Four Developmentally Determined Forms of Memory

Childhood memories recovered in the psychoanalytic situation fall into four general classes: (a) Recollections of wishes and fears of Oedipal (triangular, four- to seven-year-old) relating; (b) Realizations of self-to-selfother (three-year-old) resonances; (c) Representations of self and other (four- to 24-month old) scenarios-in both passive and active interpersonal replications; and (d) Expressions of the search for and the rupture of potential channels or links to others (four months before and after birth).

These four types of transference each have their own particular forms of resistance memory and are directly related to the four theories of memory which have evolved in psychoanalysis — ( 1) primary repression, (2) affect splitting, (3) ego dissociation, and (4) secondary repression — only I have reversed their order for the discussion which follows because our understanding of the nature of early childhood memories has historically evolved developmentally downward.

1. Triangular (Oedipal) Recollections and Secondary Repression

Freud points out the way humans feel seen, reflected, and inhibited by observing third parties.  The loves and hatreds of our five-year-old selves towards significant others in our childhood environments are depicted in the cultural myth of Oedipus and powerfully echoed in the character of Hamlet.  The tragedy of human life, Freud holds, is that the intense lustful and aggressive strivings of early childhood too often can not be adequately contained or encompassed within family relationships.  The result is that the child feels forced to blind him or herself (as did Oedipus) or to kill off the self (as did Hamlet) to experiences of lustful passion and aggressive self-assertiveness rather than to risk (castrating) punishment for experiencing the intense and natural longings which are forbidden by the incestual and parricidal taboos implicit in the family structure.

Psychoanalysts have been fond of reviewing our cultural lore and fairy tales for the endless ways in which the hero or heroine is rendered personally impotent by a wicked parental imago.  The witches in "Hansel and Gretel," "Snow White," and "The Little Mermaid," the wicked stepmother in "Cinderella," the caged monster in "Iron Man," the phantom in the Opera, and countless other folk images operate as unconscious symbolized recollections of internalized Oedipal parents who deprive the tragic child of the fullness of lived instinctual life.

Our impotence in face of many of life's challenging circumstances is by now known to us as neurotic self-inhibition stemming from our failure or refusal to assume a full measure of sexuality, aggression, masculinity, femininity, adulthood, and/or separateness.  By now, the lessons of the Freudians have become an integral part of our culture itself.  In a thousand litanies we tell ourselves to grow up, to be independent, to not seek a mother or father to marry, to not be co-dependent, to stop being a victim, a wimp, or a castrating bitch, and to get out of the Cinderella or Peter Pan role.  Lately we've been starting to tell ourselves to "come out of the closet," or at least we have begun wrestling with the problem of what closets we have been hiding in.  We have all learned what it means to accept something "intellectually."  And we know how intellectualizing differs radically from when we let something really "hit us in the gut where we live."  Our experiences in therapy, our interactions in groups, and indeed even our literature and media — in short, all of contemporary relatedness culture — bears the mark of Freud's insight into how each person's Oedipus Complex crops up to sour our loving relationships and to spoil our joy and assertiveness in daily living.

Therapists are well taught how to look for the sexual and aggressive in feelings and attitudes that are transferred to the therapist.  They know well how to interpret the barriers of fear and inhibition which comprise the resistance memories to feeling anger and attraction toward the therapist.  So no more need be said about how these forms of memory appear in the psychotherapeutic situation or the importance of the therapist's being able to encourage them being brought into light of conscious day.

2. Narcissistic Realizations and Dissociation

While it has become fashionable to own sexual and aggressive strivings in our relationships, we still tend to squirm when someone mentions our narcissism.  Kohut (1971, 1977) has pointed out that hypocrisy in Freud's day centered around Victorian censorship of sex and aggression.  And that hypocrisy today revolves around our reluctance to honor authentic and wholesome self-centeredness, our natural sense of self-love, our narcissism.

Those familiar with Kohut's work know that he specified three types of transference memories derived from the legitimate needs of our three-year-old selves which he viewed as defensively dissociated from our main personalities.  These are the need to be affirmed as a grandiose self through mirroring, the need to be confirmed as a worthy person through twinning, and the need to feel inspired by others whom we can idealize.  The others we turn to for self-affirmation, confirmation, and inspiration we know (intellectually) to be separate from ourselves.  But in these regards they are used more as parts of ourselves like an arm or a leg — thus Kohut's concept of the selfother.1  Kohut reminds us that we all need selfothers — people who affirm, confirm, and inspire us — from birth to death.  But at age three the developmental focus is on establishing for the first time a true sense of self which is independent in certain definite ways from how mother needs us to be.

