Bourne's Real Life Identity

Fictional Jason Bourne is inspired by Ansel Bourne's real memory trauma.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:32 AM

August 3, 2007 — -- "On the 15th of March, about five in the morning, he heard an explosion like a gunshot, and woke to find himself in a strange bed in a town he did not recognize."

No, this is not the story of the fictional amnesiac Jason Bourne of "The Bourne Ultimatum," which opens this weekend.

It is the story of another Bourne: The real 19th century Ansel Bourne that most likely served as inspiration for the super spy's name.

According to "Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival" by William H. Salter, former president of the Society for Psychical Research, one day a man calling himself A.J. Brown arrived in Norristown, Pa., and opened a small shop.

Nearly two months after his arrival on the morning of March 15, the man who had been calling himself Brown opened his eyes and had no idea where he was. Frantic, he ran to the neighbors and was astonished to learn he was in Pennsylvania.

Even more awestruck were the neighbors, who learned that the man's name was not Brown, but Ansel Bourne and that he was an evangelical preacher who lived in Rhode Island. Ansel couldn't remember anything after he set out to visit his sister's house two months before.

Ansel's "Bourne Identity"-like case was one of the first documented instances of a rare disorder known as dissociative fugue.

"[Dissociative fugue] is a state in which an individual has lost their identity," explained Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard. "They don't know who they are, and they've lost all information about their past. They go on functioning automatically."

According to Elisabeth Moes, associate professor in the psychology department at Suffolk University, dissociative fugue can be brought on by traumatic events, "usually after a physical injury together with a lot of stress. At that point they can become amnesic."

Then the victim enters a "fugue state" in which he or she functions completely normally, even though there is no recollection of who he or she is.