Mystery Woman ‘Gigi’ Searches for Clues to Her Name, Identity : New Orleans: She turned up in Louisiana about six months ago, with luggage but no idea who she was. Judging from a bank envelope and an expression she uses, she could be from New England. But she thinks she’s Hawaiian.
It’s as if she just materialized in a New Orleans park, with no knowledge of her past, her future, or even her name.
“Gigi” took her name from one scrawled atop a shopping list she found while frantically rummaging through her belongings, after realizing she was walking around Audubon Park with no idea who she was or how she got there.
That was on Feb. 18, and six months later she’s no closer to learning anything about herself. Neither are the social workers, psychiatrists and doctors assigned to the dark-eyed, dark-haired woman, estimated to be in her mid-20s.
“They say 25,” she said during an interview in the psychiatric hospital that has been her home for months, “but I think older, more like 30.”
Total amnesia is rare, textbooks say, and generally caused by one of two factors. The first is physical, an injury to certain brain systems; the other is severe emotional trauma.
Psychiatrists are reluctant even to classify Gigi as an amnesiac because they can’t figure out what caused her memory loss. Instead, they say she suffers a “dissociative disorder, not otherwise specified.”
“Maybe she’s experienced something really traumatic and decided to bug out,” said Doyle Magee, chief investigator for Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, whose job typically involves investigating claims of abuse.
“Usually, memory comes back to you within a short period of time, but it’s been months. At this point, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
Gigi’s first memory: “I was in Audubon Park, in the end close to Loyola University . . . and I had all these suitcases with me. And I’m thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ ”
She had a suitcase, a smaller tote bag, a knapsack and purse, but found nothing in them to identify her. “My wallet looked like it had been cleaned out. I realized I needed to get some help.” So she walked to the Loyola security office, where guards asked the usual questions, starting with: Name?
“I felt pretty stupid at that time, too, because these things I should know,” she said.
She was taken to Charity Hospital. One of her doctors, Dr. Arthur Epstein, professor emeritus of psychology and neurology at Tulane University, said that with amnesia patients, “You generally need to rule out organic causes right away.”
So doctors administered complete neurological and physical work-ups on Gigi, all of which proved fruitless. They included blood tests, hypnotism and sodium amitol, the so-called “memory drug,” which loosens the repressive elements of the brain’s cerebral cortex and causes an effect similar to intoxication, Epstein said.
CAT scans and magnetic resonance imaging showed nothing unusual.
Gigi had no scars, cuts or bruises, no head injuries, no signs of physical trauma, no drugs or alcohol in her system--nothing organically wrong, her doctors found.
She stayed at Charity until April, when she was transferred to the hospital at Mandeville.
Whoever may have taken the time to empty her wallet, and leave it behind, left intact the other possessions Gigi found with her.
What remained was a book of stamps, a deposit envelope from Money Access Service--known as MAC, a Northeast-based bank network--and an elaborate shopping list.
Titled “Gigi’s Make-Up List,” it contains dozens of brands of cosmetics and their shades, as if a guide for someone who liked to buy lots of makeup but didn’t want to duplicate anything. A handwriting sample supplied by Gigi indicates it is her spidery scrawl.
Other items with her: trendy clothes; four pairs of boots (only three of which fit); two expensive brands of perfume.
A pearl choker, two gold necklaces, a gold bracelet, a gold, diamond and ruby necklace--all of which, she said, are probably genuine--a fake pearl necklace, two pairs of pearl earrings for pierced ears. “And the funny thing is, I don’t have pierced ears.”
There was also an abundance of makeup, mostly brand new, all of which complement her olive complexion. “Twenty-five, 26 compacts; 25, 26 eye and lip pencils,” Magee said. “And look how much she’s wearing now.”
It’s true. Even to have her picture taken, Gigi wears no makeup.
Gigi has been an aggressive advocate for her own case and has been willing to talk to several reporters, though she hates being interviewed and will not watch herself on TV, Magee said. To him, that indicates she is not merely trying to drop out of society or hide her identity.
Could she be faking it?
“The possibility exists, but it’s not likely, because there’s not a secondary gain,” Magee said. “There’s no way to gain anything by carrying on the facade of not knowing who she is. She’s not pleased with all this. I don’t see it as playing to the media. She has not done that.”
Since Feb. 18, Gigi has been rediscovering herself in ways few of us must. “I feel like I maybe need to take some test to find what I like and don’t like.”
