July 24, 2019

"Coronet Blue" and the mysterious world of the amnesiac

He calls himself 'Michael Alden,' but says that this is not his name. He claims not to know his real name, nor who he is, nor anything that happened to him up until two months ago. Tonight we explore the mystery that is amnesia—the loss of a person's memory, and with it, the loss of his humanity as well. I'm Walter Cronkite, and this is The 21st Century."

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Obviously, this never happened. As classic TV fans know, "Michael Alden" is the character played by Frank Converse in the cult classic series, Coronet Blue. And, as our ersatz Walter Cronkite says, Michael Alden has amnesia. He was dragged half dead out of the water, murmuring the words "Coronet Blue." He has no idea what this means, nor about anything else that has happened to him up until the time he is rescued. He doesn't even know his own name; he picks the name Michael Alden because it's a combination of his doctor's first name and the name of the hospital where he was treated. For the remaining thirteen episodes, Alden will search for clues as to his real identity, and what "Coronet Blue" really means—while the people who tried to kill him look to finish the job.

It's a great idea for a television series, and had Coronet Blue existed in the real world (as is the case with many TV shows today), it's quite likely that Alden would have been an ideal subject for a science program like The 21st Century (which aired on CBS from 1967-1970; it's predecessor, The 20th Century, began in 1957). But just how plausible is the idea behind Coronet Blue? And how realistic is pop culture's depiction of amnesia?

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What do we know about Michael Alden? Not much. As Coronet Blue opens, he’s onboard a ship, one piece in a moving puzzle. It’s clear that he’s part of some kind of plot; a heist, perhaps, or some kind of undercover operation—we just don’t know. Quickly, it becomes apparent that something’s gone wrong, that his confederates have discovered something about him—he had ratted them out, he wasn’t who he claimed to be, something like that—and consequently he’s been targeted for death. There’s a struggle, he goes over the rail of the ship and into the water, the bad guys take a couple of shots at him (or are they good guys? We just don’t know), and after a time he’s dragged ashore, nearly dead, mumbling the words “coronet blue.” He recovers, physically. Mentally, however, he’s a mess. He doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, why someone would want to kill him, and he has no idea what “coronet blue” means. Michael Alden has amnesia.

In pop culture, the situation most like Alden’s is probably that of Jason Bourne, the character played by Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. Like Alden, Bourne is pulled out of the water after someone has tried to kill him; like Alden, he has no memory of his identity, although he retains his language and motor skills.

Both Alden and Bourne suffer from a type of psychogenic dissociative amnesia called “retrograde” amnesia. As opposed to "anterograde" amnesia, which affects the ability of the mind to form new memories, retrograde amnesia means the inability to recall things that happened before a specific date, usually the date of an accident or trauma. In both of these cases, we see how retrograde amnesia “tends to negatively affect episodic, autobiographical, and declarative memory while usually keeping procedural memory intact with no difficulty for learning new knowledge.”

Now, within this fairly broad diagnosis, there are two subsets which we could be dealing with. The first, “situation-specific” amnesia, sometimes called “suppressed memory,” means that memory loss is confined to a specific traumatic event, with the victim able to remember things that happened both before and after the event. In the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare as a Child,” for example, Janice Rule plays Helen Foley, a woman who unknowingly suffers from such a condition: Helen has no memory of her mother’s murder, nor that the young Helen was a witness to the murder, until the appearance of a little girl (Helen when she was young; an apparition? A manifestation of her subconscious? It is the Twilight Zone, after all) brings her memory back in time to apprehend the murderer, who’s returned to eliminate the only witness—Helen.*  That’s an example of “situation-specific” amnesia.

*The moral of the story being that, at least if you’re a murderer, it’s best to leave well-enough alone.

