The Emerging Scandal Around Recovered Memories

Psychotherapy as we know it today began when Sigmund Freud first doubted the veracity of certain molestation memories recovered through hypnosis and free association.  He was thus forced to reconsider his hypothesis that psychological disturbance was inevitably and directly related to repressed childhood traumatic seduction experiences.  Freud's abandonment of the "seduction hypothesis" has been widely misunderstood to mean either that he denied childhood seductions had actually occurred or that recovered memories are not to be believed.  Neither is true.  Hedda Bolgar, a psychoanalyst and native of early twentieth century Vienna, has assured us that there was at least as much incest in Vienna at that time as there is here today (personal communication).  Freud was no fool — he certainly knew about it.  Rather, Freud's critical discovery that has fueled psychoanalysis and psychotherapy up to the present is that, from a treatment standpoint, understanding the nature of internalized personal experience and its effects on a persons present life takes precedence over understanding the details of actual past experiences as remembered or related.

A century later grassroots therapists and the public at large are encountering the same issues.  How are we to consider recovered memories of past lives, birth trauma, multiple selves, dissociated experiences, childhood violence and seduction, satanic ritual abuse, and abductions by aliens?  A whole population has watched Sybil and witnessed ordinary citizens recounting various atrocities to which they have been victim.  Our cinema takes us aboard alien spacecraft where we see aliens at work; we know they are watching us.  Our courts are filled with suits against an array of alleged perpetrators of shocking and violent crimes.  Our media is filled with reports of victims whose emotionally-laden claims can hardly be denied.

But our collective credulity is being taxed and we now hear of a large scale "backlash" movement decrying the injustices being brought about by accusers with a "false memory syndrome."  We read of therapists being sued for hypnotically "leading" their clients into false beliefs and accusations which have resulted in considerable damage to family relations.  Every newspaper and magazine in the land now carries stories about "recovered memories" — of vengeful accusations and hateful counter-accusations.  In short, we have a scandal of national and international proportions whose stakes are high and whose social outcome is unclear.

Fascinating as the current state of affairs is, I must defer these broader issues for study by sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and legal scholars.  But as a psychoanalyst I can offer some thoughts which have evolved over a century to help analysts think through the complex issues involved in (a) considering the general nature of memory, (b) screen and telescoped memories, (c) the search for narrative truth, (d) the varieties of remembering and "forgetting," (e) recovered memories as relationship dependent, (f) the freezing of environmental failure, (g) the devious and delayed effects of "cumulative strain trauma," and (h) some ways in which therapists may misunderstand memories and collude with psychic resistance.

Part Two of this paper will consider four developmentally determined forms of memory as they present themselves in the four broadly defined varieties of personality organization, and then move to the central puzzle of recovered memories.  Part Three will consider the issue of "to believe or not to believe," the problem of "recovery" through being believed, the alarming liability of the treating therapist, the earliest forms of transference and resistance memories, the clinical fears of emptiness, breakdown, and death, and the nature of delayed "cumulative trauma."

My paper poses challenges to (1) oversimplified views taken by the recovery movement, (2) the limited scope of the false memory syndrome approach, (3) the misinformed layman's video camera theory of memory, (4) the widespread belief in a nonsensical view of repression, (5) the ethics involved in "validating" experience and "supporting" redresses, (6) therapists' collusion with resistance to transference analysis through encouraging memory recovery, and (7) therapists doing recovered memory work with the specter of psychotic acting out and malpractice suits looming down the road.

Considering the Nature of Memory

Popular imagination holds a video camera theory of memory.  We believe that our memories impartially and accurately store pictures of daily events as though we were walking camcorders.  But it takes no more than simple reflection on our everyday domestic disagreements to conclude quickly that even if our memories do function like sophisticated video cameras, there are widespread discrepancies between stories and pictures recorded by cohabiting cameras!  That 95% of homicides involve immediate family members points toward the passion with which we hold our own view of things to be correct.  Further, we have recently witnessed some of the most dramatic and devastating civil violence in the history of the world.  The cause?  Simply how different people "saw" what happened on a piece of videotape that was less than one minute long.  It appears that how one "sees" the magnetically recorded memory differs radically depending on such variables as color of skin, socioeconomic and employment status, political and religious affiliations, and so forth.  So our video camera theory of memory miserably fails us — not only because we do not see or remember fact as well as we think we do, but even when recorded facts are plainly before us, our subjective biases determine our interpretation of them.  In short, we see what we want to see and we remember things the way we intend to remember them.

