Hannah Upp’s colleagues at the Montessori School in St. Thomas immediately knew something was wrong when she failed to show up to a scheduled staff meeting on the morning of September 15, 2017.
People had seen Upp, but nobody had communicated with her through text or telephone in three days. That’s when her close friend, Maggie Guzman began calling around in search of the 32-year-old teacher gone missing and was given the cryptic direction to ‘look by water.’ What Hannah Upp’s friends and colleagues in St. Thomas didn’t know is that it wasn’t the first or second time that she had gone missing.
Hannah Upp, a 32-year-old teacher vanished in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017 in the chaotic days between two category five hurricanes. While many questions remain about what might have happened to Hannah, her family and friends have reason to believe that she may be lost with no idea who she is, wandering in what doctors call a ‘fugue state’
Upp first made front page news in 2008 when she disappeared in New York City before being discovered 20 days later by a Staten Island ferryman floating face down in the water surrounding the Statue of Liberty. In 2012, Upp, then living in Maryland, vanished again at the beginning of a school year and turned up sitting in a residential creek two days later. Each time, Upp had no recollection of what happened during the periods she went missing.
She was diagnosed with a rare condition known as ‘dissociative fugue’ – a temporary form of amnesia in which one forgets their identity but can maintain the ability to survive and perform regular tasks. Some sufferers wander off for days, weeks, months and sometimes years while occasionally adopting a new personality. Elizabeth Vargas recounts the mystery surrounding Upp’s last disappearance and her little understood fugue disorder in a docuseries that airs this evening on the A&E network titled, ‘Vanished in Paradise: The Untold Story.’
Seven days before Upp’s disappearance, Hurricane Irma had ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands; 185mph winds ripped through St. Thomas – the idyllic paradise Hannah called home since 2013 when she moved to pursue her dream job as a Kindergarten teacher. The island barely had time to recoup when it received the devastating news just days later that a second category five storm was imminent. Panicked people began to escape on mercy ships and private boats but Upp insisted on staying on the island.
Upp first went missing in 2008 in New York City for 20 days, she was rescued by a Staten Island Ferryman that found her floating in the harbor. Upp experienced her second fugue in 2013, when she vanished for two days and ‘came-to’ in a dirty residential creek in Maryland. Both times, she had no recollection of what happened or how much time had passed when she finally snapped out of the fugue
Upp’s friend, Maggie Guzman said, ‘She was the center of the party, whatever she was doing, she was intensely doing’ whether it was work, hobbies, friends or sports and especially swimming. Upp was naturally drawn to water and when she went missing in 2017, friends and family told Guzman to ‘look by water’ because in two previous fugues, Upp had been discovered in water
‘What I know about September 14, 2017 is that Hannah’s roommate Lindsey saw her leaving her house early in the morning around 8:00am. Nobody saw her after that,’ said Guzman. Given the ambiguous direction to ‘look by water,’ Upp’s friends knew instantly where to search first: Sapphire Beach was Hannah’s favorite spot to snorkel. They found her car in the beach parking lot with her purse, wallet, passport, hundreds of dollars in cash and cell phone still inside. On a stool nearby, they had discovered Upp’s sundress neatly folded near her sandals and car keys- workers on from the small seaside bar said they came across her belongings while cleaning up the beach after Irma.
The endeavor to find Upp was on: the Coast Guard extensively explored the coastline by boat and sent three helicopters to aid the search. Friends combed through the passenger manifests of people evacuating the island on mercy ships and came up short. They canvassed homeless shelters and hospitals but the search effort had to be called off after three days for Hurricane Maria.
For Upp’s friends back in the States, the circumstances of her disappearance were eerily similar. Each one happened at the beginning of a new school year; a time particularly stressful for Upp who was devoted to her job. In both stints, Upp was discovered in water, which wasn’t surprising considering that she had always been drawn to water as a swimmer. ‘She found the world underwater just so peaceful and so magical,’ said her friend Amy Scott in a lengthy piece written about Upp in The New Yorker. She adds, ‘The way she describes it is she finds herself in a body of water and realizes who she is.’
In 2008, Upp was beginning her second year of teaching at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem when she experienced her first fugue. Upp’s roommate, Manuel Ramirez recalls the morning she went missing on the A&E special when he wished her good luck on her first day back to work and recalls Upp responding through her door in kind; nothing seemed out of the ordinary but Hannah never showed up to school that day. She left all her belongings behind, including her purse, wallet, cash and credit cards.
The NYPD began investigating Upp’s disappearance as a homicide when an acquaintance from grad school spotted her nine days later logging into her Gmail account at the Apple Store in midtown Manhattan. Wearing a sports bra and athletic shorts with her hair pulled into a ponytail, Upp looked like she had just gone out for a run. CCTV footage captured the interaction with her acquaintance who asked her, ‘are you the ‘Hannah’ that everyone is looking for?’ Upp dismissed the question and exited the building. Her mother Barbara Bellus told Elizabeth Vargas: ‘I knew it was her in an instant, and I knew that there was something off.’