However, Alden’s amnesia appears more likely to be a type known as “global-transient”; in other words, a major gap in the part of the memory that relates to personal identity. The most common illustration of global-transient amnesia is a “fugue state,” in which there is “a sudden retrograde loss of autobiographical memory resulting in impairment of personal identity and usually accompanied by a period of wandering.” That last is significant, because the premise of Coronet Blue is built around Alden’s attempts to find out who he is, resulting in travelling—wandering—to different parts of the country, searching for anyone or anything that can help him discover who he is. And what coronet blue means, of course.

It’s likely that Alden’s doctors would have checked for some type of brain damage or other organic cause of his amnesia; they didn’t find anything, but even with today’s advancements in medical science, it’s unlikely that his amnesia was caused by anything as mundane as the proverbial “bump on the head.” Most of the time, psychogenic amnesia is traceable back to some type of psychological trigger; with Alden, it’s almost certainly related to the attack on him at the beginning of the first episode.

I wonder, though: does he really want to remember? Or is it fear—fear of what he doesn’t know—that keeps his memory from returning? All the time, though, he remains focused on “coronet blue,” and it’s not just because the theme keeps playing in the background. Find out the meaning, he knows, and it’s likely he’ll be able to unlock the mystery.

That fear of finding out what his past might be, though—that leads us to an obvious question: is Alden’s amnesia genuine? Is he a reliable narrator, or is he withholding something from the viewers?

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There are at least four episodes from the great legal drama Perry Mason that deal with amnesia. The first season episodes "The Case of the Crooked Candle," and "The Case of the Desperate Daughter," the fifth season episode "The Case of the Glamorous Ghost," and the seventh season episode "The Case of the Nervous Neighbor" all involve Perry dealing with someone—generally a woman—claiming some form of amnesia.

Is there a significance in this gender distinction? Possibly. While there's no particular evidence to suggest that women are more susceptible than men to amnesia, the victim in "Glamorous Ghost," Eleanor Corbin, claims to be suffering from amnesia "after police find her running and screaming through woods near her apartment building." Doubtless someone would have referred to Eleanor as being "hysterical." And that term, as understood and applied to women, dates back over 4,000 years. The National Center for Biotechnology Information calls hysteria "the first mental disorder attributable to women, accurately described in the second millennium BC, and until Freud considered an exclusively female disease."

Therefore, with Eleanor displaying no signs of physical injury, the suggestion is that her amnesia is a  form of retrograde amnesia known as "hysterical reaction," one that does not appear to depend upon an actual brain disorder. Perry accepts this diagnosis, at least insofar as it provides him with the opportunity to stall for time while he tries to assemble the facts. The police, however, are suspicious: and for good reason, as Encyclopaedia Britannica notes darkly: "Although most dramatic, such cases are extremely rare and seldom wholly convincing."

In fact, malingering—that is, the rational output of a neurologically normal brain aiming at the surreptitious achievement of a well identified gain—is a constant threat in such cases. It's understandable, then, that law enforcement officials have long been leery about such diagnoses, and for years they’ve pushed for some kind of standardized test for amnesia. Unlike the M'Naghten rule, which tests for criminal insanity, judging the legitimacy of amnesia claims defies application of uniform standards. As one expert remarks, amnesia cases “differ in onset, duration, and content forgotten” to the extent that it cannot be broadly defined in legal circumstances. And in a landmark case in England in 1959, a jury was called on to determine whether a defendant was faking amnesia, making him legally unfit to stand trial. The jury ruled he was faking (and convicted him, to boot). In truth, most cases of psychogenic retrograde autobiographical amnesia resolve themselves on their own accord, so if Hamilton Burger is willing to be patient, he might well be able to wait his suspect out. And, in fact, Eleanor Corbin is faking her amnesia, a deception which is soon uncovered by the police.* Could Michael Alden be doing the same thing?

*Don't worry; Perry wins, in spite of his client—which is frequently the case.

