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Benjaman Kyle: A man in search of his identity


  • Artist: Miguel Endara

They already had a John Doe in the hospital. They couldn't take on a second one. BK just made sense. After all, that's where he was found — Burger King. And that's how Benjaman Kyle got his name on that first day of the only life he can remember clearly.

Kyle was found naked, beaten and unconscious behind a dumpster at a Burger King in Richmond Hill, Ga., in 2004. Initially, those who found him thought he was dead.

Kyle had no memories of how he got there. Actually, at that time, he had no memories at all — didn't know his name, his address, his friends' names or even if he had friends. He spent months being shuffled between hospitals, homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation centers before he was diagnosed with retrograde amnesia, commonly known as Hollywood amnesia.

"Mostly, I felt kind of lost," Kyle told me in a recent phone call from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. "You see this in movies. People pound their heads on the wall and say, 'Who am I? Why me? Why me?' And I never did that. I was just trying to figure out who I was."

Retrograde amnesia is extremely rare, but it's an oft-used plot device for movies and television shows. Check out any soap opera and you will likely see a character with this or another form of amnesia. Retrograde amnesia works backward by erasing your most recent memories first and moving further into the past. This happens because neural pathways for fresher memories are weaker because they haven't been recalled as many times as older memories.

"There's not a whole lot of information available about why this happens," said Stephen L. Boehm II, director of the neuroscience program at IUPUI. "In most cases of amnesia, you can trace it back to a head injury. It's rare for someone to be found some place with no memories going back as far as they can remember. It gets even more bizarre if there's no indication of a head injury. Those cases are far and few between."

Naked in limbo

Kyle was found without a stitch of clothing and absolutely no possessions. With no ID, no driver's license, no birth certificate and no social security number, Kyle was caught in limbo. The hospitals wouldn't allow him stay any longer. He couldn't get a car, a job or an apartment. Homeless shelters wouldn't let him stay because he didn't have a social security number. So, he took to the streets.

Three years passed. Three years of not knowing his true name, sleeping on the streets and ultimately realizing that he was very, very alone. Only a handful of memories resurfaced — a few memories of Denver and a few of Indianapolis, which Kyle thinks are from his childhood. He also believes he's exactly 10 years older than Michael Jackson —that would make Kyle 64 — and that his first name could very well be Benjaman, even with the odd "a" in there.

"The only thing I can say is how do you know your name is (yours)?" he said. "It's one of the things that seemed to stick with me. It's like my birthday. I was born 10 years to the day before Michael Jackson. That's how I remember. I associate stuff."

Most people don't believe Kyle's story when they first hear it. People across the Internet dismiss it as a hoax or a publicity stunt.

"When I meet people, I never tell them my story," Kyle said. "They just look at you so weird. There was an old guy I met on the streets. I told him my story and he said, 'This is the biggest load of bullshit.' He didn't believe me and turned around and walked away."

Nothing happened for Kyle until 2007, the year he met a nurse at a homeless shelter. She knew someone in the office of U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a congressman from Georgia.

"His office started making phone calls," Kyle said. "That's when FBI got involved and when they started fingerprinting me."

Surely, the FBI could help Kyle, right? Didn't they track down Dillinger, Capone, and the Unabomber?

"The FBI fingerprinted me, and that came up negative," Kyle said. "They've fingerprinted me five times now and the last time they said if nothing came up, then there was nothing. They have nothing else they can search. Fingerprints have been sent to INTERPOL, Canada and South America. They came back negative. I am in the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the federal DNA database. If they come up with a close hit from anyone that gets entered into that database, my name will show up."

Benjaman Kyle is the only person listed in the FBI's missing persons database whose whereabouts are known.

Media storm

In 2007, the media storm hit. Newspapers, radio, CNN, BBC and even Dr. Phil stepped in. But even they couldn't solve the mystery. Because of all the media attention, Kyle's story came to the attention of a young Florida college student and amateur filmmaker who would soon become Kyle's only champion.

John Wikstrom was researching potential topics for a film he would make for one of his college courses.

"I was two weeks late on picking a subject," Wikstrom said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I went on Stumble Upon and I said to myself, 'I'm going to spend three hours here and at the end have a subject.' I hit the Stumble button and I kept seeing articles on Ethiopian tribes or wars I've never heard of and then I found Benjaman's Wikipedia page."

Wikstrom's initial reaction to Kyle's story was somewhere between disbelief and humor — he'd found his subject. Wikstrom emailed Kyle and they planned to meet in Savannah, Ga.

"Benjaman and I had dinner one night at a restaurant by a homeless shelter he was trying to get into, but he was having difficulties because he didn't have a social security number," Wikstrom said. "After that first dinner, it became evident that there wasn't anything funny about this story. Benjaman's story — there's a sense of incredulousness about it. Telling his story had to be a call for help."

Kyle was hesitant, but he allowed Wikstrom to make a documentary about him. Wikstrom went back to Florida to assemble the film crew of his two best friends and make preparations.

"(When we were ready) I called the woman he was staying with and she said he left and was walking on Interstate 95," Wikstrom said. "The situation he had arranged with the woman under whose care he was staying was coming to an end, so he had to move. This was right at the beginning of the documentary and before the filming had started. He didn't call and tell me about this. The only thing that was going on with him was this documentary. He walked half way from Savannah to Jacksonville. And then a police officer picked him up."

After this surprising move, Kyle settled in on the streets of Jacksonville and Wikstrom began filming. Local media caught wind of Kyle's story and once again began to swarm. Kyle's story was broadcast around the Jacksonville area and some local good Samaritans came to his aid.


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