It is believed that Sapphire Beach in St. Thomas is the last place Upp visited before she went vanished. Her car was found in the parking lot with her wallet, cash, ID and cell phone still inside, her sandals and sundress were found on a bar stool nearby. Upp’s mother, Barbara Bellus (right) tells A&E host, Elizabeth Vargas (left) that she visits the beach often and said, ‘I think there’s a strong possibility that shes alive’
Upp moved to St. Thomas to pursue her dream job as a kindergarten teacher at the Montessori school, an alternative form of education that she was very passionate about. ‘Her enthusiasm for the kids and Montessori just bubbled over,’ said headmaster, Michael Born. A friend of Upp’s quoted in The New Yorker said: ‘Hannah gives so much to other people that at a certain point there is literally nothing left, and she departs from herself’
Guzman last saw Upp at a staff meeting three days before she went missing and recalls that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. ‘You can know Hannah for a long time and not know pretty substantial things about Hannah’s life,’ said Guzman on the documentary. Another faculty member said that Upp seemed unusually ‘compliant’ and was speaking in a ‘sing-song voice’
Not long after the Apple Store sighting, Upp was spotted several times using the showers at The New York Sports Club. Verifying Upp’s identity while checking her in, the front desk employee asked, ‘Hannah?’ To which she readily replied, ‘Yes.’ Upp was always two steps ahead and managed to elude friends, family and authorities for 20 days until she was eventually rescued from the water by a passing Staten Island Ferry.
‘She was dehydrated, badly sunburned and hypothermic,’ said Bellus on the show. Recalling what Upp told her: ‘She said ‘I’m fine but I’m scared, I have no idea what happened.’ Manuel Ramirez, her roommate, told Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker: ‘She saw me and smiled and said something like ‘I hope they release me soon, because I have to set up my classroom.’ She clearly didn’t get that three weeks had passed.’
The A&E documentary features a recording from the only interview Upp agreed to take with a journalist in the wake of her first disappearance. She tells Rebecca Marx: ‘When I first came to, I was like ‘what do you mean where have I been?’ It goes from being on a run to being in the ambulance; for me it’s like 10 minutes had passed but it was three weeks.’
Upp struggled to recollect what happened during the weeks she was missing and doctors at Columbia University diagnosed her with dissociative fugue. The last thing she remembered from the morning she vanished was going for a run in the park near her apartment. Bellus told Aviv of a particular night in the hospital when Upp jumped awake and said, ‘I was at a lighthouse’ before falling back to sleep. By morning, Upp had no memory of that either.
What is dissociative fugue?
Dissociative fugue is mental state where one temporarily looses awareness of their identity and other important autobiographical pieces of information.
Upp’s very rare condition falls under what the American Psychiatric Association calls the the ‘DSM-5.’ Also under this umbrella category is Dissociative Identity Disorder, (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder).
Fugue is derived from a Latin word that means ‘act of fleeing,’ which explains why a sufferer often travels long distances as they depart from their former self in an attempt to escape from a mentally or physically intolerable environment.
Fugue states can last days, months or years. It is common for people to adopt entirely new identities during a fugue. However in Upp’s case, ‘it was more like the complete absence of identity,’ said Barbara Bellus to The New Yorker.
Piecing together a timeline with fragments of memory, Upp’s family believe that she attended a Japanese floating lantern ceremony on the Hudson River based on her vague recollection of lights floating on water. She remembered a full moon which also checked out with the lunar calendar and that she latched onto a boat barge before she ended up on a small rocky reef in the middle of New York Harbor. Her knees were scraped and one side of her body was badly sunburned as if she had slept on her side for an entire day before she returned to the water.
Fugue states are usually triggered by trauma that can be caused by any number of distressing events from a harrowing accident to physical and sexual abuse, extreme stress, unbearable sadness, or PTSD. Upp was hypnotized by psychiatrists in an effort to recall any event from her past that might have been repressed. In Rebecca Marx’ taped interview with Upp, she says: ‘There’s so many different theories about what causes it but there’s no one trigger that’s emerging honestly. But that’s the hardest thing is if I don’t feel confident about the trigger, how do I start with prevention?’
Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University has devoted his career to understanding dissociative fugue. He explains to DailyMail.com that humans have two primary types of memory: episodic and procedural. ‘Episodic memory is you remembering who you had dinner with last night while procedural memory is remembering how to type on your keyboard.’ These memories are stored in different parts of the human brain which explains how Upp was capable of logging into her Gmail account at the Apple Store. ‘It’s not that surprising that she would some procedural memories without the specific recall of who she was and when she last went to that place.’
