The last thing David Sobelsohn remembers clearly from the month of March is looking at a street map inside the Navy Yard Metro station. He knows for a fact that the time was 7:22 p.m.; it’s right there on his receipt for a new farecard.
Although he usually bikes around town, he had taken the subway from Foggy Bottom so that he wouldn’t be late for a 7:30 p.m. community meeting on March 2. A neighborhood activist, Sobelsohn was examining the map to figure out the best route to walk to 1322 Half Street SW, where he and other Southwest residents would discuss development issues facing the Waterfront area. That much he knows for sure.
At some point shortly after he emerged from the subway, something happened to the 53-year-old former lawyer that made any faint memories from the time seem “like chiaroscuro,” he says—shadowy and ill-defined. Amnesia cost him not only the preceding moments but also nearly all of the new ones that would unfold over the next two months. During his recovery, remembering what he’d said or done just minutes earlier would become a continuous challenge. Later, remembering a chunk of his life would seem all but impossible.
What Sobelsohn knows of the incident and its aftermath has come from second-hand sources—press reports, witnesses, friends who visited him in the hospital. He can’t remember when he first saw it, but the Washington Post ran a short item in the March 3 edition, in the Metro section under an “In Brief” headline:
An advisory neighborhood commissioner was beaten unconscious and robbed last night as he walked to a community meeting in Southwest Washington, authorities said.
David Sobelsohn, a commissioner from Ward 6, was attacked by five men and punched in the face, a police official said. He was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening. The assault, during which Sobelsohn’s wallet was also taken, occurred just before 8 p.m. in the 1300 block of Half Street SW. Sobelsohn later regained consciousness.
At some point he was given a police report. Though spare, it filled in some of the more violent details of the attack. Just outside his destination, he had been jumped by two kids who hit him hard enough on the head to knock him out. Three more kids had sprinted from a nearby alley and joined in the melee, punching and kicking Sobelsohn as he was splayed unconscious on the sidewalk. They rummaged through his pants. When they spotted a witness across the street talking to a police dispatcher on a cell phone, they fled with Sobelsohn’s wallet, which had about $40 in it.
Sobelsohn later learned from Rick Bardach, a friend who was also on his way to the meeting, that it was a grisly scene. Bardach arrived soon after the attack. “There was a man lying on the ground, and at first I thought it was probably a drunk,” says Bardach. “When I got out of my car, I realized it was David, with blood coming from his face.” Another attendee—Sobelsohn can’t remember who—later told him he’d looked dead.
“I have this image of everybody gathering around this prone, bleeding body, only nobody is actually doing anything because they’re not medically trained,” says Sobelsohn. “It seems like a very strange scene to contemplate, but I guess that’s what happened.”
Bardach followed the ambulance to the emergency room, where, he says, Sobelsohn was conscious but irrational. “He was very agitated—like, ‘I’m gonna get those sons of bitches,’” recalls Bardach. “He just started calling numbers [on the phone] out of the blue to figure out his credit-card situation. They were normal initial reactions; he just wasn’t calm and thinking clearly.”
Sobelsohn has no recollection of human interaction at the hospital. But as his bills would later indicate, he logged $140 worth of long-distance calls during his stay there. He still isn’t sure whom he was calling or what he was discussing with them.
He’s gathered that there was a huge outpouring of support—a “crowding demonstration of all these people who care about me,” he says. With the attack in the news, Sobelsohn even fielded phone calls from a couple of mayoral hopefuls. He doesn’t remember Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp wishing him their best. He says he knows they did because his friend Andy Litsky, a fellow ANC commissioner, told him so.
The only person Sobelsohn remembers from the hospital was a woman who sat silently beside him in a chair. He would later gather that this woman—a “sitter” employed by the hospital to see that he never fell out of bed—did in fact exist. A friend later told Sobelsohn that he’d had conversations with the woman. He bears only three other memories from his three-day stint: the vague desire to use the toilet as opposed to a bedpan, putting in a request for painkillers, and an automatic voice on the telephone inviting him to charge his calls to an outside phone number. “I don’t have a memory of any human contact,” he says. He recalls more vividly a 1966 hospital visit for pneumonia.
Litsky dropped by the hospital one day as a group of Sobelsohn’s friends were visiting with him. Sobelsohn was exhausted and forgetful but shockingly lucid at moments. Litsky recalls Sobelsohn, a devotee of the local theater scene, riffing at length on the Edward Albee play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
“He just ran with it,” says Litsky. “He gave a review of the play, and, I mean, it was very incisive. Then kind of the air went out of him and he rested. The friends and I just looked at each other, like, Whoa. Then David was like, ‘What do I have to eat?’ ‘Where’s my phone?’ ‘I can’t find my keys.’ The smallest things he was having pretty significant difficulty with.” He fretted over trivial yet puzzling issues, like the disappearance of a favorite pair of slacks, which he’d been wearing the night of the attack. (“These were a great pair of brown pants…”) He thinks the paramedics might have cut them off as they treated him; regardless, they never turned up.
