Remembrance of Things Memento – Part 7: Doctor Ron’s DSM Diagnosis

This is Part 7 in my series of posts about the movie Memento. My previous post was Part 6. The initial post in this series was Part 0.



SPOILER ALERT – In my previous posts about Memento, I raised a number of questions about believability of the main character Leonard. However, I did not explicitly give away any important plot twists. I AM going to mention some of them explicitly in this posting, so be forewarned before reading the remainder of this post.



The DSM is the standard reference manual used by psychiatrists and psychologists when diagnosing a mental disorder. The DSM has been revised a few times over the past several years, and the current version is labeled DSM-IV. In the current post I am going to use the DSM-IV to diagnose Leonard.



My fellow Tacoma Film Club member Peter sparked this discussion with his initial post. He was kind enough to loan me his personal copy of the Limited Edition Two Disc Set of Memento released in 2002 so that I could watch the bonus material, including listening to the director’s commentary. One aspect of this Special Edition box set release that jumps out at me is that several sheets of paper are included in the box in addition to the discs, including a “Psychiatric Report” for “Leonard an allegedly mentally sick person”. There is also an “answer sheet” for a “mental health battery”. And a blank sheet, presumably to be filled out by the viewer, that has places to write in information about “diagnosis” and “recommendation”. It seems that the director is literally inviting us to make a diagnosis. I can not help but wonder if this material added to the DVD set two years after the theatrical release of the film is because virtually no one, critics or audience, really “got” the film.



One of the diagnostic conditions listed in the DSM-IV is amnesia, a cognitive disorder secondary to brain injury or trauma. Can we fit Leonard into this diagnostic category? The short answer is an unequivocal NO. I will now elaborate on this answer.



Lets consider, first, whether the character Sammy had amnesia. Most of what we know about Sammy is relayed to us via Leonard in the BW scenes, so we need to take all of this information with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, here is what we are told about Sammy. Leonard tells us that, in his role as insurance investigator, he concluded there was “no physical reason that should prevent Sammy from making new memories”. We are also told that Sammy’s wife was skeptical about whether or not he really had memory loss. Finally, we are told that the doctors who examined Sammy were skeptical about his memory loss. The doctors performed some tests on him. One of these tests required that Sammy reach out and grab blocks of various shapes (a triangle, square, etc) on a table in front of him. Whenever he touched one of these shapes, say the triangle, Sammy was shocked. Sammy never learned to avoid touching the shape that led to shock. These results are a little bit ambiguous regarding a diagnosis of amnesia (the test depicted in the film is not really one that would be administered to patients). However, my best educated guess is that this test should be able to be passed by a person having a pure case of long-term anterograde memory loss. Why might Sammy have failed it? If Sammy was malingering, but did not fully understand the technical distinctions between declarative and procedural (habit) memories, he might have mistakenly assumed that he was supposed to fail this test. In fact, the doctors might have designed this test specifically to catch malingering. At any rate, based on all of these factors, my overall tentative conclusion is that when Sammy was admitted to the mental hospital, it was for some diagnosis other than amnesia. Lets move on and see where this leads.



Who was Sammy? It is not clear (at least to me) if there ever was a real person named Sammy. But, if there was, most of what we are told about him in the BW scenes is untrue. Most of what Leonard tells us about Sammy during the film is actually a description of Leonard (himself). We know that Leonard himself went by the name “Sammy” sometimes. The most direct evidence for this is the scene where the character Jimmy is dying and calls out, “Sammy”, towards his murderer, Leonard. The character Teddy informs us that Sammy did not have a wife, and that all of Leonard’s stories about Sammy’s wife having diabetes were really stories about Leonard’s wife. And if all of this suggestive evidence does not convince you that Sammy was really Leonard, the director threw in one more explicit clue in the form of a flashback. In the scene where Leonard is discussing how Sammy was committed to a mental institution, we are shown a (memory) flashback in which we see Sammy sitting in the hospital. However, at the very end of the flashback, the director inserts a few frames in which the person in the mental hospital is actually Leonard.