Friends describe Upp as a vibrant person who radiated positivity. ‘She was the center of the party, whatever she was doing, she was intensely doing,’ said Guzman who became Upp’s closest friend on the island after they met in Zumba class and eventually worked together at the Montessori school. Norma Bolinger, Director of the school told DailyMail.com, ‘She was just so welcoming and always the first one to approach a newcomer, she would go out of her way to make them feel comfortable and offer to take them around the island.’ Upp was the type of person that never forgot a birthday, ‘if it was your birthday, you most likely were brought a special homemade dish.’ Hannah approached everything she did in life with zealous passion, be it school, work, swimming, Zumba, relationships and hobbies. ‘She’s a pretty extra person,’ said Guzman to DailyMail.com.
‘You can know Hannah for a long time and not know pretty substantial things about Hannah’s life,’ said Guzman on the documentary. Behind the bubbly façade she knew that the Upp might have ‘been struggling with things that weren’t on the surface.’
Hannah Upp was raised in Oregon as the daughter of two Methodist ministers. Her parents divorced when she was 15-years-old and her father moved abroad to preach the gospel to native tribes in Africa and Southeast Asia. Growing up in a very conservative Christian household caused Upp to struggle with her identity as a young student on her own at the prestigious Bryn Mawr College. According to The New Yorker, her strict father believed that ‘there is no such human as a natural homosexual’ but by the time Upp reached her third year at university, she was dating a woman. Curiously, both 2008 and 2013 fugues occurred after Upp had returned home from travelling with her father abroad.
Every year Upp danced with her Zumba troupe in St. Thomas’ Spring carnival parade (left). Which is how she met her closest friend on the island Maggie Guzman who said: ‘It was exhausting being Hannah’s friend, she was just out straight for days, was either doing her work or all her sports or social activities.
Doctors suspected said that Upp would most likely never suffer another fugue but five years later at the beginning of a new school year – she went missing again. She was five days into the start of a new job as a teacher’s assistant at a Montessori in Kensington, Maryland. The details were all too familiar: her purse, wallet and cell phone were found on a path in a wooded area. A co-worker driving to work said she spotted Upp miles away, briskly headed in the wrong direction on a walking trail. Nobody had spoken to her in the previous 24 hours and Barbara Bellus learned that she hadn’t slept in her apartment the night before. ‘Water was involved again but she came-to sitting in a creek in suburban Maryland on her own, she knew who she was,’ explained Bellus to Vargas. Upp had been roving for two days.
Another parallel can be drawn between Upp’s three disappearances. Prior to the 2008 fugue, Upp communicated with nobody on her phone. Her bank statement revealed that she has gone to see a movie during this time but had no recollection of it. Similarly in 2013, Upp stopped using her phone 24 hours before the time she vanished. Later Upp would examine some of the text messages she sent in the few days leading up to that time and Bellus told The New Yorker: ‘She could remember sending some of the texts, but then there came a point where she said, ‘I don’t remember writing any of this.’
Three days before Upp’s last disappearance in St. Thomas she stopped using her phone. She visited her ex-boyfriend, Joey Spallino in the marina as he boarded a mercy ship before the second hurricane. He noticed that she looked like she hadn’t slept in a while and remembered her feeling distraught from the first storm. Looking back on that time, Maggie Guzman feels like Upp hadn’t been acting herself even before Irma struck St. Thomas. She tells Vargas ‘I kind-of noticed her withdrawing a lot, when I asked her about it she told me that Fall is just a hard time for her and that she was just really focusing on school.’
Family and friends believe that Hannah Upp may still ‘be out there’ without knowing who she really is
Norma Bolinger remembers the last time she saw Upp two days before she went missing. The two women were preparing the school for the next storm and Bolinger told DailyMail.com, ‘The only thing different that stood out to me the last time I spoke to her was that she responded to me in a sing-song type voice. Like ‘Yes, Norma. Okay, Norma’ with very little conversation where normally Hannah would be full of questions and full of conversation.’ Bolinger said that Upp seemed exhausted, but she attributed that to the fact that her apartment had been severely damaged by flooding and she was in the arduous process of clearing everything out. She continues, ‘It’s really hard to determine because everybody was traumatized. Everyone was exhausted, so everybody acting differently.’
The staff meeting on Tuesday, September 12 was the last time Guzman saw Hannah. She told DailyMail.com: ‘I asked her if she was okay and how she was feeling after the hurricane and she was just kind-of shaken up, but she was never very forthcoming in asking for help. She’s not a very needy friend.’
Albion George, the detective on Upp’s case said it was very easy to travel around the Caribbean without identification in the wake of both hurricanes. Bolinger told DailyMail.com: ‘I just want to believe the possibility is given her talents and her strengths that she just deceived everybody again and got off the island and is still walking around in that state and that one day she’s just going to snap or someone is going to recognize her.’
St. Thomas has been shaken by the mystery of Hannah Upp’s disappearance but one thing is certain: if and when Upp resurfaces, she will have an enormous community of devoted friends and family waiting to celebrate her homecoming with open arms. In the meantime, her mother says ‘hope is persistent’ and that ‘it’s never been an option to give up.’