Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
It’s called ‘Capgras Delusion’—the psychiatric disorder, assailed by which a person will firmly believe that someone close to them is in fact an impostor wearing a mask. There have been studies made, which prove that the delusion is not belatedly-onset schizophrenia, but simple physical brain damage. A neurological connection gets severed, these studies show, between one’s mechanism of facial recognition and one’s established emotional response. Suddenly, your Bobby or your Sue turns to their mother and no longer recognizes their parent, because their brain has suffered a malfunction.
This was what Benjamin Dwyer was told in a sunlit psychiatrist’s office, the windows of which were crowded with ficus plants. His psychiatrist was a very nice woman—rather stiff behind her thick glasses and clipboard, but she spoke very kindly. She explained everything very kindly and very convincingly. Benji sat on the faux leather sofa and twisted his fingers in his lap. He wanted to agree. He wanted to believe this nice lady. The only thing throwing him off where those ficus plants in Dr. Linda’s window. They were plastic, coated in dust in the sunlight.
Benji had hit his head badly a few weeks ago—hit it hard enough to have his brain damaged. It was his own fault for trying to impress a girl. They were all out at the shore, boozing it up because graduation was next weekend and everyone got accepted to their college of choice. Everyone was in top mood. Of course, Erica came. Benji hadn’t been able to get the nerve up to ask her out since she ditched her last boyfriend, but there she was now—and now was the time. It wasn’t like Erica hadn’t already sent signs that she was interested. Benji just wanted to do right.
He wanted to impress her. He wanted her to tear her hazel eyes away from her girlfriend, and her lips off the neck of that bottle of peach beer, and—gasp, watching him. So, he declared that he was going to dive off the short cliff. Someone mumbled something about the low tide, but Benji wasn’t listening, because already Erica’s eyes were on him wide, and he grinned just at her—at her own grinning face—and he dove, head-first off the edge.
His buddy Rick pulled him out, Benji found out later. There was blood in the water. The rocks were sharp and illusive beneath the glimmer of the waves. Benji woke up in a hospital to the sound of his mother sobbing by his bedside, and it was the most horrible experience in his life. First, because his heart went out to the sound of his mother crying. Then, because when she lifted her face—she wasn’t his mom.
It wasn’t his mom.
Benji was sure.
No one can quite understand how that feels, Benji tried to explain later—no one can quite understand what it feels like to look at your mother and know it’s a stranger. Someone faking. Someone wearing a mask. He tried to explain that after.
When he first woke up in the hospital, the nurses had to subdue him, because he kept screaming, “What have you done with my mother? What have you done with my mother? Where is she?!”
All the while, Mrs. Dwyer kept crying hysterically, but Benji didn’t care, because it wasn’t his mom. She was an impostor—someone who was faking.
They shot a lot of morphine into his IV, which made Benji sick. He kept telling the nurses he didn’t want it, but they kept upping his dosage anyway, making him throw up on his paper of a hospital outfit and then pass out. Then psychiatrists descended. Benji couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying in the fog and the sick.
Finally, he was allowed to go home. Dr. Linda allowed him to go home under her own strict supervision—regular sessions every afternoon of every day, for as long as she said so. Benji was so grateful to be away from that nauseating morphine, he complied readily to anything asked of him. He learned, in those short weeks, to bite his tongue and not scream at the sight of the woman who had done something to his mother and now wore her face. He went home and sat down to dinner with that impostor woman.
She clinked her fork against the porcelain of her plate, moving bean sprouts around and not eating. She wiped a tear off her face—the mask she wore that was his mother’s face—from time to time. Benji knew she was faking. Even when she brought up his swimmer’s scholarship to his new school, he knew she was faking. She had to have learned it some other way—probably spied on Benji’s family for years and now knew everything about them. Benji couldn’t believe his dad couldn’t see it, or his sisters. Dad and Angela and Allison—they all looked at this woman like she was Mom. They couldn’t see it.
Dad even said, “Laurie, I wish you’d eat. You haven’t been eating.”
Like she needed to eat, Benji thought. Benji was sure she had a whole separate life. Probably had dinner earlier wherever she really lived.
“Why are you doing this to our family?” he growled, keeping his eyes locked on hers. She would know if she met his eyes—she would know that Benji thought she should be ashamed of herself for stealing his mother’s identity.
The woman jumped up from the table and ran upstairs, sobbing.
Angie and Ally winced at Benji, wiping off their own tears. He frowned. When the impostor was out of his sight and crying—she did—she really did sound like Mom. It had to be a trick, he told himself—just another trick she was playing.
“You see, Benji,” Dr. Linda went on, “You’re suffering from brain damage. Your auditory mechanism is intact, but your facial recognition has been severed from your emotional response to your own mother. You have to understand that when you see her face to face, she looks like a stranger to you, because your own brain is not connecting correctly. You hear her correctly, but you just can’t recognize her anymore. Can you understand that, Benji?”
Benji twisted his hands in his lap, staring at the plastic plants in Dr. Linda’s sun-drenched window.
Time had passed. A whole two months of summer. His entrance into college this fall had been halted by this development. He hadn’t even seen Erica—hadn’t been allowed to see any of his friends, in spite of the many flowers and cards sent to the Dwyer doorstep. Erica called the house even. Dr. Linda forbid any excitement in Benji’s life, so he wasn’t allowed to return the call until he got better. He wasn’t allowed his phone or his laptop. He was a guy marooned in isolation, until he complied to this story Dr. Linda was telling him.
“You are experiencing brain damage, commonly known as the Capgras Delusion…”
Dr. Linda talked and talked, every afternoon, convincing Benji, breaking him, luring him into a scientific, in her words, outlook.