Scientific evidence regarding observer agreement in psychological, sociological, and legal studies is remarkably consistent with these anecdotal observations in demonstrating that we see and remember things quite unreliably (Loftus, 1993).  Considering the overwhelming lack of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the video camera theory of human memory, where does the conviction that our perceptions and memories record unbiased truth come from?  We do, of course, subjectively maintain a certain sense of continuity in our lives.  And, regardless of how aware we are of gaps in our ability to perceive and remember accurately, we often have the sense that if we just dwell on some past event for a few moments we can conjure up a reasonably accurate recollection.  And for most practical, everyday purposes our powers of memory do get us by.

But recalling early childhood memories poses a whole different set of issues.  Diverse and wide-ranging studies confirm that childhood amnesia for most events before the age of four or five is universal, though the exact nature and causes of childhood amnesia are little understood by most people.  True, most of us possess a set of internal pictures of those early times.  But these pictures seem to fall into several classes: (a) memories stimulated or created by photos or family lore which may or may not be our memories; (b) frightening or otherwise intense or traumatic experiences which seem to be recallable due to the sheer impact certain events had on our lives; and (c) so-called "screen" and "telescoped" memories, which are the most common memories of early childhood.

Screen and Telescoped Memories

Freud formulates that screen memories from early childhood function to gather many emotional details into a single picture or narration.  Many emotional events or a whole emotional atmosphere become projected, as it were, onto a screen so that a certain picture or story remains as an emotionally compelling "memory."  The picture an individual recalls may be vivid and perhaps be clung to tenaciously as absolute truth, even in face of reliable contradictory evidence.

A screen memory may also be a reasonably accurate rendition of what actually happened.  But it is recalled, says Freud, because of its power to condense a whole emotional complex.  Freud believed that what is essential to remember from early childhood has been retained in screen memories and that the analyst's task is one of knowing how to extract it.  But regardless of whatever objective accuracy a given screen memory may or may not possess, its true value, like that of dreams, is primarily subjective.  Its images are subject to the primary processes of condensation, displacement, symbolization, and the requirements of visual representability so that the memory can never be understood concretely or literally.

At one point Freud felt that screen memories represent the forgotten years of childhood "as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts" (1914, p.148).  But Freud came to designate first transference, and subsequently resistance to the transference, as the most fundamental repositories of critical relatedness memories from childhood, which are even more important than screen memories.  Screen memories freeze in dream time images of the lived past, while the critical memories that live on in our daily lives are manifest in transference and resistance.  Transference and resistance as the most critical forms of early childhood memory are understood by psychoanalysts to be unconscious and also considered governed by the same kind of primary process thought seen in dreams.

Heinz Kohut (1971, 1977) notes a special type of screen memory, the telescoped memory, which collapses over various time periods of one's life a certain category or class of emotional events into a single vivid and compelling picture or narrative.  For example, one recalls a convincing memory of a certain event in a relationship which can clearly be placed in one's adolescence.  But that picture may summarize, collapse, and represent the subjective truth of a series of emotionally similar experiences, dating perhaps from earliest infancy.

Freud notes that the emotional themes of the analysis which lead to an understanding of transference and resistance are regularly foreshadowed in dreams, slips of the tongue, sexual fantasies, and childhood memories.  He observes that phantasmagoric pictures and stories presented to the analyst as early childhood memories contain crucial thematic elements required for an analysis of the developing transferential relationship with the analyst.  Recovered memories and dreams spontaneously emerge as analyst and analysand struggle to define hidden aspects of the here-and-now analytic relationship — both real and transferential.  The importance of this type of childhood memory lies in the way lifelong emotional themes are condensed and displaced in much the same way as primary process material in dreams.  Memories thus recovered are most profoundly appreciated if they can be considered less as representations of actual event and more as creative dreamwork which represents the transference and resistance themes as they emerge in the analytic relationship.