According to Bardach, Sobelsohn couldn’t retain memory of things he’d done just hours before. “He said things like, ‘Did I talk to my brother? Did I remember to tell him I wouldn’t be there tonight? Gee, I just can’t remember if I did,’” says Bardach. “He started to leave notes. ‘At 10:15, called Rick.’ Two hours later, he’d say, ‘I know I talked to you at 10:15 because I have it written down right here, but I don’t remember exactly what we talked about.’”
Sobelsohn was discharged on a Sunday. Someone told him he turned up on local television the same day discussing his injuries, though Sobelsohn doesn’t recall the interview. That night, he was determined to make it to New York City to see his fifth-grade niece in a production of Beauty and the Beast. Bardach advised against it but drove him to the bus station nonetheless. Sobelsohn’s only recollection from the day is of a woman on his northbound bus, perhaps sensing his fragile state, trying to convert him to the Lyndon LaRouche movement. “I very strongly suspect I had mentioned to her what had happened to me,” says Sobelsohn. “But there’s the possibility that this was a hallucination of some sort.”
As miraculous as it was to reach New York in his state, he knows only what his brother and sister-in-law have told him of the overnight trip. He learned that he looked so much “like a zombie” that it had frightened his young niece and nephew. One of the only relics of the excursion is a note he still has in his apartment that reads “PS9,” the New York school where the play was held.
When he returned to D.C., friends dropped off food at his apartment, where he lives alone. Though he doesn’t know exactly what she gave him, Sobelsohn remembers thanking a friend at some point in April for the dish she’d given him more than a month earlier, which he described as “perfect invalid food”: It was tasty, nutritious, and required no preparation.
“I’ve told people so often about the food that people gave me in March that I don’t really know whether they all gave me food, I just know I’ve been telling people that,” he says. From his calendar he also knows that he saw the movie Caché with a friend on March 11, but he doesn’t recall a single frame. All he knows about the movie is what he’s read in reviews. “Apparently it was pretty good,” he says.
More than anything else, he’d like to remember the small gestures of support and the people who made them. “I always cry when I see the end of It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Sobelsohn. “I feel like George Bailey after the end of [it], only he’s unable to remember what happened. The bank balance shows what happened at the end—there’s this extra money that corrected the books. He can show what happened, but he can’t remember all these people coming to see him, like the brother coming from Washington. That’s how I feel.”
Sobelsohn has been nagged by a gap in his memory before. In October 2001, he took a spill on his bike when he swerved to avoid a pedestrian near the National Archives. His head hit the pavement, and he suffered a concussion. “For a few years, it bothered me that I couldn’t remember the three seconds after I saw the pedestrian and my head hit the pavement,” he says. But now, with two months missing, “it makes that seem trivial.”
“For most people, two months is a lot to lose,” says his neurologist, Dr. Rhanni Herzfeld. “It depends on the person and how full their life is…how valuable they view their contributions to the world. It’s very individual.” Sobelsohn, she says, has a decent chance at recovering the memories he’s lost. Generally speaking, the more time that passes, the more one remembers. It’s also possible that Sobelsohn will create what might be called false memories—impressions of past events that come from secondary sources.
“There’s this really odd difference that I’ve learned about in the last few months, between remembering something and really remembering it,” says Sobelsohn.
Severe cases of post-concussion syndrome can also lead to depression, dizziness, poor concentration, and anger—all of which Sobelsohn has contended with at one point or another since March. After the attack, he started experiencing what he describes as “an exaggeration of emotion.” Sometimes he got unusually teary.
“Something that would [normally] make me sad might make me weep,” he says. “Something that would [normally] get me impatient would get me angry. Waiting in line, I was very, very anxious. I couldn’t do it….What I felt was like I’d lost my socialization, like it had been stripped away or beaten out of me. These things I’d learned to do over the course of my life to live in a society, I felt like I couldn’t do them anymore.”
He also suffered from claustrophobia for the first time. He found himself in situations where his biological reactions were at odds with logic. During one of his doctor visits, he freaked out in the scanner tunnel during an MRI on his head, though he knew rationally there was nothing to worry about. The doctors had to perform an open MRI instead. On his first post-attack flight, he felt trapped in his window seat and had to ask to be moved to the aisle. At the Kennedy Center, he couldn’t bear sitting in one of the cramped chorister seats during a symphony performance. At intermission, he moved. “Anything that made me feel helpless generated panic,” he says.
His struggles with everyday activities made him wonder how he looked in the eyes of others. He couldn’t remember what he’d told people or how he’d acted around them. After dinner and a movie, he once asked a close friend what she thought of his behavior over the course of the night. Her response, according to Sobelsohn: “If a person didn’t know you, then they’d think you were acting normal. But anyone who knows you would think you were acting strangely.” Whatever she meant—he wasn’t sure—it wasn’t comforting.
