Once, he had a name. And a birth certificate. And all the other scraps of paper that made him somebody.
Somebody with the right to live and work and travel. Somebody with the right to be protected in a country that cherished his very existence because he could prove it. Somebody with a future because he knew his past.
But that was in another life--a life that ended two years ago when he was mugged on a Toronto street. He was robbed of his wallet and his memory.
Worse, he was robbed of his identity.
He awoke in a hospital in November 1999, not knowing who he was or where he came from. He didn’t know where he had learned French, Italian and Latin, or where he had cultivated his love of opera, his aversion to meat.
Even today, all he knows is what doctors and linguists have told him: that he is suffering from global amnesia, that he speaks with a distinctive British accent, possibly from Yorkshire, that once he was somebody.
A photograph taken after the mugging, shows a young man, probably in his late 20s, with dyed blond hair, a round face, prominent nose and dark eyes. He is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds.
The man’s photograph and fingerprints were circulated around the world. Television programs in Britain documented his plight, although there has been little coverage in the United States. Interpol and international missing-persons organizations investigated. Still they have no leads.
He wants to go to England to see if he can find himself, or maybe confront some shadows of his past. Surely, he argued in court, the least a man deserves is the chance to reclaim his identity.
But society has no place for a man without a name. And it doesn’t make provisions for a man without a country.
He cannot travel without a passport. He cannot get a passport without a birth certificate. And he cannot get a birth certificate without knowing where he was born.
So, the man the British media dubbed “Mr. Nobody” lives in limbo, reading Latin verse in a public library, or holed up in a dingy rooming house on Vancouver’s east side, growing increasingly paranoid and depressed. He refuses to talk about his plight anymore. He shuns further media coverage, saying it portrays him as a freak--fascinating only because he cannot prove who he is, or who he is not.
“I am stateless. It is as though I don’t exist,” he said in court. “My life is senseless. I can hardly sleep at all. As I cannot work and provide for my material and spiritual needs or leave the country, I consider myself a prisoner; therefore, I am kindly asking to be set free.”
The freedom he sought was the creation of an identity, complete with a birth certificate and a name, one that would allow him to leave Canada in search of himself. The name he asked for was Philip Staufen.
That is the name that appeared on his plastic wristband in Toronto General Hospital where he was first treated. It had a birth date of June 7, 1975.
He says that after repeatedly telling hospital staff he didn’t know who he was, he was pressed to give the first name that came into his head. So he blurted out Philip Staufen--the name of a medieval German king and Holy Roman Emperor.
Police have tracked people with similar names all over Europe and found no connection to the mystery man. No one has been issued with a British passport in that name.
So Mr. Nobody lives in a vacuum, haunted by a past he cannot remember and a future he cannot plan.
“My actual situation has left me prey to too many abuses and humiliations,” he said in court. “I have found myself having to live on the streets or with violent and vulgar people.”
The judges were sympathetic, but they denied his “application for identity,” declaring that they could not create a legal fiction by giving him a birth certificate. However, he did eventually win a federal ministerial permit that allows him to live and work in Canada for 18 months. It was issued in the name of Philip Staufen.
But with no passport, Staufen still can’t leave the country. And it’s not clear what happens after the 18 months are up in December 2002. Under normal circumstances, people may apply for Canadian citizenship after living in the country for three years. But the application form requires a name and birthplace.
At first Staufen rejected the ministerial permit, saying if the system could allow him use the name for 18 months, it could grant him a passport in that name too. He went on a weeklong hunger strike in protest.
“What I want is to be given an identity,” he said. “I want to be able to leave Canada. I want to be anonymous and to live my life in peace.”
No one who has dealt with Staufen doubts his story. Not the police who investigated his case, doctors who treated him, the people who temporarily took him into their homes, government workers who tried to help him. All see no hint of deception or fraud.
“It just seemed mind-boggling that someone could be so alone in the world and no one seems to be looking for him,” said Stephen Bone, a Toronto detective who spent days with Staufen trying to find clues to his identity.
Bone brought Staufen to a linguist, drove him to a homeless shelter, helped him buy groceries, won his trust. The detective watched as the man with no memory discovered clues about himself: that he took milk and sugar with his tea, that he didn’t like meat, that he loved to read.
Initially, Bone said, Staufen believed it was only a matter of time before detectives unlocked his identity. With money from supporters, Staufen traveled to Montreal, and then Vancouver, where he found a lawyer, Manuel Azevedo, who took up his cause. He was given welfare assistance of $525 a month.
But as time dragged on, Staufen became frustrated and withdrawn. He questioned images in his head: Were they pieces of his past, or something he had read?
Once he asked Bone: What if I have a past that I don’t want to remember?
“I feel very sorry for him,” Bone said. “The thought of a human being having no identity and no one to turn to. It’s almost like if you don’t have a name you are nothing.”
Only a handful of cases of total amnesia have ever been documented. With treatment, most patients eventually recognized, or “relearned” pieces of their past. And recovery usually happened within months.
Because Staufen is still suffering after two years, some psychiatrists suggest he may be suffering from a psychogenic “fugue” state--a memory disorder in which he has blocked out an incident too awful to remember.
There have been other such cases. In the 1980s there was a widely reported case of a woman who had wandered the streets of New Orleans for years not knowing who she was or where she came from. With help, she rediscovered her past: as a wife and mother in Boston. After suffering a series of tragedies involving her children, her mind had simply blocked out the wrenching memories.
But recovery requires treatment.
In the case of the woman in New Orleans, a priest finally helped her get proper treatment. This summer, the Vancouver Sun urged the Canadian government to intervene in the Staufen case, by making a one-time exception to the rules and granting him a birth certificate and passport.
“It is inexcusable for the governments to continue to do nothing,” the newspaper wrote. “That amounts to, by default, allowing bureaucratic inertia to destroy this man’s chance for a decent life.”
Others suggest that Staufen hasn’t done enough to help himself. They question why he doesn’t pursue treatment, why he doesn’t seek more publicity, why his lawyer refuses to comment anymore.
“Legally, he has obtained a lot,” said Jeffrey Loenen, a Victoria lawyer who represented British Columbia in the case against Staufen. “He is perfectly free to leave the country, if he can find a country that will take him.”
But what country will welcome a man with no name, no past, no apparent future?
Dr. David Arciniegas, director of neuropsychiatry service at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, suggests that amnesiacs are like characters from an Albert Camus novel, burdened by the weight and absurdity of their own existence. Their struggle to survive in a world that is neither understanding nor forgiving can have devastating effects on their personalities and mental health.
“There is only the present,” Arciniegas said. “And the present can be unbearable without a past to define it.”
For Staufen, there appears little chance that the present will change, or that his past will be defined any time soon.
“My daily existence has been under the dominion of destitution, illness, ignorance, violence, abuse, insult and homelessness,” Staufen wrote in June. “It is only a matter of time that madness or death could be added to this list.”