Experts say that Roberts may indeed have amnesia

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 1997

July 17, 1997

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Thursday, July 17, 1997  Her new life: The Williams family of Sitka is shown in this undated family portrait provided by the family. Mom is Jody Roberts, former reporter for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., missing for 12 years and now going by the name Jane Dee. Dad is Dan Williams. The children are, left to right, Raven, 6, Jana, 3, Sierra, 3, and Jordan, 6. THE ASSOCIATED PRESSExperts say that Roberts may indeed have amnesia

Parts of her life match profile of person who may lose memory

Last modified at 1:45 p.m. on Thursday, July 17, 1997



Jane Dee Williams says she remembers nothing before the day in May 1985 when she was found wandering in an Aurora, Colo., mall, with a green coat, a Toyota key, a copy of ``Watership Down,'' two green pens, a notebook and no clue who she was.

She was Jody Roberts, and she had disappeared from her home in Wauna, Wash., and her job as a reporter in Tacoma five days earlier.

She went to Aurora police for help and ended up at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan with a diagnosis of psychogenic fugue - an extraordinarily rare mental illness and a form of amnesia.

Now, while television reporters speculate that she may be faking lost memory, experts who treat it say it is entirely possible that she has amnesia and that it has lasted 12 years.

Among them are Dr. Robert Miller, professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Miller, a nationally recognized expert on amnesia, said that while criminals often fake amnesia, ordinary people rarely do.

Miller, who often testifies as an expert witness in trials where the defendant claims amnesia, said about 70 percent of criminals who say they had amnesia at the time of the crime are lying.

``In the noncriminal population, malingering is pretty rare,'' he said.

Miller said key elements of Roberts' life matched the profile of a person whose brain might block out her past.

``They tend to be feelers rather than thinkers,'' he said. ``They are people who tend to act more on emotion. They have the capacity to respond very empathetically and emotionally to situations. It's harder for them to divorce themselves from the people they are dealing with, who may be extremely troubling people.''

Jody Roberts wrapped her life around her job, say the people who worked with her. She had a remarkable empathy for the people she interviewed. She was an intense writer. She never met a 40-hour workweek.

Dr. Laura White, director of neuropsychological services at Good Samaritan Hospital, said a person who fits the profile might drink too much in an attempt to stop the pain.

Roberts' personal life suffered from the stress she brought home from work, colleagues said. In the weeks before she disappeared, she was neglecting her appearance and drinking enough to concern friends. There were other incidents - a vacation request that was turned down and two kittens she had to give up because her adult cat disliked them, said her good friend Mike Bainter.

Though Miller had never treated Roberts, he said the combination of stresses in her life could have pushed her brain to reject the reality of her life and try to start fresh.

Psychogenic or dissociative disorders are triggered by experiences, rather than brain injuries, he explained.

``There is no physical trauma to the brain, but something happens to that person which they cannot accept,'' he said.

For most people, forgetting is a handy, passive way of sifting the useless facts and events out of the day's information to make room for the information that's worth keeping. For people in the throes of a dissociative disorder, it's a deliberate act.

``You choose not to recall this information, typically because it is too painful,'' Miller said.

People who have witnessed a murder or a terrible accident may retreat into amnesia, Miller said, though sometimes the trigger may be more subtle - something an ordinary person with an ordinary life might be able to cope with. But for a person living under enormous stress, it may be the one item that causes a pile of problems to collapse on the brain.

``This is a defense against tremendous anxiety,'' Miller said.

He said the nameless, past-less woman wandering in Aurora Mall was a classic example of an amnesia victim in what psychiatrists call the ``fugue'' state.

``Somebody just sort of leaves where they are. They go to an entirely different place, and when they get there, they have no memory whatsoever of who they are or where they've been or what they've done in their lives,'' Miller said.

In all respects but that, they are remarkably like themselves.

They don't forget how to speak or drive or draw or cook, as they might if they suffered a head injury. A woman like Roberts who loved to doodle cartoon characters would still, like Jane Dee Williams, be able to doodle cartoon characters.

``All of the past is just gone,'' Miller said. ``They typically just pick up and start new lives, which sounds like what she has done.''

While people who have sustained a head injury often see portions of their memory destroyed, people who have a dissociative disorder have all their memories sealed away, Miller explained. It's up to their brains to decide when and if to let the memories out.

``One of the nice things about psychogenic amnesia is that people have a sense at some level of when they are ready to deal with these,'' Miller said.

A person who had recently shut out the past probably had barriers high and secure enough to resist the hypnosis that is one of the treatments for the disorder.

Years later, hypnosis might crack the walls, Miller said. So could cues from the past.

Miller enjoyed Roberts' choices in her new names - Jane Dee for her new identity and Miss Nikita for her Web site name. Jane Dee is a play on Jane Doe, the traditional name for the nameless. Miss Nikita is a play on ``La Femme Nikita,'' a movie and television series about a young woman forced to discard her old identity and take a new one.

``They're certainly consistent with a well-educated woman who is aware that she has amnesia,'' he said. ``She's having fun with it. She's making plays on words. She's adapted to it.''

Kathleen Merryman worked with Jody Roberts at the Tacoma News Tribune.

Press puts pressure

on Sitka amnesia story

Inquiring minds of the media love a good summer mystery


Tabloid media from New York and Los Angeles besieged Jody Roberts' relatives and The Tacoma News Tribune after the story broke Tuesday.

Producers say the story was worth pursuing because it had mystery, emotion and rarity. Book offers may follow, but time will tell how long it holds the tabloids' fickle eye.

Shows chasing the story included ``Hard Copy,'' ``American Journal,'' ``Dateline,'' ``Today Show,'' ``Good Morning America'' and ``Inside Edition.''

They began calling family members at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday.

``It's a no-brainer,'' said ``Good Morning America'' producer Holly Green of New York. ``A story about a woman who disappears for 12 years, whose family has mourned her death, believes they'll never see her again. It's a case of amnesia. You can't get a more compelling social story than that.''

Green said Roberts' story is competing with fashion mogul Gianni Versace's murder but it's still likely to get good play.

``It's a heartwarming social story with obviously some tragedy involved,'' she said. ``If Jody Roberts doesn't remember she's Jody Roberts, that in itself is a tragic shock.''

``Today Show'' spokeswoman Erica Proto said, ``It's an interesting story. It's mysterious.''

Green and Proto expected to air segments on Roberts this morning.

Roberts' was considering whether to publicly discuss her story, said her sister, Anne Corning of Beaverton, Ore., who was flooded with calls.

``All this media attention has gotten overwhelming and it's gotten tiring,'' she said.

``Hard Copy'' made calls but won't do the story until August.

``That is something I'm interested in doing, but I'm caught up in the Versace story right now,'' producer Santina Leuci said from LA.

Sandy Padwe, an associate dean at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York, called the Roberts mystery ``an interesting story.''

``If you were the editor of a paper anywhere, you'd put that in a paper somewhere,'' he said.

Roberts' story is unusual enough for tabloids but may not hold their attention long unless there's little other news, Padwe said.

``In their minds a sexy story is something like this guy Versace getting killed or this woman coming back after 12 years,'' he said. ``That's going to get them going. The question is, is it more than a one- or two-day story? Will they keep it alive? I think that's where it begins to change.''

Roberts' story will still be marketable after it fades from television, Padwe predicted.

``I'm sure that someone's going to offer this lady some money for her story, if she can remember it now,'' he said. ``People have written books with less of a story line than that.''

News Tribune staff reporter Elaine Porterfield contributed to this story.

Copyright © 1996, 1997 Southeastern Newspaper Corp.

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