The police were, it appears, suspicious of his claim; however, that suspicion was mitigated by the fact that he wasn't accused of having committed any crime. Indeed, the only crime apparent seems to have been perpetrated against him. But if he is faking it, it's reasonable to assume that the reason goes back to that mysterious scene at the beginning of the series. Which means that there's something in his past he's trying to hide, something very dark indeed. And he knows full well what it is.

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Even a series as reliable as The Fugitive has an amnesia episode. It's the ninth episode of the second season, "Escape into Black," in which Dr. Richard Kimble is caught in an explosion at a diner. He awakens in a hospital, badly injured, and with no idea who he is or what has happened to him. Fortunately, there's a social worker on the scene, one determined to look out for Kimble's interests even though he can't look out for them himself. Learning that Kimble had been asking about a one-armed man prior to the explosion, she renews the search herself. A good thing, too, because Kimble, having found out he's wanted for murder and with no idea of whether or not he's guilty, is on the verge of surrendering himself to Lt. Gerard.

We know how it ends, of course: Kimble regains his memory in time to escape Gerard and resume his search for the one-armed man. It's mighty convenient for us all that his problem clears up before the episode ends—but how likely is it?

Well, it's at least plausible. That same article from the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that retrograde amnesia cases "usually clear up with relative rapidity, with or without psychotherapy." Once Michael Alden's doctors make their diagnosis (which, although it’s not mentioned by name, is almost certainly psychogenic retrograde autobiographical amnesia), then comes the treatment. Or at least it would, if Alden was willing to stand still for it. But he’s still running for his life, remember, and he realizes that he can’t afford to sit around undergoing extensive therapy to try and recover his memory. While that’s happening, the killers could catch up to him again, and this time they might not miss. (They could keep him in the hospital, of course, but then who knows if his insurance covers it, or even if he has insurance? It’s not as if they can look him up.) The treatment, however, would almost certainly have been a course of psychological therapy. Now, in the early decades of the 20th century, the therapy might have consisted of “truth serum” drugs such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines, and doubtless there are those who might wonder why his doctors didn’t try that. In fact, however, those drugs weren’t very successful in dealing with cases of amnesia—while they did make it possible for the patient to speak more easily about things, they also lowered the threshold of suggestibility, with the result that the information from the patient lacked reliability. By the 1960s, that kind of treatment would have been out.

It’s far more likely that a course of psychoanalysis would be suggested, and I think it’s intriguing that one of the possible diagnoses to come from such treatment would have been along Freudian lines, by suggesting that his amnesia was a form of self-punishment, “with the obliteration of personal identity as an alternative to suicide.” I wonder if that will come up in the course of the series? Is it possible that Alden’s apparent dual identity at the start of the series has to do with something so secretive, so horrifying, that his subconscious simply can’t deal with it anymore, with the result that he tries to sweep it all clean? In an early episode, someone shrewdly observes that he has an opportunity few people ever get: to make a brand-new start to life, with no baggage, nothing linking him to the past. Is that what he’s subconsciously trying to do, to divorce himself from something he doesn’t want to be reminded of? In such conversations, Alden invariably states that all he’s interested in is the truth of who he is, and if it turns out that there’s something bad in his past (in one episode, he thinks he might be a killer), well, so be it—that’s the risk he’s willing to take.

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And this, Walter Cronkite would probably discover, is where the story ends. In cases involving brain damage, doctors may be able to find a cause, and perhaps a cure. But Michael Alden's case remains a mystery. It is likely, but not certain, that his amnesia will eventually clear up. It may happen relatively quickly, or it may take a protracted period of psychoanalysis. But as to how or why it happens, and how or why it resolves itself? And what the amnesiac goes through, a man without a past, whose continued survival depends on reclaiming that past? It is, surely, part of the mysterious world of the amnesiac. One thing is for certain, however: the trauma that Michael Alden faces is one that most of us will never have to deal with.

There is, however, another kind of amnesia, one which probably would not have been covered on The 21st Century, but which would certainly be included on any contemporary science show dealing with the memory. And, unlike that portrayed on Coronet Blue, this one is fickle and pernicious, and it strikes with impunity.

