Mr. A. was a 37-year-old man who became convinced that his family members — his father, sister, nephew, brother, and brother-in-law — were not who they said they were. He thought that his real family had died, that these impostors were “clones whose bodies had been taken over by spirits,” according to a 1989 writeup of his case published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry.
The report examines six cases in which Capgras syndrome, a psychiatric disorder in which the patient believes his or her loved ones have been replaced by impostors — sort of like a real-life Invasion of the Body Snatchers — turned dangerous or deadly.
Mr. A’s story, unfortunately, fits in that category.
The patient: Mr. A had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia and had a history of psychiatric issues in general, bouncing in and out of psych wards ten times in his life. As such, he had trouble holding down a job.
The problem: Mr. A. believed that his family members were part of an impostor scheme that went all the way to the top. He was convinced that “the government was controlled by duplicates of former President Jimmy Carter, former first lady Rosalyn Carter, the United States senators, and President Ronald Reagan.”
But back to his family, for whom things take a violent turn:
He also heard voices informing him that the spirit that controlled his father’s body had killed his brother and substituted a clone in his brother’s place. In fact, Mr. A’s brother had committed suicide several years before. Mr. A believed he had been assigned the task of God’s work by destroying the wicked people who had moved into the bodies of his family and others. For this reason, Mr. A shot and killed his father and shot and seriously wounded a nephew.
He intended to kill other “cloned” relatives but could not find them. While searching for his other relatives, he saw a young man across the street and thought he was an accomplice of the evil impersonators. Mr. A shot and wounded this young stranger as punishment for assisting in the murder and impersonation of his brother, an event that he delusionally believed had occurred.
Mr. A went on trial for his rampage but was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The diagnosis: Mr. A. was eventually diagnosed with Capgras syndrome, and his delusions subsided after he was placed on antipsychotic medications and started psychotherapy. Scientists aren’t sure what causes Capgras syndrome, but the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran proposed an interesting idea in a 1997 paper on the subject — it might be a problem with memory storage and retrieval.
The Capgras patient, he and his co-author William Hirstein proposed, might be creating “separate memory ‘files’ of the same person,apparently because he is unable to extract and link the common denominator of successive episodic memories.” The authors think that the brain, instead of using only the existing memory for the family member or friend, is creating a new memory each time the person comes into view. Yet again, the human memory proves to be a very strange thing indeed.