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The Philosophy of Crimes Without Memory


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Imagine being arrested for killing someone. Imagine that there are witnesses to the crime, that there is evidence, a trail and trial. The extensive details are presented before a jury of your peers and you are found guilty without a shadow of a doubt. And now imagine that you cannot remember any of it. Not the murder, not what led to it, not even who the victim was. Imagine being put in prison for years, decades, waiting to be executed, and you sit there day in and day out, alone, scared, confused, trying to figure out what exactly you did and why. You feel like you were framed. It’s a slow torture. You beat your head against the wall trying to remember, trying to put the pieces together. But it’s like it happened to a different person. It’s not you. You know you’re being punished but you want to scream you’re innocent even though you’re not. You miss your friends, your family, your old life. You feel your sanity slowly slipping away. Death awaits.

Is this justice? Undoubtedly. A crime was committed and the family of the deceased deserves to see such repercussions—this is one of the goals of prison, along with being a deterrent and to provide rehabilitation. But how do you rehabilitate a person who believes they did nothing wrong? And what purpose does execution serve when the murderer doesn’t even remember doing it?

[H]ow do you rehabilitate a person who believes they did nothing wrong? And what purpose does execution serve when the murderer doesn’t even remember doing it?

The philosopher John Locke believed that we are two different people living at the same time: the person who performed an act and the person who remembers doing it, body and consciousness. Yet, if there is only the former and not the latter, did we in fact carry out this act? If you ran a race but, for the rest of your life, don’t remember doing so and there is no evidence of your participation, did it happen? The race would have certainly been run but it makes no difference to you whatsoever. Conversely, Locke also believed that acts could be committed when we are not our selves, that the body can operate outside our acknowledgement. For example, we have all become so fully immersed in certain activities such as driving a car or dancing, showering or washing dishes, that we cease being conscious of what we are doing and eventually reach an endpoint without any idea of how we got there. We are simply existing, animal-like, with no consciousness. How could we be sure we’re even the same person? To Locke, our identity extends only as far as our memory does. If our memory fades so does our identity. In the case of the aforementioned murder, the victim would still be dead, but the killer it would be as if they never existed to begin with. The person in the present is completely different than the person in the moment of the now forgotten act. Imagine right now I told you you killed somebody. How would you react?

Of course if the reason one cannot remember committing a crime was due to being drunk or high they are at least guilty for knowingly indulging in such behavior that could lead to such an act. We are aware of possible consequences in these situations. But let’s imagine that there’s a brain issue going on here, that the murderer can’t remember due to an ailment of some kind. What if, in this new state, he would go on to live a peaceful, loving life? Should he still be executed? Locke would insist we are punishing a body but not a consciousness.

The philosopher Rene Descartes, too, believed that the body and the mind are not one and the same, that we are not our bodies. But he also believed we are not our brains, that we exist outside this. We are not even our thoughts, but our minds which are where our thoughts come from. So, if the body acts without an understanding from the mind, which is who we are, why should we be punished? Surely if you lose an arm or a leg you believe you are still the same person, but what if you were to develop complete amnesia? Are you the same then? Descartes is credited with the founding of reflex theory, that the body can have automated reactions completely separate from our minds. What if you are acting on instinct? What if the act was seemingly out of your control? In 1987 a Canadian man killed his mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Woods, while sleepwalking, bludgeoning her with a tire iron, and was acquitted because when awake he was judged to be a different person. The sleepwalking version of him was a killer, not the waking one.

What if the murderer committed the act and, years before he was caught, suffered a head injury that suddenly and drastically altered his mind and memory? Is he even the same person? Should he be held accountable for what his previous self did? Both Locke and Descartes would argue his innocence.

In my novel, SCARECROW HAS A GUN, a man comes into possession of a machine that can replay every memory a person has ever had, repressed or not. Sean, the protagonist—whose wife was murdered in front of his eyes, an event he can’t remember—spirals quickly after watching his life over again as it does not conform to what he remembers. He begins to see quite clearly that his memory and his life are two completely different things. We are not the lives we lived.

False memories pop up all the time. Perhaps we remember an event in our past that is actually a conflation of something we saw in a movie or read in a book. Sometimes we imagine ourselves in places we never were, at events we’ve only seen on TV. What if this so called experience affected everything that came later, though, in reality it never really happened? What is real? What is truth? Our memories should come with the tag, Based on a True Story. It’s all fictionalized to a certain point. We are fiction.

But back to our murderer without memory. In 1985, a man named Vernon Madison was convicted in the killing of a police officer, but was given a stay of execution because, after years on Death Row, he suffered memory impairment and could not recall his crime. It was decided that to kill him would be to kill a different person than the one who committed the murder. Although he remained in prison, it was ruled inhumane to execute someone who had no understanding of why they were being put to death.

There is no black and white answer to these questions of course. Not with the multitude of variations life offers. But it is important to ponder who we are really. Are we solely our consciousness like Locke said, our bodies irrelevant? Or, like Descartes believed, are we something outside of both our consciousness and bodies, making the world a type of dream state? How much are we being manipulated by our recollections? Are we our lives or our memories? What is the true story of who we are? Whatever you decide, the answer may be different tomorrow.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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