Psychoanalytic case studies are filled with examples of such screen memories.  Analysts for years have studied how the person in analysis reexperiences (i.e., remembers by repeating) his or her emotional past in the context of current relationships, especially the one with the analyst.  The most interesting and widely reported aspect of memories recovered during psychoanalysis occurs when some heretofore unnoticed aspect of the emotional past can be interpreted as operating in the here-and-now present of the analytic relationship.  Suddenly, long-forgotten memories flood into consciousness and are reported to the analyst.  The analyst may evaluate the correctness of the transference interpretation according to the kinds and qualities of early memories that spontaneously erupt into consciousness to "confirm" the interpretation.

To what extent such memories are memories of actual events, screen memories, or complex psychological constructions which represent current relational realities remains a topic for discussion.  But no seasoned psychoanalyst ever assumes any memory, no matter how vivid or seemingly true it appears, as an indisputable historical fact.  Memories are understood as mental functions that serve present purposes, in analysis the purpose of reviewing and restructuring our identities and the way we live our lives.

Following Freud's abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, and the considerations regarding the special nature of screen as well as transference and resistance memories, psychoanalysts have tended not to take childhood memories recovered in analysis at face value.  It is widely recognized that the moment a person addresses an analyst, powerful unconscious transference and resistance (memories) come immediately into play — although it may be some time before the nature of those memories can be understood.  Historically, many psychoanalysts became interested in "reconstructing" the emotional influences of early childhood based not upon a literal understanding of the memories but derived from detailed studies of memories projected onto the analyst and into the analysis in the form of current and active manifestations of transference and resistance.

The Search For Narrative Truth

Psychoanalysis erroneously gained a reputation for being interested in the distant childhood past.  But, in fact, no form of psychotherapy has been more vehemently focused on the here-and-now present transference situation than psychoanalysis.  Even the psychoanalytic enthusiasm for "reconstructing" childhood emotional life based upon current experience in the analytic relationship had dwindled considerably by the late 1 970s.  Roy Schafer (1976), Donald Spence (1982), and a host of others definitively shifted psychoanalytic concerns away from the search for "historical truth" in favor of establishing narrative truth."  A century of psychoanalytic practice had succeeded in demonstrating how unreliable and pale in importance are "recovered" memories of historical fact in comparison to the vivid and compelling forms of memory that are alive, active, and manifest in narratives, narrational pictures, and narrational interactions of current relationships, especially the analytic relationship.

Since the beginning of time, human truth has been recorded in myth, image, story, and archetype as Freud, Jung, and others have pointed out.  Individual records of experience may similarly emerge in an analytic dialogue in which two create pictures and narrations which capture, at least for the moment, the essence of some feature of their shared emotional life.  Dreams, childhood memories, and sexual fantasies contribute in a major way to the joint construction of narratives that have an "emotional fit" to the here-and-now relationship.

The psychoanalytic enterprise may be studied scientifically like any other human activity.  But the psychoanalytic process itself forever remains an encounter between two subjective worlds which lends itself to the same kinds of systematic study as other interpretive disciplines.  The objectivity involved in studying psychoanalytic work across cases must be clearly distinguished from the dual subjectivity that governs the process of any single analysis and the stories and images that emerge to characterize it.

Joseph Natterson (1991) clarifies what has been known for some time — that narrative statements emerging from any psychoanalytic dialogue are subject to a host of creative distorting influences and power manipulations operating in the transference/counter-transference and resistance/counterresistance dimensions.  In short, it is sheer folly to attribute the status of historical or legal fact to any conclusion arising from a psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic process.  Participation in a psychotherapeutic process has a validity of an entirely different order.

Four Kinds of Remembering and "Forgetting"

Psychoanalysts have no viable theory of forgetting, only a set of theories about how different classes of emotional events are remembered or barred from active memory.  "Forgetting impressions, scenes, or experiences nearly always reduces itself to shutting them off.  When the patient talks about these 'forgotten' things he seldom fails to add: 'As a matter of fact I've always known it; only I've never thought of it.'" (Freud, 1914, p. 148).

