on Reddit, which received enough up-votes to land on the site’s popular front page. The online community tried to crowd-source an answer to his identity, but like everyone else, they fell short. Though still anonymous, Kyle had become rather famous.
Kyle was, in many ways, a perfect object of compassion. Even nameless, he retained some of the advantages that society allocates to a white American male. It’s hard to imagine that he would have been trusted to the degree he was, or extended the same aid, if he had been a woman or an immigrant or a person of color. As it was, his absence of a past allowed his supporters to superimpose their own narratives on him. A few years ago, a woman wrote saying that Kyle was her father. To satisfy her, Kyle agreed to take a DNA test; when the paternity test was negative, the woman explained that her dad’s brain had been transplanted into Kyle’s body. I once asked Josh Schrutt why, of all the needy people on TV, he offered a hand to Kyle. He told me that his own father had been murdered when he was just 21. Kyle happened to bear a close physical resemblance to Schrutt’s dad—same age, same build, same hair color.
“Sometimes, I see him from behind and I’m like, wow,” Schrutt told me. “Same guy.”
The unidentified have long been a blank screen on which to project the anxieties of their time. The historian Jean-Yves Le Naour has written about the case of “Anthelme Mangin,” a French soldier who returned from the trenches of World War I with total amnesia. Mangin quickly became the object of a national obsession. After the horror of the Great War, from which 1.5 million Frenchmen did not come home, Mangin was held up as a symbol of all the missing and dead. Most felt pity, but others looked on him with envy, seeing him, Le Naour writes, as “the only truly free man … without past, without memory, without hatred.” Today, in an age of national fracture, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many people should feel an intense affinity with a wayward American suffering identity issues.
Most of the compassion for Kyle, though, centered around his loss of memories and family—the things he seemed to miss least. The political implications of his situation—namely, his inability to get government assistance—aroused far less concern. Wikstrom’s short film about Kyle, which focused on his struggle to survive without an ID, played at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened out of competition at Cannes. Wikstrom found the contrast in reactions from the two audiences telling.
“At Tribeca, the response was all about how resilient Benjaman was, how strong and amazing he was,” Wikstrom recalled. “The foreign response was all about how screwed up the American system is.” If Kyle seemed uninterested in solving the mystery of his identity, Wikstrom added, it was because he had more immediate concerns. “A lot of people are surprised that he’s not more obsessive, that he’s not this TV character who’s scouring the globe,” Wikstrom said. “But he’s not worried about that. He’s worried about eating.”
After the film came out, Wikstrom started an online petition to get Kyle a new Social Security card. It needed 25,000 signatures to receive a response from the White House. It ended up with less than half.
In February 2015, Colleen Fitzpatrick, the genetic genealogist, told a TV station in Atlanta that she wasn’t sure Kyle actually wanted to figure out who he was. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about the case since Kyle cut off contact with her. “If the mystery is ever solved, I think the story will go away and he won’t get the time and attention from people,” she said. “And he’ll probably have some angry people that devoted a lot of effort to helping him when in the end he’s not a big executive, he’s just a regular person. Or probably just a street person.”
Later, on her web site, Fitzpatrick asked why Kyle’s supporters assumed he was trustworthy, when, really, he could be anyone. While he might indeed be a loving husband and father, he might also be a drug dealer, or a child molester, or a member of the Mafia. “Of all the possibilities,” she wrote, “should we assume the benign without ruling out the sinister?”
A month later, Kyle posted a response on his Facebook page. In it, he claimed that he had stopped speaking to Fitzpatrick because she had denied him access to his own genealogical data, and had refused to share information with other researchers. “For years, I felt that Colleen was exploiting me, the vulnerable nature of my memory loss, my lack of resources, and poverty,” Kyle wrote. “However, I felt helpless to respond. I now have found my voice.”
Fitzpatrick denied the accusation, but Kyle’s supporters posted messages of encouragement to his Facebook wall, applauding his bravery. Among those who came to his defense was CeCe Moore, another genealogist who had volunteered to work on Kyle’s case. I met Moore in the spring of 2015, when I visited her in her big, light-filled house an hour north of San Diego. A bubbly woman with corkscrew blond hair and giant blue eyes, Moore had come to genetic genealogy as a hobby, after a career as an actress and a swimsuit model. The field does not require a deep knowledge of science, but it does require a love of puzzles. Before Moore took up genealogy, she used to have several jigsaw puzzles in various stages of completion throughout her house.
