Is Dan Guilty of Murder? Identity and Memory (Film Review: Shattered)

Uploaded 1/27/2024, approx. 15 minute read

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Okay, and today's playlist is the short fiction playlist. It contains film reviews, poetry and short stories.

And today's video has to do with a movie. It's a film review. The movie is titled Shattered. And I think it's been released in 1991. It deals with a fascinating topic, the topic of identity. If we were to lose our memory, if we were to lose our identity, would we still be responsible for things we have done before we have lost our memory? That's the question of today's video.

My name is Sam Bakin and I'm the author of Malignant of Love, Narcissism Revisited. I'm also a former visiting professor of psychology and currently on the faculty of CEAPs.

In the movie Shattered, 1991, as I said, Dan Merrick survives an accident. He develops total amnesia regarding his past. He can't remember a single thing about who he is and what has happened to him, his autobiography. His battered face is reconstructed by plastic surgeons. And with the help of his loving wife, Dan gradually recovers his will to live. But he never develops a proper sense of identity. It is as though Dan is constantly ill, it is in his own body.

As the plot unfurls and unravels, Dan is led to believe that he may have murdered his wife's lover, Jack. Now this thriller offers additional twists and turns, but throughout it all, we face this essential question.

Dan has no recollection of having been Dan. Dan does not remember anything about himself, about his previous life and naturally he doesn't remember murdering Jack. It seems as though Dan's very identity has been erased. And yet Dan is in sound mind. Dan can tell right from wrong.

So should Dan be held morally and as a result perhaps legally as well, should he be held accountable for the murder of Jack?

It's a very fascinating question. Would the answer to this question still be the same? Had Dan erased from his memory only the crime, but seems to have recalled everything else, a kind of selective dissociation.

It happens a lot. Do our moral and legal accountability and responsibility string from the integrity of our memories? If Dan were to be punished for crime, he doesn't have the faintest recollection of committing. Wouldn't Dan feel horribly wronged? Wouldn't he be justified in feeling horribly wrong?

If you can't remember something you have done, should you still be punished for it?

There are many states of consciousness that involve dissociation and selective amnesia. Hypnosis, for example, trance, possession, hallucination, illusion, memory disorders like organic or functional amnesia, depersonalization disorder, dissociative fugue, dreaming, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug induced psychothymemetics or psychothymemetic states.

All these involve an erasure of part or whole of the totality of memory.

Consider this, for instance. What if Dan were the victim of a multiple personality disorder, suffering from multiple personalities, now known as dissociative identity disorder? What if one of his alters, one of the personalities in the Ensemble that comprises his dissociative identity? What if this personality, one of a multitude of identities sharing Dan's mind and body? What if that entity has committed a crime? Should Dan still be held responsible for what the alter has done, even though Dan has no access to the alter or to the memories of the alter? What if the alter, let's call it John, what if John committed a crime and then vanished, leaving behind another alter, let's say Joseph, in control? Should Joseph be held responsible for the crime that John had committed? What if John were to reappear ten years after he had vanished? What if John were to reappear 50 years after he had vanished?

What if he were to reappear for a period of 90 days only to vanish again? What is Dan's role in all this? Who is Dan? Who exactly is Dan in all this?

And so this leads to the question, who is Dan?

Buddhism compares men to a river. Both men and river retain their identity despite the fact that their individual composition is different at different moments.

You cannot step into the same river twice and you cannot talk to the same person twice. The position of a body as a foundation of a self-identity is a dubious proposition.

Bodies change drastically in time. Consider, for example, a baby compared to an adult. Almost all the cells in the human body, 95%, are replaced every few years. Changing one's brain by transplantation also changes one's identity, even if the rest of the body remains the same.

And so the only thing that binds a person together, the glue that holds someone together, the thing, the entity that gives a person his self and his identity, is time, or more precisely memory.

When I say memory, I also mean personality, skills, habits, retrospected emotions, in short, all long-term imprints and behavioral patterns.