Of course, there are many things around us which we do not notice and therefore do not recall.  Further, much of our life's experience is known but has never been thought about.  Much of this "unthought known" (Bollas, 1987) can be represented in the analytic dialogue and understood by two.  Even if sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," psychoanalytic study has never portrayed human psyche as anything so passive as to be subject to simple forgetting.  How then do analysts account for what appears to be "forgotten" experience?  We have four viable ways to consider different classes of memories recovered in analysis and the ways in which remembering some things necessarily bars other things from recall.

Primary Repression

At the lower end of the developmental spectrum of memory which begins in infancy, "forgetting" is accounted for by Freud's doctrine of "primary repression" which first appears in notes he wrote on the train returning from Berlin to Vienna (1895a) after visiting his close friend and colleague, Wilhelm Fleiss.  In this quasi- neurological model of the mind, Freud speaks of a neuronal extension meeting with pain and, as a result, erecting a counter cathexis so as to avoid future encounters with the same pain.  The memory of the encounter with the painful stimulus exists in the form of a barrier to ever extending or experiencing in that way again.

No memory of the experience per se is involved; the memory exists in the automatic avoidance of broad classes of stimulus cues.  An anecdotal example might be a curious infant putting her finger in kitty's mouth.  While her capacity for ordinary cause-effect thinking may be limited, we do note that she tends not to risk her finger there again!  Freud's theory of primary repression is essentially a conditioning theory based upon experiences of pleasurable and painful reinforcement at the neurological level.  What is stored as memory is an aversion — as if a sign had been posted in the neuronal system saying "never reach there again.

Secondary Repression

At the advanced end of the developmental spectrum of remembering and forgetting is Freud's doctrine of "secondary repression" or repression proper, as a psychological defense against internal somatic or instinctual stimulation.  Freud's notion of repression does not apply to externally generated impingements, but repression is seen as the only way psyche has to place limits on overstimulation arising from within the body.  By the age of five a child is actively representing his or her bodily experiences in verbal-symbolic logic and controlling physical and social behavior by auto instruction.  As the social undesirability of somatic experiences such as rubbing up against Mother's breast, playing with one's genitals, biting or hitting people, or jumping up and down on Daddy's lap becomes clear, the child adopts a policy decision against engaging further in such activities and thoughts.

Fingarette (1969) makes clear that the psychoanalytic doctrine of repression never includes the notion that undesirable activities or thoughts are simply forgotten, or that they somehow disappear or vanish into a black hole.  Repression entails a volitional activity of adopting a personal policy never to spell out in consciousness again the exciting but taboo thought or activity.

That we may claim not to remember ever consciously adopting such policies can be put in the same category as not remembering all of the trials and errors of learning any other complex and coordinated activity such as reading, riding a bicycle, playing tennis; or typing.  After somewhat protracted and painful practice we simply know the right way to behave and what pitfalls to avoid.  We may speak of the painful memories as though they were forgotten, but the flawless retention of complex and coordinated activities attests to the living presence of painful memories in our lives.  Freud's theory of neurotic symptom formation assumes that repression resulting from conscious policy decisions against powerful biological forces remain perennially precarious and only partially effective so that the forbidden life forces continue to manifest as mysterious "symptoms."

Dissociation and Splitting

Midway on the developmental spectrum of remembering and forgetting, between the early primary (neurologically conditioned) repression of physically painful experience and the much later secondary (policy decision) repression of socially undesirable, instinctually driven thoughts and behavior, psychoanalysts speak of splitting and dissociation.  Eve White (Thigpen & Cleckley, 1957) sits prim and proper in her reputable secretarial position all week.  But on Saturday night Eve Black puts on her red dress and dancing shoes to go out on the town.  During the week Eve White might well notice any of a number of pieces of evidence around her apartment which would confirm the existence of her split-off or dissociated self, but she does not.  Eve Black thinks what an uptight prude Eve White is as her lusty self-assertiveness comes to life.  In relation to her psychotherapist, a third self, Jane, slowly emerges who is able to tolerate, appreciate, and integrate both her need for adult responsibility and her love of adolescent play.

