Amnesiac Love James and Molly's lives would never be the same after the accident. Or maybe they would.
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Amnesiac Love

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Amnesiac Love

Amnesiac Love

Amnesiac Love

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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James and Molly's lives would never be the same after the accident. Or maybe they would.


Today, we're exploring how sometimes the strangers in our lives are the ones we're closest to. It's a paradox, and SNAP JUDGMENT's own Nick van der Kolk tells the story of James and Molly.

VAN DER KOLK: Molly moved into James' dorm in college. He's your quintessential tall, dark and handsome guy. And they started dating a short while later. They had been together for about two months when she made plans to visit a friend in Boulder, Colorado. That timeframe - two months, is important for reasons that will become clear later on. So keep it in mind.

MOLLY: When James had find out I was going to Boulder, he kind of jokingly said, oh, well, when you're there you should go hang out with my family. Obviously, in a normal relationship you would have no interest in meeting the parents when he's not even there with you. But I was extremely curious, so I had said, well, why not?

DER KOLK: Just before leaving for the trip, they got into a massive fight. Molly doesn't remember exactly what it was about, but it was severe enough that she decided not to answer his phone calls.

MOLLY: I had tried to play a little hard to get - ignored his phone calls for a couple days.

DER KOLK: Molly was walking through downtown Boulder when the first call from James came through.

MOLLY: I ignored it, but then ten seconds later, the phone rang again. James. Ignored it. Ten seconds later - phone rings again. James. Ignored it. This is not a good sign. This is a little crazy that he's just calling me like this. He's either totally crazy and I need to answer and tell him that he's crazy or something's wrong. I answered the phone, and I heard a man's voice and it wasn't James. The first thing that came into my mind is he knows I'm not going to speak to him so he's having some other person call to, like, mediate between our fight. I was like, who is this? He was like, well, you're the last person he called. He's had an accident.

I got immediately afraid, and I was like what happened? What happened? He's like, well, we were both mountain biking in Arastradero Preserve up in the foothills near Palo Alto. Visibly, he looks fine, but I think he fell and hit his head because he's having amnesia. I was like, call an ambulance. But they're miles from the entrance to the preserve so he couldn't do that. He had to walk him out. As they're walking out, I'm on the phone with this guy. I'm hearing this conversation go on in the background. James just says to him, excuse me, I think I've had an accident. Where am I? And the guy's like, you're in Arastradero Preserve mountain biking. What's your name? And then as soon as he would start to ask the next question, James would say excuse me, I think I've had an accident. Where am I? In the meantime, I was running late to dinner to get to James' parents' house. So I was like OK, I guess there's nothing I can do. I'm just going to go over there. When I got to James' parents' place, his mom was on the phone with him. She was like, Molly just arrived.

Molly, your girlfriend. James, Molly your girlfriend. James you knew she was coming to dinner. So not only did he only have - at that point, maybe a ten minute short-term memory, his long-term memory - he probably lost the last two and a half months. I remember his mom handing me the phone at one point and - what the hell do I say? I'm like hey you. Like, I mean - I'm at your parents' house. They are great. His parents are looking at me listening. I wanted to get off the phone as quickly as possible and call the other people who are with him who could actually tell me what the hell was going on.

JAMES: I have memories of memories that I'm not sure whether it's what was told to me or whether it was an actual memory. I first remember being in a hospital bed. And I remember having my friends sitting around.

DER KOLK: That's James, of course. For many days after the accident, he couldn't form new memories and kept getting stuck in these kind of conversational loops.

JAMES: Sometime in the previous month or two I had quit smoking, but I didn't realize that and so I kept craving cigarettes. And then they would tell me that I had stopped smoking and somehow the logic - I respected the fact that I had stopped smoking, so I wouldn't insist. I'd sort of become disappointed and then forget about it entirely and ask again for a cigarette and then be told that I had quit and then again be disappointed. When I first started becoming aware again, I kept asking over and over again what had happened. And one of the things they would tell me what was, well, you remember that girl Molly? Well, you guys have started dating. I remember she smiled and laughed a lot. She was very blonde and excited about life. Wow, that sounds cheesy. I hope that gets cut out. I thought she was really fun, interesting, beautiful - but had barely had any conversations with her.

So you could imagine waking up one day and having someone tell you that this girl that you thought was amazing was your girlfriend and that it had worked out. And so I'd get really excited about this and then forget and then go back all the way through the same conversation again. I think there was something magical in the way that when you see that girl from across the room and you actually imagine how amazing she is, that was preserved and skipped all the reality of getting to know her and understanding that she was a normal person and had things that were boring or unattractive about her as well. I went straight from the ideal vision of this person to knowing that she was part of my life. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to my dorm. Molly came back the next day.

MOLLY: Literally, the next memory I have is sitting on the floor in his dorm room. His textbooks and his folders were scattered on the floor. I didn't know what to expect. Does he have a 30 minute memory now?

JAMES: We sat down and we talked.

MOLLY: I sat there on the dorm room floor with him and helped him figure out - OK, these are the classes you're in. These are your professors. Let's write emails to your professors right now and tell them what happened. At that point he was no longer having short-term memory problems.

JAMES: And that's when she told me that we weren't together anymore. Everyone thought that I was together with her except for myself. I couldn't remember that I was together with her, which was in fact the case because we had broken up. I never got back the immediate couple of days before the accident. I'll never really know why we broke up. I remember what she told me, but I think she told me a sort of sugarcoated version of it.

DER KOLK: If hearing that they had broken up is surprising, you are not alone. In Molly's version of events, she never mentioned anything about it. It was just a big fight.

JAMES: Wait, you don't remember this at all?

MOLLY: OK, what?

DER KOLK: I called them up on the phone.

MOLLY: I think the reason why I downplayed whatever that was is that whatever it was, I knew that I would give it another chance.

DER KOLK: But why tell him that you broke up afterwards?

MOLLY: Because I think I wanted to paint an accurate picture of what our relationship was, which was tumultuous. And we needed to work on some stuff.

DER KOLK: You might think of going straight from not realizing you had a girlfriend, to suddenly finding yourself in a two-month relationship and then having that relationship vanish before you even had a chance to experience it - that it would be emotionally exhausting. But for James...

JAMES: It wasn't something traumatic to then later be later told that I wasn't together with her because it was an emotion or a feeling rather than a history or a memory that was being dismantled. But incidentally we got back together a few months later.

DER KOLK: The two of them were given a clean slate. But would that fundamentally change their relationship? Most of the conversation I had with them on the phone went something like this...

MOLLY: How would you characterize the fights in the first year of our relationship?

JAMES: No, I don't remember. I don't remember any of them. I remember it all being rosy and wonderful.

MOLLY: Really?

JAMES: Yeah, that's probably not true.

MOLLY: James, you know that we had those problems. OK, whatever. I feel like you're being so aloof.

JAMES: I'm not being aloof. I just - it's strange to think back to the details of the dysfunctionality of our relationship. But don't worry, I won't remember this conversation in like two weeks.

MOLLY: Oh, my God.

DER KOLK: James and Molly broke up for good three years later. He's fully recovered now.

WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to James and Molly for sharing that story with SNAP. That piece was produced by Nick van der Kolk.

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