The body is not an accidental and insignificant container, of course, that's all what I'm trying to say.

The body constitutes an important part of one's self-image and self-esteem, sense of self-worth and sense of existence, spatial, in space, temporal, in time and social.

But one can easily imagine a brain in vitro, in a laboratory, in a vial, as having the same identity as when it resided in a physical body.

One cannot imagine a body without a brain or with a different brain, as having the same identity that it used to have before the brain had been removed or replaced.

So it's a brain that matters, not the body.

And in the brain, memories matter, because memories lead to the formation of a continuous, contiguous, not disjointed identity.

What if the brain in vitro, in the above mentioned example, what if this brain in the laboratory were unable to communicate with us at all? Would we still think that this brain possessed a self? The biological functions of people in coma, in a vegetative state, these functions are maintained.

But do these people have an identity, a self?

And if yes, if they do, why do we pull the plug on these people so often?

It would seem, as it did to Locke, that we accept that someone has a self-identity if the following conditions are met.

Number one, that he has the same hardware as we do, most notably a brain.

And number two, that he communicates his humanly recognisable and comprehensible inner world to us and manipulates his environment.

We accept that someone has a given, the same continuous self-identity if, number three, he shows consistent intentional willed patterns, aka memories, in doing, be in doing condition number two in communicating for a long period of time. So three conditions, same hardware, especially brain, the ability to communicate an inner state and consistent patterns in communicating this inner state based on memory. It seems that we accept that we have a self-identity, we are self-conscious, if, number one, we discern usually through introspection, long-term consistent intentional willed patterns, memory in our manipulation relating to our environment. In condition number two, others accept that we have a self-identity. That's based on the work of Herbert Mead and Foyer Bach and others.

Okay, this is the theoretical background.

Now, Dan probably has the same hardware as we do. Clearly he has a brain, at least in the movie. Yes, some actors have brains. Dan communicates his humanly recognisable and comprehensible inner world to us, the viewers, the audience, which is how he manipulates us and his environment.

And so Dan clearly has a self-identity. But Dan is inconsistent. His intentional willed patterns, his memory, incompatible with those demonstrated by Dan before the accident. And though he clearly is possessed of a self-identity, we cannot say that Dan has the same self-identity that he used to possess before the crash.

In other words, we cannot say that Dan is indeed Dan.

Dan himself does not feel that he has a self-identity at all. He discerns intentional willed patterns in his manipulation of his environment. But due to his amnesia, he cannot tell if these patterns are consistent or if they are long-term. In other words, Dan has no continuous memory. He is disjointed.

Moreover, other people do not accept Dan as Dan. They have their doubts because they have no memory of Dan as he is now.

Let's step back. Let's take a break.

Furthering conclusion. Having a memory is necessary and a sufficient condition for possessing a self-identity. But there are other issues involved.

Repression. Resorting to memory to define identity may appear to be a circular, even tautological argument. When we postulate the existence of memory, when we promulgate it, don't we already presuppose the existence of a remembering agent, someone who does the remembering with an established self-identity?

In other words, can you have a memory if you don't have a self-identity? We already established that you cannot have a self-identity if you don't have a memory.

But can you act? Can you remember engaging the acting of remembering without having a self-identity? Moreover, we keep talking about discerning intentional or wield patterns. But this is a big part of our self in the form of the unconscious, full of repressed memories. Isn't it unavailable to us? A huge part of who we are is inaccessible to us, except through dreams, maybe in therapy. Don't we develop defense mechanisms against repressed memories and fantasies? Against unconscious content and congruent with our self-image? Even worse, this hidden, inaccessible, dynamically active part of ourselves is considered responsible for our recurrent, discernible patterns of behavior and repetition compulsions. The phenomenon of post-hypnotic suggestion seems to indicate that this may be the case. The unconscious controls our behaviors and we are not aware of it at all.

The existence of a self-identity is therefore determined through introspection by oneself and through observation by others of merely the conscious part of the self, not the unconscious.