Clinicians and theoreticians employ the terms "splitting" and "dissociation" in a variety of different contexts and often employ the terms interchangeably.  For present purposes it is useful to distinguish between two quite different psychoanalytic concepts of remembering and forgetting.  "Splitting" is used here to designate the developmentally earlier form which more closely resembles primary repression.  "Dissociation" designates a developmentally later form which more closely resembles the ego defense of secondary repression.  There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation in the field of psychotherapy about all of these remembering and "forgetting" processes so that even these terms often become confused by being reversed.  A discussion of each follows.

Kernberg (1976) is perhaps the clearest and most persuasive writer on the subject of affect and ego splitting.  His formulations, which involve the splitting (or keeping separate) of "good" and "bad" affects or ego states, echo the experiences of pleasure and pain from Freud's doctrine of primary repression.  But Kernberg's terms designate subjective psychological experiences which are a step removed from neurological processes.  In studying the positive and negative affective building blocks of early personality development, Kernberg observes that people may exhibit specific areas of "impulse disturbance."  According to Kernberg, variations in impulsiveness represent

... an alternating expression of complementary sides of a conflict, such as acting out of the impulse at some times and specific defensive character formation or counterphobic reactions against that impulse at other times.  The patients were conscious of the severe contradiction in their behavior; yet they would alternate between opposite strivings with a bland denial of the implications of this contradiction and showed what appeared to be a striking lack of concern over this 'compartmentalizing' of their mind (1976, p 2).

Kernberg thus postulates an active force of mutual denial of independent contradictory sectors of psychic life.  These sectors or independent ego states are repetitive, temporarily ego syntonic, and compartmentalized, affectively colored psychic manifestations.  But more importantly Kernberg notes, "each of these mutually unacceptable 'split' ego states represented a specific transference paradigm, a highly developed regressive transference reaction in which a specific internalized object relationship was activated in the transference" (1976 p.21).  Kernberg thus understands contradictory and chaotic transference manifestations" as oscillatory activation of mutually unacceptable ego states-representations of "non-metabolized internalized object relations.

The implication of Kernberg's thinking is that in early childhood development the personality has failed to develop in certain delineated areas a high enough level of psychic integration in which ambivalence towards significant others in the child's environment can be tolerated.  Rather, certain ego-affect states prevail during different preselected interpersonal conditions, and contradictory ego-affect states become activated when the interpersonal situation shifts.  His explanation is that certain aspects of early internalized affective relationships with significant others were not fully integrated ("metabolized") into a smoothly flowing fabric of personality, and that they show up later as emotional contradictions which appear in analysis as "split" positive and negative transference and resistance memories.  A whole continuum of affect states (moods) can be seen in this way to form an array of (multiple) ego-affect or self states.  The presence of each in consciousness is dependent upon the experience of the interpersonal situation prevailing at the moment.

In Kernberg's formulations there is no mention of forgetting.  Rather, various ego-affect possibilities are present or absent depending upon how the person perceives or experiences the current relationship situation.  Kernberg's accent is on the early development of positive and negative affect states and how these mutually exclusive or "split" affect or ego states determine the specific kinds of transference and resistance (memories) likely to become activated in the analytic relationship at a given moment in time.  Various affectively colored memories will be present in or absent from consciousness depending upon how one is experiencing the current emotional relationship.  Contradictory parts of the self are split off and not permitted direct access to consciousness in the moment.

They are not repressed.  Nor have they vanished, been forgotten, or gotten lost in some sort of black hole.  In fact, they may reappear at any moment depending on how the interpersonal emotional interaction goes.  In Kernberg's formulations of affect and ego splitting, contradictory experiences of self and other are or are not activated depending on how the person experiences the current relational context.

Such a theory has major implications for what is and is not to be remembered when one is experiencing split-off states.  When one's black (evil) motives are in play, black and evil narrations of the past will be activated.  When one's good, angelic self is operating, the sun is shining on good and idealized loved ones and the current relationship with the therapist is idealized.  The precariousness of these kinds of splitting experiences is that what state of mind and affect memory one lives in is dependent upon which direction the wind is blowing in transference relationships.  Good people suddenly turn evil when ones mood changes; revenge is sought toward the one once idealized for the humiliation one felt at being the one who envied or adored.