“I wonder if the things I said or did during those months alienated people,” says Sobelsohn. The woman who made the remark, for instance, hasn’t seemed as close since.
“I remember asking friends for many weeks that I’d seen in social situations, ‘How was I behaving?’” he says. “Somebody said to me, ‘Your friends should understand what happened to you and cut you some slack.’ But it’s easier when it’s an obvious physical problem….The brain stuff is all invisible, except on an MRI. Ordinary people are not going to see it. It’s very hard to cut somebody slack on that or even to understand it.”
At some point after the attack, Sobelsohn had an unnerving exchange with a stranger. He answered his doorbell one day to find a man whose face he couldn’t place.
“Hi, David,” the man said.
“No. It’s Mike. We just met on the Metro? I live down the hall?”
Mike hit up Sobelsohn for $5 to do his laundry. Sobelsohn racked his brain for a memory of the guy. He came up with nothing. He thought he was perhaps being taken advantage of by someone who didn’t live in the building. He told Mike he didn’t have any cash to lend, which was the truth. Mike didn’t seem to buy it.
“I guess I’ll just have to wash my clothes by hand,” he said, then left.
Sobelsohn now believes the guy lives on his hall. “I think I may have seen him since, but I don’t know,” he says.
A little over two weeks after the mugging, Sobelsohn sat at his computer and typed up a list of everything that had disappeared with his wallet. Along with the typical ID and credit cards, his “Losses Inventory” included certain items that he considers irreplaceable:
•a copy of his birth certificate given to him by his deceased father
•a wallet-size world atlas that he’d bought at a Palo Alto, Calif., bookshop in 1979
•a miniature 200-year calendar that he believes has gone out of print
“I had stuff in that wallet that had been there for 30 or 40 years,” he says. “I have fantasies of finding it again.”
The wallet hasn’t turned up, but some of his attackers have. Investigators arrested three juveniles connected to Sobelsohn’s five-man beating. One has already pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. The remaining two will go to trial. Juvenile records are sealed, but Sobelsohn says he’s learned that two of the boys are 14 years old and have previous criminal records. Sobelsohn says the arrests were possible only because an eyewitness had come forward.
More than four months after the attack, certain physical effects linger. The cheek that was stitched up feels numb, “like I’m wearing a mask on the left side of my face.” He still experiences spells of dizziness. On a recent morning, he fell out of his queen-size bed as he was sleeping and landed on the floor—something he’s never done in his life. If nothing else, he says, he’s learned to appreciate why the hospital assigned him a sitter.
He may have trouble recalling what he had for dinner last night, and he sometimes repeats himself in conversation, but there are no significant holes in the most recent weeks of his life. He’s created exercises for his mind, like trying to memorize the titles of all 37 Shakespeare plays. He’s also confident enough in his physical equilibrium to be biking around town again. He considers riding his bike to a May groundbreaking for the new baseball stadium one of the milestones of his recovery.
“I’ve seen him a lot, and I’ve seen tremendous improvement in the last month,” says Sobelsohn’s friend Jim Byrne.
The mugging has spurred an almost confrontational sense of civic duty within Sobelsohn. At a June 15 community meeting with police, he asked a lieutenant to clarify for the crowd what he described as the department’s “unique understanding of the phrase ‘case closed.’” (Sobelsohn had been told his case was considered closed, even though two participants in the attack apparently remain at large.) At a crowded meeting on juvenile crime in Southwest the following week, Sobelsohn stood up and somewhat heatedly asked that a prosecutor from the city’s Office of the Attorney General explain why the agency tracks juvenile robberies but not juvenile assaults. The recipient of Sobelsohn’s public harangue was Lynette Collins, the prosecutor handling his own case.
After the May arrests, Sobelsohn was devastated to learn the courtroom would be closed for his trial. “I still feel very anxious about this trial,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to confronting them in court. What I thought when they were arrested was, The only way I’ll get through this trial is if I have friends there—not to harass them, but so that I have support, to look out in the courtroom and see people who soothe me before I go to the witness stand and after I come down, who will literally say, ‘It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.’”
The trial for the two assailants has been postponed until September. Because he remembers so little of the night in question, Sobelsohn isn’t expected to testify much about the attack itself. He’ll take the stand primarily to discuss all the problems in his life that followed it. They compose such a catalog that he’s created three acronyms so that he’ll remember them when he testifies:
In a strange way, he says, dealing with all those hardships—the social disorientation and fear, the loss of physical belongings as well as of memories—has made him empathize with the very children who inflicted them.
“That’s one of the paradoxes of this experience,” he says. “It has made me identify even more with people who commit crimes. Especially people like my assailants….Something happened to these kids at some point….And I know what it must be like to be damaged, what it must be like not to be socialized, because I was like that for a while.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.