But the unconscious is as much a part of one's self-identity as one's conscious.

What if due to a mishap the roles were reversed? What if Dan's conscious part were to become his unconscious part and his unconscious part were to become his consciousness? What if all his conscious memories, Dan's drives and fears, wishes, fantasies and hopes, what if they were to become unconscious while his repressed memories drives and so on, were to become conscious? Would we still say that this is the same Dan and that Dan has retained his self-identity?

Not very likely, is it?

And yet one's unremembered unconscious, for instance the conflict between Eden ego in Freud's model, the unconscious determines one's personality and self-identity.

The main contribution of psychoanalysis and later psychodynamic schools is the understanding that self-identity is a dynamic, evolving, ever-changing construct, not a static, inertial and passive entity.

It casts doubt over the meaningfulness of the question with which we have ended our exposition, who exactly is Dan? Can we even ask this question?

Dan is different in different stages of his life, Erikson, and Dan constantly involves in accordance with his innate nature, Jung. Dan is responsive to his past history, Adler. Dan is some total of his drives, Freud, cultural milieu, Honei, upbringing, Klein, Winnicott. Dan is the amalgamation of his psychological needs, Murray, or the interplay with his genetic makeup and so on and so forth, the numerous ways to perceive Dan.

Dan is not a thing, Dan is a process. And in my work, in Bromberg's work and many others, Dan is an assemblage of self-states or ego-states or whatever you want to call them, even Dan's personality traits, cognitive style, which may well be stable, often influenced by Dan's social setting and by his social interactions with his environment. It would seem that having a memory is a necessary but insufficient condition for possessing a self-identity.

One cannot remember one's unconscious states, though one can remember their outcomes, of course. One often forgets events, names and other information, even if it were conscious, if this information were conscious at a given time in one's past. And yet, one's unremembered unconscious is an integral and important part of one's identity and oneself.

The remembered as well as the unremembered constitute one's self-identity. And this is the memory link.

Dan said that to be considered in possession of a mind, an entity needs to have a few states of consciousness linked by memory in a kind of narrative or personal mythology, autobiography.

Can this conjunction be equally applied to unconscious mental states, subliminal perceptions, beliefs, drives, emotions, desires, repressed, out of sight, out of mind? In other words, can we rephrase Hume and say that to be considered in possession of a mind, an entity needs to have a few states of consciousness and a few states of the unconscious, all linked by memory into a personal narrative?

Isn't it a contradiction in terms to remember the unconscious and oxymoron?

The unconscious and the subliminal are instances of the general category of mental phenomena which are not states of consciousness. They are not conscious. Sleep and hypnosis are two other such states. They are not accessible to consciousness.

But this applies also to background mental phenomena. For example, one holds onto one's beliefs and knowledge even when one is not aware, not conscious of these beliefs and knowledge at any given moment. We know that an apple will fall towards the earth. We know how to drive a car automatically and we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow even though we do not spend every second of our waking life consciously thinking about falling apples, driving cars or the position of the sun. This is like background noise, background information. But it's not conscious. And yet, the fact that knowledge and beliefs and other background mental phenomena are not constantly conscious does not mean that they cannot be remembered at will. They can be remembered either by an act of will or in sometimes an involuntary response to changes in the environment. They are triggered somehow.

The same applies to all other unconscious content. Unconscious content can be recalled. Psychanalysis, for instance, is about reintroducing repressed unconscious content to the patient's conscious memory and thus making it remembered.

In fact, one's self-identity may be such a background mental phenomenon. Always there, not always conscious, not always remembered.

The acts of will which brings one's self-identity to the surface are what we call memory and introspection. This would seem to imply that having a self-identity is independent of having a memory or the ability to introspect. Memory is just a mechanism by which one becomes aware of one's background, always on and omnipresent, all pervasive, ubiquitous self-identity.