She’ll have a notion she likes or dislikes some kind of food, for example, but needs to try it to make sure.
She likes cooking, fashion, reading (especially mystery novels), chocolate, Italian food, Barq’s root beer. She dislikes Coca-Cola, coffee and green vegetables, she has learned.
By all accounts--including an IQ test, which Magee said indicated a score well above average--she’s intelligent and educated. She corrects grammar and spelling on letters and news releases about her, Magee said.
She can speak French.
She knows she likes heavy metal music and can rattle off her favorite bands and their albums. “I can remember, sort of, little parts of the songs,” she said. “Little bits and pieces.”
But, she said, she’s heard no radio stations that would have played such music. “There’s no MTV here at the hospital,” she said. “All they play are golden oldies.”
The phenomenon of remembering certain things but not others is not unusual, Epstein said, especially when amnesia is caused by emotional trauma, since the brain is selective about what it will recall.
“That’s the phenomenon,” he said. “The mind is compartmentalizing and is taking out of consciousness those areas that are giving mental pain. Certain things are not remembered.”
Relying on a hazy sense of self-awareness, Gigi thinks she wouldn’t have gone to a typical four-year college. “I probably went to an art school or two-year business school or something, and worked in an industry where you dress to express yourself.”
She can envision a mother, father and brother, and believes her name or nickname really is Gigi.
These could all be products of her imagination, Gigi allows. She cannot separate memory from fantasy.
Magee once asked Gigi if she could visualize where she might have lived, and she described a beach house with a big kitchen. “I said, ‘Sounds like my dream house,’ ” he recalled, “and she said, ‘That could be mine too.’ ”
Magee is asking for help from police departments and the news media, especially around New England and Chicago. He believes Gigi was vacationing in New Orleans, especially since she turned up shortly before Mardi Gras and since she pronounces it ‘New Or’LEENS,’ rather than a native’s gently slurred ‘Nawarlins.’
She keeps talking about Chicago, but cannot name any streets or landmarks there. “For some reason, I get the feeling my father liked Chicago.”
Magee plans to take Gigi to a linguist to try to decipher localized speech patterns, accent or idioms. He has discovered one: She refers to a milkshake as a “frappe,” a decidedly New England terminology.
Gigi tends to speak carefully, pausing to think before answering a question. She sits bolt upright, seemingly uncomfortable and guarded when asked to talk about herself. She becomes tense when photographed unexpectedly.
Several people have commented on her resemblance to the American Indian actress Elaine Miles, a half-Cayuse, half-Nez Perce who played Marilyn Whirlwind on “Northern Exposure.” Gigi, though, thinks she may be Hawaiian, Magee said.
There is an almost total lack of anything identifiable among Gigi’s possessions: no laundry marks on the clothing, no regional labels.
A MAC employee told Magee the deposit envelope was not traceable.
Magee enlisted help from several agencies, including the FBI’s National Crime Information Center computer network. His efforts have led to only a trickle of responses.
Magee said, “She’s been totally cooperative and ready for a nationwide exposure on this thing. From the very beginning, she had no problem with going to the media.”
As Gigi is quick to tell people: “I’m not mentally ill at all.” She’s not being treated for any psychological disorders at the hospital, so there’s no justification for her staying any longer as a ward of the state.
Hospital officials have begun preparing for her discharge.
“She’s got all the life decisions that you and I have had years to make, to make now,” Magee said. “This is a really stressful time. She has no identity, so she has no ability to gain any other resources at this point. It’s a crisis.”
The first step, Magee said, is to get her an identity; a Catch-22, since “in order to change your name, you have to have a name to change it from.”
Gigi’s case involves setting a legal precedent, at least in Louisiana: coming up with an identity for someone who has no birth certificate or Social Security number.
“This is a very unique situation, I’m telling you,” Magee said. “The Bureau of Vital Statistics is saying this can’t be done, and I’m going to do it.”
The next step would be for Gigi to take a high school equivalency test and to provide her with enough money to live until she can support herself.
Ideally, Magee said, someone who knows Gigi will claim her. “We need to identify her and get her to the appropriate place rather than set her up temporarily and then find out that she’s got a whole life somewhere else in another section of the country.”
The hardest thing about Gigi’s ordeal, she said, is twofold.
“I’m feeling alone. No support, no family, no friends,” she said. “I wonder where they are. I’m hoping that they’re looking for me.”
Also, “I feel like I’ve lost part of my life, and that I’ve wasted six months just sitting here.”