With the aid of volunteers she calls “search angels,” Moore often works on a dozen or so cases at one time. Like Fitzpatrick, Moore looks at genes on the Y chromosome, which travel down with each male generation. But she has also developed an expertise in autosomal DNA, which is inherited equally from both parents. Whereas Y testing shows only a single, outermost branch of the family tree, autosomal DNA fills in branches from all over. Once you have enough branches, you can begin to reverse-engineer a tree.
When Moore was starting out in genealogy, Fitzpatrick had been a colleague. Both women live in Southern California, and they know each other from genealogical conferences. But they had a bitter falling out over Kyle. Moore said she was “shell-shocked” that Fitzpatrick refused to share genealogical information with Kyle—a move she denounced as “unethical.” Fitzpatrick, for her part, was dismissive of Moore’s efforts. “She’s an actress,” Fitzpatrick said. “She’s not comfortable with her own accomplishments, so she has to steal mine.”
Kyle’s case had gone on longer than any case Moore had ever worked on. Several DNA matches seemed to be closely related to a man named Abraham Lovely Powell, who had lived in the nineteenth century. Almost all of Kyle’s ancestors came from northern Europe, Moore concluded, and his paternal grandparents and great-grandparents probably came from the American South. The more she learned, the more confident she grew that she would find the missing puzzle pieces. “It’s only a matter of time,” Moore insisted. “It might be tomorrow or it might be next year or it might be five years, but it’ll happen.”
Moore was inarguably doing valuable work. But as I drove away, the implications of the technology bothered me. Her enterprise—connecting people with their roots, restoring to them a pedigree from which they had become separated—was always phrased optimistically. Yet, as DNA pools get bigger and the puzzles become easier to solve, we will soon be able to quickly identify anyone, to figure exactly who they are and where they’re from. Before long, it seems, no one will be outside the matrix of human identification. When that day comes, it will mean—more than Bertillonage, more than fingerprints, more than the internet—the end of anonymity.
In May 2015, I returned to Jacksonville to see Kyle. The Crazy Fish restaurant had closed, and Kyle was living with Josh Schrutt. The arrangement didn’t seem to suit either of them. When I arrived, Schrutt was sitting in a La-Z-Boy in his living room, smoking a cigarette and drinking a highball. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “So, you think he’s full of shit?”
When I last saw Schrutt, he hadn’t found any reason to doubt Kyle’s story. Now, though, he seemed to be growing suspicious. “He’s very exact on a lot of stuff, very analytical,” Schrutt explained. “Boy, you ask him a question about building something or electrical or historical, he’s really precise. But when it comes to his own story, he gets … vague.”
While Kyle worked in the front of the house, lowering the basket on his bike, Schrutt and I sat on his lanai. A short, strong, audaciously tan man, Schrutt was now running another business, selling rides on the Intercoastal Waterway in a 40-foot pontoon boat which he claimed to have painted a special color that attracts dolphins. As we spoke, he tipped his cigarette in a half-filled water bottle. He seemed torn about what to do with Kyle now that the restaurant was shuttered.
“I’m wondering what the hell is going to happen. Is he going to have to live with me forever? He’s getting older. His knees are bad. There’s part of me that can’t just say, ‘Look, leave.’ And he’s so strong-willed, if you told him to leave, he’d leave. But he’d be sleeping in the woods again.”
Schrutt dropped his cigarette in the water, staining it yellow. “What do you think?”
I said I didn’t know.
“Neither do I. There’s nothing I can really call him on. He never really defends himself. He walks away. When it comes down to sweaty, hot conversations, he walks away.”
As we spoke, Kyle walked past the porch.
“Benjaman,” Schrutt said. “What’s your story with Katherine? Why’d you leave?”
“She had to take care of her parents,” Kyle said.
“You left amicably?”
“We left amicably.”
“So, she’d say that?”
“I don’t know what she’d say.” Kyle walked away.
“You see?” Schrutt said, flashing me a pregnant glance over his sunglasses. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s smarter than all of us.”
The restaurant’s closing had robbed Kyle of a way to spend his days. His responses to interviewers, once hopeful, had gradually grown more despondent. Once a week, he biked three hours to a food pantry on the other side of Jacksonville. Otherwise, he ate oatmeal, which he mixed with a textured vegetable protein he bought from a health food store downtown. He said that he’d lost 30 pounds in three months.