“You can beat this, Benji,” she said. “You can persevere.”
All the while, Benji just kept looking at her ficus plants—the plastic plants in the psychiatrist’s window.
“Just listen to your mother’s voice over the telephone,” Dr. Linda encouraged, picking up an old-school rose-colored receiver above a rotary dial—a throw-back article that fit her office décor. “Just listen to her voice over the telephone, Benjamin.”
Benji had a swimmer’s scholarship. Benji had broken his high-school’s short course record. Benji had grown up playing baseball, swam because he was amazing at it, joked like a true comedian, maintained a solid GPA and a solid group of friends, none of whom were damaged like the freak kids who ducked out of class and didn’t bathe or whatever. Benji got out to fun parties with girls, driving his own car. Benji had his sights on cherry-lipped Erica, whom he wanted for a wife one day—an all-American girl to raise some rowdy kids by him. Benji was an all-American boy himself.
Benji hit his head pretty hard. What he didn’t tell Dr. Linda—what he never told anyone as soon as the nurses swarmed his hospital bed with that disgusting morphine—was that when the rock at the bottom of the water struck him, he saw a flash of a different reality.
Benji saw that they were all a fake town, all wearing plastic masks.
“Pick up the phone, Benjamin.” Dr. Linda stretched the rose-colored retro receiver to Benji. “Pick up the phone, Benjamin, and come back to reality.”
He didn’t want to resist anymore.
He picked up the phone.
“Benji?” Came Mom’s voice on the line. Again, she was sobbing. “Benji, can you talk to me, yet?”
It was a trick, Benji knew. It was a trick. He needed to comply, however. He needed to do this so that he could go to college—use that swimmer’s scholarship.
“Hey, mom,” Benji said softly.
“Oh, my goodness. Oh, thank goodness. Oh, Benji—Benji, you’re a little sick. You just have a little bit wrong with your brain right now. You can get through this honey, I promise. I’ll help you.”
She was lying. This impostor had Mom’s voice and she was straight-out lying.
“Yes, mom. I’m trying to fight it,” Benji said carefully, buying himself time.
“Oh, honey I’m so glad.”
Of course, she was—they were all glad, all of them.
“Mom, I have to go now, to finish my session with Dr. Linda.”
“Of course, honey. I’ll… I’ll see you at home, okay?”
Benji hung up the receiver and handed the rotary phone back to the doctor.
“That was very good, Benjamin,” the stiff woman beamed. “That was very good for today.”
Benji walked out of his psychiatrist’s office and waited at the curb of the sleek building for his father to pick him up. Pedestrians passed him on the sidewalk, all of them smiling. Benji thought about them—their smiles. How similar they were to Dr. Linda’s smile when she looked at him. His mom was an impostor. What about the rest of them all?
Suddenly, he heard a familiar voice—Erica!
“Benji!” The girl was running up to him from across the street. “Benji! I can’t believe it’s you!”
She rushed up to him, rosy-cheeked, shiny brown hair a mess, in the prettiest dress he had ever seen her wear. She wrapped her slender arms around him before Benji could protest. She smelled of peaches and tree bark after rain.
“Benji, I can’t believe it!”
He grinned at her, trying to seem like himself again.
“How are ya, Erica?”
“I’m just great! Rick and I have decided to go to the same school, you know, and I’ll just miss this town so much in the fall.”
Benji didn’t know. Benji had been out of the loop for a bit of a while—most of the summer.
“Oh, I do hope you’re getting better, Benji!” the pretty girl trilled.
Who knew? Benji thought, suddenly. Who knew who was really an impostor? Suddenly, Erica’s face seemed plastic to him… and the town, and the pedestrians—all of them like plastic plants in a window.
His father’s car pulled up.
“I have to go,” Benji told Erica, ripping out of her embrace.
The ride home was silent.
What happened when they got home was not. Benji lingered in the garage, claiming a headache and need of fresh air. Dad shrugged and went up to the house. Benji opened his father’s gun safe and took out the gold-plated rifle—the best one. He loaded the gun.
They were all plastic people, Benji thought to himself. They were all impostors. Forget Dr. Linda telling him he hit his head bad. Nobody knew. Nobody understood it. His Mom was not his Mom. Neither was anyone who they claimed to be.
Benji had a swimmer’s scholarship. He would go to college in the fall, but first, he needed to take out the people that were trying to poison reality—the people that were impostors. Benji cocked his rifle and went out into his sunlit driveway.
“Mom!” he hollered at the house. “Woman who calls herself my mom, come out and face me!”
Benji fired a shot into the space above the roof.
“Laurie!” he hollered. “You fake person—come out and fight!”
“Damn it!” Benji screamed. “God damn you all to hell, you impostors!”
Red and blue lights exploded everywhere. Sirens. An officer made Benji lie down on the asphalt, the rifle left limp, placed outside the boy’s reach while he was made to link his fingers behind his head.
The officer yanked Benji to his feet, hand-cuffed him, and ducked him into the back of the cruiser.
Benji was secured and taken away.
Dr. Linda lost her authority over the matter.
Mrs. Dwyer was left watching the police cars leave, standing in her driveway, tears rolling down both cheeks. I guess… if it really was Mrs. Dwyer, and not an impostor.
Benjamin was an all-American boy with a simmer’s scholarship, and he spent the rest of his days in an asylum.
It’s called ‘Capgras Delusion,’ and it’s just a little bit of brain damage. Just enough to let you know that everything you understand—your whole life—is fake and plastic. Everyone is an impostor.
Pick up the phone and play along—if you’re an all-American boy.