Self-identity is the object and predicate of memory and introspection. It is as though self-identity were an emergent extensive parameter of the complex human system, measurable by the dual techniques of memory and introspection. We therefore have to modify our previous conclusions. Having a memory is not necessary nor is it a sufficient condition for possessing a self-identity. And we are back to square one.

The poor souls in Oliver Sacks' tone, the man whom he took his wife for a hat, wonderful read, recommended book. The people there are unable to create and retain memories. They occupy an eternal present with no past. They are thus unable to access or invoke their self-identity by simply recalling it. Their self-identity is unavailable to them, though it is available to those who have observed them for many years.

But there's no denying that they have a self-identity. Therapy often succeeds in restoring pre-Amnesiac memories and self-identity consequently.

The self is incorrigible. Self-identity is not only always on and all pervasive but also incorrigible.

In other words, no one, not an observer, not the person himself, no one can disprove the existence of his own self-identity. No one can prove that the report about the existence of his or another person's self-identity is mistaken. It is equally safe to say that no one, neither an observer nor the person himself, can prove or disprove the non-existence of his self-identity.

Would it be correct to say that no one can prove that a report about the non-existence of his or another self-identity is true or false?

Dan's criminal responsibility crucially depends on the answers to these questions. Dan cannot be held responsible for Jack's murder if he can prove that he is ignorant of the facts of his action, if he can prove the non-existence of his self-identity.

If Dan has had no access to his former self-identity, he can hardly be expected to be aware and cognizant of these facts. What is in question is not Dan's mens rea, his criminal intent, nor the application of the McNaughton test.

Did Dan know the nature and quality of his art, who detailed right from wrong, and so on. This is not the way to determine whether Dan has been insane when he committed the murder.

Much broader issue is at stake. Is it the same, is Dan the same person? Is the murderer's done, the Dan who has committed the crime, is he the same person as the current Dan, the contemporary Dan, the Dan after the car crash, after the car accident, is it the same person?

Even though Dan seems to own the same body and the same brain and is manifestly sane, he patently has no access to his former self-identity. Dan has changed so dramatically that it is arguable whether Dan is still the same person. Dan has been replaced.

Finally, we can try to unite all the strands of our discourse into this double definition. It would seem that we accept that someone has a self-identity if, number one, he has the same hardware as we do, notably a brain, and by implication the same software as we do, an all pervasive, omnipresent self-identity.

The second condition, he communicates, is humanly recognizable and comprehensible in a world to us and manipulates his environment. We accept that he has a specific, in other words, the same continuous self-identity if, number three, he shows consistent intentional willed patterns involving memory in committing the communication, in enacting the communication for a long period of time.

It seems that we accept that we have a specific self-identity. We are self-conscious of a specific identity if, number one, we discern usually through memory and introspection long-term consistent intentional willed patterns involving memory in our manipulation, in our relating to our environment, and number two, others accept that we do have a specific self-identity.

In conclusion, Dan undoubtedly has a self-identity, being human and thus endowed with a brain. Equally undoubtedly, this self-identity is not Dan's but a new unfamiliar one. Such is the stuff, such is the stuff of our nightmares, body-snatching, demonic possession, waking up in a strange place, not knowing where we are. These are our nightmares.

Without a continuous personal history, we are not. This happens in Alzheimer's disease in various dimensions, but is there anything connecting a 90-year-old, 90-year-old to a 19-year-old? Same body, but is it the same person? Can we put someone in prison 50 years after he has committed a crime, never mind the nature of the crime? Is it fair to do this? Are we punishing the same person?

And this is the core issue here. Without a continuous personal history, we don't exist. Our autobiography is what binds our various bodies, states of mind, memory, skills, emotions and cognitions into a coherent, cohesive bundle of identity.

Dan speaks. Dan drinks, he dances, he talks, he makes love, but throughout this time he is not present because he does not remember Dan. He does not remember how it is to be Dan. He doesn't remember, he doesn't know how to do Dan. He may have murdered Jake, but by all philosophical and ethical criteria, Dan was most definitely not there, and therefore it is not his fault and he should not be penalized for it.

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