So we can tentatively conclude that the person Sammy is either Leonard’s alter ego, or was someone Leonard once met whose persona he has tried to assume as his own. Lets also tentatively assume, that since “Sammy” did not have amnesia, that means Leonard did not have amnesia. That is the conclusion I initially came to after watching Memento three times when it first came out on video. I knew that if that tentative conclusion was correct, the director must have almost certainly put a definitive clue into the film somewhere – Some example where Leonard messed up and revealed some fact that he could not have known if he really had amnesia. It took me two more viewings before I finally found it (I may be slow, but I am persistent when convinced that I am correct!). In the critical scene, Leonard refers to the motel manager, Burt, by name. As an amusing aside, I would like to mention that in the course of writing this series of posts, I visited the IMDB site for Memento. If you visit that site and look at the section called goofs, you will see that someone has posted this scene as “a goof in continuity”. However, this is a “goof “, as opposed to a “clue”, only if one presupposes (as most apparently do based on reading the commentaries at IMDB) that Leonard really had amnesia! A second interesting aside comes from looking at the bonus material on the Special Edition DVD. One of the options on the DVD is to view a copy of the marked screenplay while the movie is running. In the screenplay there was a second slip by Leonard in which he referred to the character Natalie by name. That line of dialog never made it into the actual film. Written in the margin next to this line on the screenplay were the words “unnecessary” or something to that effect (I do not remember the exact words and I do not want to take the time to go back and look it up). I interpret this to mean that the director decided one clue, the slip involving Burt’s name, should be enough for a discerning audience to figure out that Leonard did not really have amnesia.



So, if we can not diagnose Leonard with the condition of amnesia, what mental condition did he have? Lets consider another diagnostic condition described in the DSM-IV, Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). In layman’s terms, individuals diagnosed with APD are often called psychopaths or sociopaths. Psychopaths lack empathy for the pain and suffering of others. Thus, these individuals are able to inflict physical and emotional pain onto others without feeling any remorse. These individuals also love to play elaborate con games, especially ones that are cruel. Furthermore, they often play these games simply for thrills rather than for personal gain.



Lets consider the possibility that Leonard was a psychopath, and did not really have a memory disorder. Instead, he went through life playing an elaborate game in which he pretended to have anterograde long-term memory loss. If so, he had obviously spent a large amount of time studying the symptoms of this particular form of amnesia. Perhaps he had actually once known someone named Sammy who really did have the condition. Or perhaps he just heard about the condition somewhere, became intrigued by it, and went to the library to study up about it. Either way, he decided to initiate an elaborate game with his life. In every situation in which he found himself, Leonard imagined what a person with this form of amnesia would do, and then acted in the same way. He played this game to the limit, regardless of where it led, including if it required him to drink other peoples spit, or hurt or kill other individuals. If this is the correct diagnosis, this game he was playing led Leonard to murder at least three individuals, including his own wife.



The status of Leonard’s wife in the film is a little bit ambiguous. Let me lay out how I think she fits into the plot. There is suggestive evidence that Leonard’s wife was not really murdered, although she was raped by someone named John G. We see several color flashback scenes in which the wife’s eyes open and close while she is laying on the floor in the bathroom following her rape, indicating that she was still alive. We also see a short color flashback in which Leonard is lying next to his wife and already has a tattoo on his chest. Very cleverly, the director shot this scene from an angle that only shows the portion of the tattoo that states “John G raped” and hides the portion we see in other scenes that adds “and murdered”. There is also an additional tattoo visible in this flashback scene that states, “I did it”, perhaps suggesting that Leonard had indeed earlier found and killed the person who “raped” his wife. We also see color flashbacks of Leonard giving insulin shots to his wife, replicating in color the actions that Leonard attributed to Sammy during the BW scenes in which Sammy killed his wife. My best guess would be that Leonard starting playing this elaborate game after his wife was raped. She ultimately became became sick and tired of his game and decided to put him to the ultimate test of seeing if he would kill her with insulin shots rather than fess up that it was a game. As a result, she is now dead, killed by Leonard. This is another possible interpretation for the tattoo, “I did it”, displayed in the one flashback scene.



At this point you might be thinking that all of the above is too speculative to be convincing that Leonard has APD. So lets next consider a key diagnostic feature of individuals with APD, as specified in DSM-IV. They have trouble learning to alter their behavior based on punishment. This is because they do not build up a normal fear response to situations or events that have led to punishment in the past. Normal individuals who are punished for specific behaviors will try to avoid repeating those behaviors in the future because they fear being punished again. Individuals with APD do not develop normal fear responses, and thus continue exhibiting behaviors that lead to punishment, over and over.



For example, if a normal person were given a shock each time he chose a triangle over a square on a psychological test, that person would quickly learn to choose the square instead of the triangle on subsequent tests. A person with APD would have trouble learning this task. Does this psychological test seem familiar to you? It was the test failed by the character Sammy, and that led to Sammy’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a mental hospital. Of course, that was a BW scene. Can we find any direct evidence for this diagnostic trait in Leonard in a color scene? There is a color scene, early in viewing time, where Leonard runs into the glass at the entry door of the motel where he has been staying. Ouch! He does this because the door opens outward but he tries to push on it. A “normal” individual might do this once, or perhaps twice, but then quickly learn to alter his behavior so as to avoid continuing to be punished. An individual with APD would not. At this point in story time, Leonard has been staying at this same motel for at least days, possibly weeks. Bingo! I think I have my diagnosis.