The developmentally more advanced form of personality splitting which, for purposes of discussion I am calling "dissociation," bears a close resemblance to Freud's doctrine of secondary repression in that it has more of a "defensive" quality in contrast to the earlier splitting process which has more of an unintegrated (pleasure versus pain) quality.  In describing the operation of dissociation, Cameron (1963) contrasts the so-called "horizontal split" between conscious and unconscious processes with what has been called a "vertical split" in personality which functions to separate or wall off whole (conscious and unconscious) sectors of personality.

Cameron speaks of the "span" of the overall ego and what kinds of experiences it is prepared to encompass within that span.  When psychic stimulation occurs which cannot be smoothly integrated into the operative span of the existing ego, the experience is set aside in a dissociated ego state rather than integrated within the overall personality.  Sleepwalking, sleeptalking, amnesias, fugues, and limited splits in the personality are examples of dissociation.  The mythical "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and the earliest simplified report on "The Three Faces of Eve" (Thigpen & Cleckley, 1957) provide examples of dissociated sectors of the personality that at times may assert their claims over the main personality.  It is important to note that Kohut (1971) invokes the notion of the vertical split similarly when he speaks of the narcissistic sector of the personality as dissociated from the main (more object related) personality.


Summarizing, four distinctly different processes have been postulated in the history of psychoanalysis to account for the various conditions of memory. In developmental order they are:

(1) primary (neurologically conditioned) repression which acts to foreclose the possibility of reengaging in activities formerly experienced as physically painful;

(2) ego-affect splitting in which mutually contradictory affect states give rise to contrasting and contradictory self and other transference and resistance memories;

(3) dissociation in which certain whole sectors of internal psychic experience are (defensively) walled off from the main personality because they cannot be integrated into the overall span of the main personality; and

(4) secondary (policy decision) repression brought about by self instruction against socially undesirable, internal, instinctually-driven thought and activity.

The layman's notion (which judges, jurors, and survivor's groups are most likely to hold) which presupposes massive forgetting of an intense social impingement and the later possibility of perfect video camera recall, is not a part of any existing psychoanalytic theory of memory.  A century of psychoanalytic observation has shown that the common sense notion of forgetting, derived as it is from the everyday experience of lapses in memory with sudden flashes of recall, simply does not hold up when emotionally charged interpersonal experiences from early childhood are involved.  What appears to the layman as forgetting is considered by psychoanalytic theory to be the result of the operation of selective forms of recall which are dependent upon the nature of the relationship context in which the memories are being recalled.

Nor do psychoanalytic theories regarding how emotionally charged memories operate support the common prejudice that human beings are accurate recorders of the historical facts out of which their personal psychic existences are forged!  Human memory is simply not an objective camcorder affair, but rather a calling forth or creation of subjective narrational representations within a specified and highly influential relational context.

Recovered Memories as Relationship Dependent

Transformation of personal experience through making sense of recovered memories has always been at the heart of psychoanalytic theory and practice.  The psychoanalytic concepts of primary repression, splitting, dissociation, and secondary or defensive repression have evolved within the context of accruing knowledge about the relational conditions required for the emergence of limiting forms of early childhood emotional memory.  The psychoanalytic situation, characterized as it is by nonjudgmental empathic concern for all aspects of a person's psyche, was created by Freud in order to replicate the safe holding environment of the early mother-child transformational situation (Bollas, 1987).  As such, psychoanalytic theories of memory must be understood as inextricably tied to the relationship setup of the psychoanalytic situation.

The error of isolating concepts evolved in one field of study and uncritically generalizing them to other fields has been repeatedly and regrettably demonstrated in all sciences.  It is clearly an error to generalize to other settings (e.g., family confrontations, social settings, and courtrooms) psychoanalytic notions of recall, developed as they have been within the circumscribed context of the analytic relationship for purposes of personal transformation within a safe, well defined, confidential, and limited interpersonal environment.  The most devious kind of dual relationship that a therapist can engage in, is authorizing the acting out in the client's real life of impulses and motivations condensed and displaced in the form of dreams and recovered memories produced in the context of the therapeutic relationship for analysis as transference and resistance.