“Do you fear death more because you’re old and no longer remember having lived a life?” a Redditor asked him during an AMA.
“I am beginning to think that death may well be a friend,” he replied. “Sooner or later, I am going to be unable to work and then what? I have made some tentative plans for that eventuality.”
When I asked him what he meant by that, he shrugged.
“Living at someone else’s sufferance is difficult for me,” he said. “I’ve cooperated with everyone—even if I thought it was bullshit, the psychics and all that—for the simple reason that people wouldn’t be able to say I was faking it. As much as I need money now, I should just claim that I was kidnapped by aliens or brainwashed by the CIA—the money I could make off that.”
We were eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant, where we sat looking into the kitchen. Kyle appraised the setup. “Nice grill,” he said. “Chrome-plated Star Ultra Max.” He frowned. “They’ve got two Continental reach-in fridges. They’re never going to be able to maintain temp with those. The compressor’s just not heavy enough.”
As he talked, I again wondered if it was all a put-on. His memory was detailed enough to seem real, but so vague as to make it impossible to find him. But if he was faking, his motives were elusive. Perhaps he was ambivalent because he was afraid of what he would return to. His current situation was untenable, but some part of him might know that whatever awaits him from his past is worse. What if Kyle’s old life was a hell from which his own brain had, graciously, saved him?
It also struck me that the motivation to return Kyle to his former life might be driven by something deeper and less flattering than simple charity. Today, the old norms are once again shifting. Almost every form of identity—race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, religion, class—has become a cultural and political battleground. Kyle’s story satisfies a fantasy about belonging, a faith that, somewhere in the world, our proper place awaits us. But it can also feed a desire to send people back to where they came from. How can the existing order be preserved, in a time of societal upheaval, if a man is allowed to become someone else?
A decade on, as Kyle’s story grew stale and the media’s attention receded, the odds of his being identified seemed to dim. It was now possible, even likely, that Kyle would die before his identity was discovered. I didn’t know whether anyone would continue investigating the case when Kyle was dead. After speaking with him for a year and a half, I began, slowly, to make peace with the idea that the puzzle would go unsolved, that his real name would stay a mystery.
Then, one morning last June, I got a call from CeCe Moore. When I answered, she said, “We found him.”
It took me several moments to process this. Even when it dawned on me what she meant, I couldn’t fully take it in. “Oh,” was all I managed. “That’s good.”
Moore was worried. When she had called Kyle and told him the news, he had hung up quickly. Now he wasn’t answering his phone.
“I don’t know how he’s taking it,” she said.
I called Kyle and left a message telling him to let me know he was OK. An hour later, he finally called back. He was breathing hard and his voice had climbed an octave. “I guess I’m in shock,” he said. “I have so many thoughts running through my head, about how I’m going to handle this. I don’t know. I seem to be having a hard time focusing.”
Moore had given Kyle a quick sketch of his life, what little she had been able to find of it in a few hours of Googling. I tried—and failed—to imagine what it would be like to have someone narrate to you the unremembered story of your own existence.
“She says he’s from Indiana,” Kyle said.
“He?” I asked.
“Shit,” Kyle said. “I mean me. He, him, me—I don’t know. After eleven years, I never thought they’d get it.” He laughed a woozy little laugh. “Then I just came out of the blue.”
The final clue surfaced as a result of CeCe Moore’s feud with Colleen Fitzpatrick. A genealogist in South Carolina, a member of the Powell family, had seen a post about the fracas on Facebook and reached out to Moore. She happened to be on her way to a family reunion, where, at Moore’s request, she took several DNA samples from distant cousins. The samples helped Moore fill in several missing branches in Kyle’s genetic family tree.
That still left a lot of possible Powells. But one of Moore’s volunteers noticed a mistake on the family tree: One of the great-grandsons in the Powell family had been misidentified. When they tracked down the correct relative, it turned out he had died in Indiana. And while most Powells were Protestant, this family was Catholic. Moore finally found a photo in the 1967 yearbook from Jefferson High School, in Lafayette, Indiana, of a teenager who is hidden behind big, black, plastic-rimmed glasses. His crinkle-eyed smile and lantern jaw were unmistakable. His name was William Burgess Powell.