Dementia. Alzheimer's.

Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, hosts a popular podcast at Live Science. Back in 2005, she did an episode with her friend and colleague Neal Cohen, a professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, The topic: amnesia in pop culture. The emphasis is on movies rather than television, though their discussion of the Bourne movies is reflected in our discussion here. (If you're looking for realistic portrayals of amnesia, don't bother with 50 First Dates; check out Memento instead.)

I suppose you could call Alzheimer's a form of retrograde amnesia, although it works backwards, wiping the most recent memories first while leaving the oldest intact until the end. It's mostly anterograde, though: unlike Michael Alden, there will be no new memories for someone suffering from dementia, for those new memories will simply disappear. And there is no hope that the situation will resolve itself.

One of the realizations that comes from this awareness, Suzuki says, is that at the end of the day, the only thing you have for certain is the present, the knowledge that you have to live fully in the moment. If you can’t remember all the details, at least you can be content that at the moment you were 100% there.

My current "present" consists of a months-long struggle to find permanent employment, while contending with various aches and pains, and observing a culture and a world that seems bent on total self-destruction. While it would be wrong to say that these things have dominated every waking moment of my life, it makes the prospect of living in this present a profoundly depressing one. As Peggy Lee might ask, if this is all there is. . . The thought of being fully present in this life, with no past, no future, nothing at all but what is right here and right now—well, that falls somewhere between terrifying and unbearable. Pray God, it ends soon, because nobody wants to be 100% here.

Yet it could be my future, or yours, or anyone out there. Not simply from fate, or bad decisions, but because it's something that strikes at you, and tears at you, until there's literally nothing left.

Don't wait; that should be the moral of the story. Do your living now, while you can, while you can still live in the present. That's what Michael Alden does, in Coronet Blue. He does it because he has no choice. And really, neither do we. Life is not meant for inertia, but for movement. Forward movement. However you can, wherever you can, whenever you can. Even if you're not like Michael Alden.

But we have a couple of advantages over Mike: for one thing, he doesn't know who's shooting at him, but we know who's shooting at us. Life is firing the bullets, and the one thing of which we can be certain is that one of them, somewhere, has your name on it, and another one has mine. For another, most of us don't have to worry about our series being cancelled before we find out the answers.

There's only one problem with this analogy, of course. We don't know what "coronet blue" means either. TV  

A note before you comment: Yes, I know that Larry Cohen, the show's creator, has since explained what "coronet blue" means and who Michael Alden really is. But if you know that, please don't discuss it in the comments section. The show's available on DVD and Blu, and I don't want it spoiled for anyone yet to see the series. This means you!


  1. I watched CORONET BLUE again on DVD last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an inconsistent show, with some episodes much better than others. But the premise, Converse's charm and intensity, and the catchy theme song carry the day. Amnesia has certainly long been a favorite plot in movies and TV for decades.

  2. I suspect that Larry Cohen came up with that story after-the-fact. My bet is that he pitched the plot by the seat of his pants and hoped to never need to come up with an actual ending to it.

    My hope always has been that, just like the "Tales From The Darkside" episode "Distant Signals", someone on this planet or any other would come up with the money all these years later to film a fitting final episode starring Frank Converse.

  3. I think I once read or heard that "Coronet Blue" had been filmed in 1965 with the intention of a January, 1966 premiere but the show was shelved and was kept "on the shelf" for a year-and-a-half.

    "Coronet Blue" supposedly had high ratings when it finally aired in the Summer of 1967, but as star Frank Converse had committed himself to star in another series in the 1967-68 TV season ("N.Y.P.D."), there was no way production of "Coronet Blue" as a weekly series could have resumed.

    Even still, the producers of "Coronet Blue" COULD have made a two-hour TV-movie during one of "N.Y.P.D."'s production hiatuses, on which the loose ends could have been tied-up.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!