This unethical procedure is apparently running rampant at present.  I will shortly give an explication of the four kinds of interpersonal listening situations in which each of these theories of remembering is best suited along with the transference, resistance, and countertransference dimensions.  But first a few words regarding how psychoanalysts have considered the problem of "massive forgetting" and sudden "total recall" as it is reported by many individuals.

Conceptually, the two upper developmental level forms of remembering, secondary repression and defensive dissociation are the result of the person attempting to solve internal problems.  In the case of repression it is the sense of driveness of the somatic instincts themselves that have become a problem to the five- to seven-year-old child, so that he or she must develop policies not to spell the impulses out in consciousness in order to live harmoniously in a world that does not care to have sexuality and aggression freely expressed.  In the case of dissociation, whole (conscious and unconscious) sectors of the (three- to four-year-old) personality, such as narcissism, are set aside because they cannot be encompassed within the overall span of the existing personality structure.

The psychic problem involved in these two forms of memory is one of internal economics of what parts of the self can and cannot be smoothly integrated.  The world may have a negative view of unbridled narcissism, lust, or aggression; but the move to isolate or not to think about parts of the self is an internal move, motivated by solving internally generated problems.  Because these psychoanalytic doctrines were devised to describe how the personality may attempt to solve internal dilemmas, it is totally inappropriate to use these notions to account for "massive forgetting" due to externally generated trauma.

However, in the developmentally earlier forms of memory, primary repression and ego-affect splitting, the occasion for remembering appears to be more external in nature.  Primary repression has already been discussed as a somatic experience based on pleasurable and painful experiences.  McDougall (1989) points out, "Since babies cannot use words with which to think, they respond to emotional pain only psychosomatically ...  The infant's earliest psychic structures are built around nonverbal 'signifiers' in the body's functions and the erogenous zones play a predominant role" (p. 9-10).  Her extensive psychoanalytic work with psychosomatic conditions shows how through careful analysis of manifestations in transference and resistance the early learned somatic signifiers can be brought from soma and represented in psyche through words, pictures, and stories.  McDougall illustrates how body memories can be expressed in the interpersonal language of transference and resistance.

Bioenergetic Analysis (Lowen, 1971, 1975, 1988) repeatedly demonstrates the process of bringing somatically stored memories into the here and now of transference and resistance in the therapeutic relationship.  In bringing somatically stored memories out of the body and into psychic expression and/or representation, whether through psychoanalytic or bioenergetic technique, considerable physical pain is necessarily experienced.  This pain is usually thought of as resulting from therapeutically "forcing through" or "breaking through" long-established aversive barriers to various kinds of physical experiencing which have been previously forsaken.  That is, the threshold to more flexible somatic experience is guarded by painful sensations (parallel with Freud's 1926 theory of "signal anxiety") erected to prevent future venturing into places once experienced as painful by the infant or developing toddler.

Similarly, the split affect model of early memory postulates the presence in personality of mutually denied contradictory ego states which represent specific transference paradigms based on internalized object relations.  Whether a split ego state is or is not present in consciousness is dependent upon the way the person experiences the current interpersonal relationship situation.  This means that what is remembered and the way it is recalled is highly dependent upon specific facilitating aspects of the relationship in which the memory is being expressed or represented.

Neither of these developmentally lower forms of memory can, therefore, be seen as supporting the layman's notion of massive amnesia for trauma with the possibility of a later lifting of the repressive veil to permit perfect recall.  The concept of primary repression fails in this regard because it does not record any memory per se, but rather builds a barrier to certain broad classes of somatic experience which are very painful to approach.  And splitting as a concept fails because nothing is "forgotten or made unconscious but rather recall is seen as dependent upon the current relationship context.  Thus it can be seen that no existing theory of memory derived from a century of intense psychoanalytic observation supports the layman's naive view of "massive repression" followed by "full and reliable recall."

The Freezing of Environmental Failure

Winnicott, a British pediatrician trained as a psychoanalyst, is renowned for his understanding of early psychic development.  It is his view that there is a possible maturational or unfolding process for each child in which environmental provision is a necessary facilitator.  An environment with limited provision or unempathic intrusiveness may leave the child with a painful sense of personal failure:

One has to include in one's theory of the development of a human being the idea that it is normal and healthy for the individual to be able to defend the self against specific environmental failure by a freezing of the failure situation.  Along with this goes an unconscious assumption (which can become a conscious hope) that opportunity will occur at a later date for a renewed experience in which the failure situation will be able to be unfrozen and reexperienced with the individual in a regressed state, in an environment which is making adequate adaptation" (1954, p. 281).