Kyle, it appeared, had been right about almost everything, other than his name. William was the second son of Furman and Marjorie Powell. He had been born in Lafayette, an hour north of Indianapolis. As a child, he had attended Catholic school. His father had died in a boating accident in 1969, his mother from cancer in 1996. And he had three brothers: Furman Jr., Thomas, and Robert. Thomas had died young, but Furman Jr. and Robert were still alive. Robert, the youngest, lived in Florida, while Furman, the oldest, still lived in the family’s house in Lafayette.
It appeared that Kyle had also been wrong about his birthday. Moore hadn’t yet been able to track down a birth certificate, but two genealogy web sites showed a William B. Powell born in 1951, not 1948.
Kyle and I talked several times over the day, as more information about his life came in. He remembered nothing new, but he was clearly excited. He sounded more animated than I’d ever heard him. When I mentioned his birthday, however, he got sad.
“If she says she’s sure I’m William, I believe her,” he said. “But I really can’t believe I wasn’t born on the day I thought I was.”
The next day, Kyle called and told me, triumphantly, that CeCe Moore had been wrong: She had gone deeper into the records, and William Brent Powell was born in 1951. William Burgess Powell was, in fact, born on August 29, 1948.
“I’m so relieved,” Kyle said. “That was one of the things I clung on to, to keep my sanity.” I heard his breath catch on the phone. He was quiet for a while, and it sounded like he was crying. “These little facts that I knew were right.”
The Powell house, in Lafayette, is a sturdy, two-story Queen Anne, built in 1880, that has fallen into spectacular decline. When I knocked on the door last fall, much of the structure was immured in bright green ivy, and the front gable and the porch roof sagged precariously. When Furman came out, he politely refused to let me in—“It’s bad in there,” he said—but invited me to join him at a diner downtown for breakfast.
Furman is a plausible sibling for William. He is smaller and his hair is grayer, but they both have the narrow nose and push-broom mustache, and their voices—the thin timbre, the accent, even the monotone—are uncannily similar. Furman walked with a cane. A training accident in the military had caused him to fracture two vertebrae, which left him in near-constant pain and impaired his memory. His speech was relentlessly discursive but oddly hypnotic. He moved from an account of his military service to the technical details of a navy radar array to a physical description of the Serbian countryside to a difficult double-time march he had once endured, all within the space of about three minutes. It seemed that William, who lacked any long-term memories, would be going home to a brother whose short-term memory was shot.
As the diner filled up with Purdue fans awaiting the Virginia Tech game, Furman—after much interruption and narrative repositioning—began filling me in on the details of the Powell family. His father, Furman Sr., was from Honea Path, South Carolina, and had served as a flight engineer on B-24s in the Second World War. His mother, Marjorie, had been employed by the Navy Air Corps as a photographer. They had met when both were stationed in Boise, Ohio, and decided to move to Lafayette, where she had family.
The Powell household had been fractious and frightening. Marjorie’s mother had a hoarding problem, filling closets with unworn clothes and porcelain angels. Furman Sr. was a quiet, angry man who drank a lot. He seldom spoke of his military service, but Furman Jr. suspected that today he would be diagnosed with ptsd. Beginning in early adolescence, William—his mother’s favorite—became the target of his father’s wrath. Furman declined to describe the specifics of the abuse, other than to say that it was regular and brutal. “Let the dead bury the dead,” he told me. It seemed possible, though, that such sustained abuse—one traumatized person visiting trauma on another—could have primed William for dissociative amnesia. When William turned 16, he left home to live with another family across town.
For several years, William held odd jobs in Lafayette—janitor at a strip club, loader in the warehouse of a factory, handyman at a movie theater. In 1973, when he was 25, he moved into a mobile home a few miles north of Lafayette, on property owned by a family named Richardson. Powell ate dinner with the family every night, but otherwise he spent most of his time alone, reading and listening to music. When he first arrived, he’d been worried that he was too tall for the mobile home, so he took the roof off, with the intention of raising it. He framed up the sides, but never finished the project.
Then, in 1976, Powell disappeared. After he missed dinner one night, one of the Richardson children checked his trailer. In it, he found all of Powell’s things—stereo, tools, books—but not Powell. A few days later, Powell’s car, a red ’66 Rambler station wagon, was discovered abandoned several miles upriver, near the Oakdale Dam. Powell’s family feared the worst. Furman filed a missing persons report with the state police.