3 thoughts on “Remembrance of Things Memento – Part 7: Doctor Ron’s DSM Diagnosis

  1. Ronster:

    Don’t fret about spoilers. How can one intelligently discuss a film without discussing the film? By announcing spoilers it reminds me of the fellow who is going to kick your ass saying gently,” Now this might hurt a bit.” No kidding we all say under our breath. If one is to discuss a film before he has seen it, or reads about it first, then that information might enlighten or might spoil their experience. That is the mental contract we sign when we launch into such activities. It is like the a weather forecast anyway. It just gives us some bare bones facts that we will interprete our own way, our own selves.

    Man, with this entry in the lexicon of your narrative, you have really zinged out onto the edge. If Leonard was in fact malingering, and/or was an APD, then thanks God for the DSM-IV to show us the way. You have taken the film apart like a CSI, and looked at every fiber of it. That truly amazes me. Who knows if your conclusions, any of them, are accurate. They certainly do pose tremendous food for thought. Your imagination is married to your education, and this makes you very creative, sir.

    I, too, am looking forward to my 3rd viewing, and possibly 4th viewing of the film. I did not remember Jimmy calling out, “Sammy” as Leonard beat his ass. Nor do I recall him being referred to that way at other times. What I do recall is that tatoo over his heart, in that brief scene with Jorja Fox as his wife. I think it said,”I’ve done it.”, and not “I did it.” Roger Ebert did not gain much by seeing the film a second time. I hope he reads your Seven Part review. It might shake loose the bad taste in his mouth about the film.


  2. Ron:

    I wonder if Peter, way over there on the other side of the world in Nepal or wherever, is reading your 7-part treatise? If so, as he is breathing O2 from a bottle with one hand, he might peck out some kind of response to your copious responses. My DVD of MEMENTO does not have those goodies on it that the special edition has. Nice that Peter had a copy, and has shared with you.

    There is now a Wi-Fi Cafe next to the Grand Theater. They have great sandwichs and soup. I spent a couple of hours there last Friday night in between THE DARJEELING LIMITED and INTO THE WILD. I had never really frequented such places before. The time flew by as I played on the internet.

    Perhaps David, as well, off in the wilds of the mountains of Idaho in his “cabin” will be reading and checking out this blog site too. I am looking forward to seeing AMERICAN BEAUTY @ CSL. Sorry that you and Roger will be at a conference.


  3. Glenn,
    Just wanted to respond to a few items in your recent comments.

    Regarding the tattoo being “I’ve done it” instead of “I did it”, you are most likely correct. That is what is so interesting about memory. My viewing of Peter’s Special Edition DVD is actually the first time I have watched it on DVD. I own a copy of Memento, but it is on VHS, and that is the copy I use when I show excerpts from the film in classes I teach. My notes about the film were all written down quickly while watching the film a while back on this VHS tape. So some of my “quotes” taken from my notes are “approximations” based on what I wrote in my notes and enhanced/degraded with my memory 🙂

    Regarding the critics, I really do think they all missed one of the main points of the film. Or at least they failed to consider the possibility that the film is really a dark portrayal of the actions of a psychopath rather than a sympathetic portrayal of an individual with brain damaged induced amnesia. I have not gone back to look systematically at all of the reviews of the film by critics from when it was released, but I do not recall any of them picking up on this possible interpretation of the film. If you, or anyone else reading this, has seen other commentaries that come to a similar conclusion that the film is about a psychopath, please post them here. I would like to know about them. What I do know from discussing the film with undergraduate students, is that many of them who are familiar with the film react pretty negatively when I first make the assertion that Leonard is a psychopath. It is only after carefully working through the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for amnesia and for APD that I am able to convince them that this is a more plausible explanation of Leonard’s behavior (the interpretation most consistent with the facts shown in the film) than the more typical interpretation that this poor sympathetic guy Leonard is suffering from the loss of his wife while simultaneously being used and abused by a bunch of drug dealers and crooked cops.

    Regarding Peter, I HAVE heard from him via email sent from internet cafes in India. He appears to be having a great time. He promises to contribute to the discussion when he is back in town.

    Regarding your comment about Into the Wild, did you know that Emory University is where I taught before my retirement? The graduation scene near the beginning of the film appeared to be filmed at Emory. I was at Emory graduation when McCandless graduated, but I did not know him personally. There was a wealthy McCandless family that sponsored an annual lecture in the psychology department every year, and I assume they were related to this student, but I do not know that for sure. When I get a chance, I would like to read Krakauer’s book on which the movie is based. Probably a lot more background there.

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