Winnicott's use of the metaphor "unfreezing of the failure situation" makes clear that he has a specific psychoanalytic situation in mind which fosters emotional regression to the dependent infantile state in an environment in which hopefully more understanding and empathic adaptation to the infantile need can be made the second time around.  Note that what he speaks of as frozen, until it can later be reprocessed in some relationship, is a specific environmental failure.  There is no mention of forgetting and recall but rather that a failed situation is set aside (frozen) until a relationship comes along which permits a reliving of infantile dependency in which there is believed to be the possibility that the failure can be made good.  The purpose of Winnicott's formulation is to define a kind of memory which the psychoanalytic relationship calls forth so that an earlier failure of the environment can be worked on in the current relationship.

Winnicott's formulation does point toward how traumatically experienced environmental failures may be set aside until an analyst or therapist comes along with whom the person can relive the failure.  The popular notion of "recovery" being the recall of early memories, having them validated by others, and then confronting those "responsible" for the long-ago failure misunderstands the psychotherapeutic process of reviving in the present the environmental failure situation so that it can be worked through in transference and resistance with the person of the analyst or therapist, not acted out in the person's contemporary world.  Unfortunately, many therapists collude with the acting-out process so as to avoid the difficult and sometimes dangerous transference working-through process.

Winnicott's formulation clearly points toward a treatment situation in which the split-off internalized object relation has an opportunity to become manifest in the analytic relationship as transference and resistance to transference.  Psychoanalytic technique as practiced by analysts and psychoanalytically informed therapists is designed to bring early childhood experience into the here-and-now relationship so that transference and resistance memories have an opportunity to emerge.  Such recovered memories, like screen memories, are never to be taken at face value because the very way in which they are secured for analytic study necessarily imbues them with extensive primary process thinking (condensation, displacement, symbolization, and visual representability).

Thus, even the psychoanalytic concept which held out the most hope for accounting for "massive forgetting" which is later subject to "accurate recall" fails completely.  First, because it is a theory about how certain conditions provided by the psychoanalytic situation foster emotional recall, not how a traumatic event is forgotten.  Second, because the nature of the recall is dreamlike in its basic nature and only emerges in the form of privately experienced versions of the here-and-now relating of the analytic session.  And third, because the formulation highlights how that damage can be internally repaired, not how memory works.  Even the memories which often follow transference interpretation are not assumed to be veridical by psychoanalysts, but rather psychological constructions validating transference and resistance themes.

In short, there are no psychoanalytic theories that support the widespread claims of massive forgetting of traumatic childhood experiences which are then subject to accurate video camera recall.  If such experience exists, a century of worldwide psychoanalytic observation — through two World Wars, a Holocaust, Korea, and Vietnam — has certainly failed to discover it.  To the contrary, psychoanalytic research supports an understanding of various types of memory which are characteristic of different levels of human psychic development, the emergence of which is specifically dependent, and the nature of which is subjectively determined narrational truth.

All memories recovered in the course of the psychoanalytic encounter are to be taken seriously as representations of relatedness experience emerging in the here-and-now analytic relationship.  For an analyst to consider memories recovered under these conditions as literally and objectively true colludes with the resistance to transference analysis and runs the risk of (unethically) encouraging an acting out of material which is emerging in response to the analytic relationship.

The proper target of the abusive transference is the analyst and how he or she relates or fails to relate to the needs of the client.  If the therapist deflects the rage, helplessness, impotence, or revenge from its proper transferential locus in the here-and-now therapeutic relationship toward figures or events from the past or toward the outside present, the possibility of psychotherapeutic transformation is completely foreclosed in favor of family confrontations, lawsuits, and the continued operation of the internalized environmental failure in the person's psychic life.  In short, any simplified version of the recovery approach is anti-psychotherapeutic.  Practicing a simplified recovery approach under the name of psychotherapy clearly creates a serious liability for the therapist.

[Back to the Article]

Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.