The police, however, quickly located Powell. He was living in Boulder, Colorado, working as a cook at a family restaurant called Azar’s. (Azar’s was the restaurant Powell had remembered as having bad service. He was a bit disappointed to learn he’d been a cook there. “That food wasn’t very good,” he told me.) Puzzled, Furman sent him letters, but William never responded. For years, no one heard from him.
Their mother, Furman said, never got over the loss of her favorite son. After she died, in 1996, Furman and Robert settled her estate, and Furman asked a friend in Army intelligence to run a background check on his brother, to see if he could be contacted. To his surprise, there appeared to be no record of William Powell—no phone number, no address, no mortgage. It was as if he had never existed. When Furman had last seen William, he had been a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker. Furman slowly resigned himself to the idea that his brother was dead.
Why did Powell disappear? No one seemed to know. According to the missing persons report that Furman had filed with the police, Powell had been working at a movie theater in downtown Lafayette before he left for Colorado. The report stated that he had last been seen in Lafayette in the company of Charles “Chico” Goetz, a co-worker.
I called Chico Goetz, who was now living in Missouri, and asked him if he remembered a man named William Powell.
“Man,” said Goetz. “Sure, I remember Uncle Willy.”
After work, Goetz explained, he and Powell used to drink cheap whiskey together and talk. Powell was a loner. He had few companions, no romantic partner. Goetz figured he had been Powell’s closest friend, if only by default. “We were a couple of drunks,” Goetz told me. “We did what drunks do. But we weren’t close.”
Their decision to leave Indiana had been impulsive. One Sunday night, after several hours of drinking, Goetz proposed that they move to Boulder. Powell had recently received a small settlement from a previous employer, after he’d slipped on an icy dock and broken his arm. Feeling flush, he agreed. They packed a few possessions into Goetz’s Toyota Celica, then drove through the night and into the next day, across Illinois, Missouri, and the vast cornfields of Kansas.
“Why Boulder?” I asked.
“Because it wasn’t Indiana,” Goetz said.
In Colorado, they worked at fast-food restaurants. Goetz stayed for a year, then returned to Lafayette. Powell remained in Colorado. Despite much effort, I could find no one in Colorado who knew William Powell, or Benjaman Kyle, or anyone matching his description. The restaurants where he worked had closed years ago, and their employment records were lost.
The last time Goetz saw Powell was in 1977, when he visited Boulder and stayed for a month in Powell’s unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment. Powell was living alone and didn’t appear to have made any friends. Before Goetz left, Powell told him to take care of his set of machinist tools back in Lafayette. “He said, ‘Keep these for me. One day I’m going to want them back,’” Goetz told me. “Whenever you talk to him, tell him I say ‘Hi,’ and that I have his tools.”
The discovery of Benjaman Kyle’s identity answered one question, only to raise another: What had he been doing for the nearly 30 years between the time Goetz saw him in Colorado and the summer morning he was found, naked and unconscious, outside the Burger King in Georgia?
When Powell fled Indiana, he cut most of the remaining ties of an already isolated life. After Goetz left him in Boulder, he was all but alone. According to earning records filed with the Social Security Administration, he worked at several restaurants in Denver from 1978 to 1983. But after that, no income was reported for William Powell. Until 2004, there was no record of his existence. When I searched through public records, I found none of the documents that the average adult accumulates in middle age—no address, phone number, traffic tickets, lawsuits, loans, marriage certificates, divorce proceedings.
It seems astonishing, at first glance, that a man can live two decades of life without leaving a mark. And yet, in this regard, Powell was not unique at all. Many people are just as disconnected from the world as Benjaman Kyle. According to the Justice Department, thousands of people die alone and unidentified each year, and are buried in nameless graves. They represent the most isolated members of society: the elderly, the homeless, the undocumented immigrants far from home—people who have been pushed to society’s margins. Like Powell, they are found stripped—in Powell’s case, literally—of any link to their legal identity. It was only an apparent accident of his brain that caused him to lose his identity in life, not death. Had he died in front of the dumpster in Richmond Hill, his body would not have become an object of national fascination and intense speculation; it would have spent eternity interred in a potter’s field. Instead, he was reborn twice: first as Benjaman Kyle, and then, again, as William Powell.
We may never know the life Powell lived in those missing years. He may have been homeless or itinerant, taking odd jobs, getting paid off the books. He may have lived off the grid, hewing out an existence in the deep woods. It seems likely he made few acquaintances, earned little money, committed no crimes, claimed no benefits. At some juncture, from an official standpoint, William Burgess Powell ceased to be a person of interest. And that, ultimately, is what allowed him to slip into anonymity. Because for all our unparalleled ability to see and be seen, we do not bother to keep track of those who, to our eyes, don’t matter.
After he received the phone call from CeCe Moore, Powell spent the next few months working to restore his old identity. He sent away for his birth certificate and ordered a new Social Security card. He and Furman began talking on the phone. He found it weird, hearing his own voice coming over the line. His other brother, Robert, did not respond to his emails.
In October 2015, Powell, in the company of a documentary crew for a reality-television series, flew to Lafayette to reunite with Furman for the first time since he fled to Boulder in 1976. Powell retains his aversion to being touched, but when he saw his brother, they hugged.
For several days, Powell went around meeting disbelieving cousins and collecting stories about himself. They called him “Bill,” which he was still getting used to. But he recognized none of them, and he took their recollections with a grain of salt.
“They’re telling me something filtered through 50 years of memories,” he said. “And God knows that changes. Anyway, I know who I was as a person. I don’t think that’s changed. I said all along that I wasn’t an ax murderer. And, so far, I’ve heard nothing to contradict that.”
A cousin, the family historian, gave Powell a copy of his family tree, and he discovered that he liked running his fingers over his lineage.
“It’s the idea of looking at all these names, knowing that I’m descended from all these people,” he explained. “I have a history now.”
Two months later, at the end of 2015, Powell decided to move back to Indiana. Furman, he feared, was becoming increasingly frail and couldn’t take care of the house alone. Powell packed all his possessions—his bike, his tools, 1,200 DVDs, and some cooking supplies salvaged from the restaurant—into a moving truck, paid for by the reality TV producers. He found a little two-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood of Lafayette, a five-minute bike ride from his childhood home.
He spent the first two months in his new home huddled under an electrical blanket. The temperature was dipping into the single digits, and his house had no insulation. He was living off Social Security, and, fearing an exorbitant heating bill, kept the house at 55 degrees. He quickly caught a cold. Yet he found that he loved being on his own, dependent on no one. As the weeks passed, he made friends with the neighbors, fixing their appliances and feeding treats to their dogs. He told no one of his past. He saw Furman a few times a week, but he had yet to go inside his childhood home. Whatever had taken place there—whatever had caused him to flee home at age 16, to cut all ties with his family, to throw away his very name—remained too painful to confront.
Powell feared that more memories from before, from the life he cannot remember, would start returning once he’d settled down in Lafayette. “I’m worried about what the memories will be when they come back,” he told me.
“That they won’t all be good?” I asked.
“I’m sure they won’t all be good.”
Sometimes, Powell wondered whether it had been wise to return home. He found himself visited by new, unwanted emotions. Not emotions, precisely, but memories of them—things he’d felt as a child that, as an adult, he preferred not to describe. Such feelings, he thought, were better left buried in his brain. In these moments, the town seemed bad for him. He kept expecting things to be the way they were in his childhood. The city used to end at Route 52. Now the businesses were all out in the cornfields. He found the downtown disorienting. Years ago, the railroad had been rerouted, and many of the streets had been reset. He became lost easily. As he retraced the steps of his youth, the past and present flickered back and forth in his head, refusing to be reconciled. “It’s like my mind wants to see it one way, and my eyes see it another,” he said. “One minute, I’m seeing it like it is now, and then it’s like it was 40 years ago.”
Personal memories encoded during a fugue are generally never recovered. Powell may never remember his 20 years that have gone missing. Perhaps, like Ansel Bourne, he had adopted another name and lived out another life for two decades, one in which he was called Benjaman.
“I think it’s obvious that I did,” he said. “I don’t think I made it up out of thin air. It could be that I was going from job to job for a long time. Restaurant jobs are a dime a dozen, so I’m guessing I might have done that.”
If that was the case, why did he pick the name Benjaman? He thought for a minute.
“I read somewhere that it comes from Old Hebrew,” he said. “It means beloved son.”
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story has been altered to more accurately reflect CeCe Moore’s status as a genealogist, and the lineage of Kyle’s Southern ancestors. They were his paternal, not maternal, grandparents.