Kohut's clinical theory postulates that many of the ways we continue as adults to seek affirmation, confirmation, and inspiration in our everyday relationships are retained, defensively dissociated memories of the ways we first sought selfother resonance from our parents and other family members as toddlers.  That is, the self we daily realize in relationships frequently uses archaic means in an attempt to gain mature goals.  Kohut demonstrates how the reflecting effect of the psychoanalytic encounter can be used to bring these archaic memories — dissociated modes of realizing the self through self-to-selfother resonance — under scrutiny.

The chief resistance to realizing the dissociated archaic memories in the analytic relationship takes the form of shame that we so want to be the center of the world, that we so want everything to go exactly our way.  But once the resistance to the realization in the analytic transference relationship of the archaic grandiose, narcissistic self is analyzed, once empathy with the legitimate needs of the self can be restored, Kohut demonstrates how we can achieve more vibrant and fulfilling self-realization.

So the second general class of memories is defensively disavowed or dissociated in early childhood and recoverable as transference and resistance in psychoanalysis or psychotherapy.  These memories relate to the natural strivings of a three-year-old to have his or her self be lustily and aggressively realized in relationship to significant others.  The archaic (historically developed) ways of searching for self-affirmation, confirmation, and inspiration are living relatedness memories which appear in selfother or narcissistic transferences.  Self-state dreams and fragmented hypersexuality and aggressiveness may give the therapist information about the ways in which self-realization and confirmation is failing.  Shame over desires for narcissistic self-aggrandizement marks the resistance (memory) to allowing one's self the freedom to take center stage and to be properly applauded.

Many therapists have come to understand narcissistic transferences and how resistances to narcissism can be interpretively worked with.  However, many other therapists and most workers at the level of institutional or self-help groups become uncomfortable when strong self-realization needs begin to be expressed.  Legitimate self-aggrandizement and seeking for self-approval are often met with narrow and naive moralizing attitudes about "learning to get along with others."  Or they may be met with a reaction formation which supports the general attitude, "I'm going to take care of myself — fuck everybody else."  Either approach, of course, misses completely the possibility of studying selfobject needs as forms of recovered memory.  Either approach misses the opportunity to relive the vital transference resistance memories about how one was shamed for legitimate self love.

3. Split Representations of Replicated Self and Other Scenarios

Transference memories from the four- to 24-month old "symbiotic" era (Mahler, 1968) are without words, pictures, and verbalizable feelings because thought and memory during this essentially preverbal period are organized around affective interactions, not words, symbols, or pictures.  That is, the salient features of internalized symbiotic memory are the workable patterns of affective relatedness experience which articulate in actions and emotional interactions oneself to important others for the purpose of making the world operate in an acceptable or at least tolerable manner.  The toddler learns a series of rules about what does and doesn't work in his or her world of people, under varying sets of circumstances.  The toddler actively teaches significant others ways of providing for his or her needs which are more or less satisfying and/or satisfactory.  The most important and earliest mapping is of the mother's unconscious emotional life which governs almost everything that is of critical importance to the child.

When we present our toddler selves to our therapist there are no words or pictures to express what the crucial relatedness memories are.  We can only do it to the other, live out or emotionally replicate the split-off affectively-laden relatedness scenarios directly with the person of our therapist.  Or conversely, we can make ourselves available for interactions to happen to us, for emotional interactions of which we were once the passive victim to be emotionally replicated within the therapeutic transference relationship.

The overlearned idiom of (m)other-child interaction is an emotional, characterological, physically-charged, interactive internalization which is retained in body and psychic memory which Bollas (1987) has called "the unthought known."  There are many different "scenarios" that occur between mother and infant or toddler, each with its own rules and expected sets of outcomes.  And there are other scenarios learned with each significant other in the child's life at that time, including the family pets.

Though scenarios as memories, by virtue of their preverbal, presymbolic internalized interactive nature, cannot be retrieved in picture or word or spoken to the analyst, they can become known through the way various affective interactions are represented in the living out of or in the replication of the symbiotic transference and resistance in the analytic relationship.

Recapping, repressed memories from the Oedipal level of development are recallable through dreams, symbols, jokes, sexual fantasies, slips of the tongue, and triangular transferences and resistances.  Dissociated memories from the narcissistic period of relatedness development are realizable through the way the archaic dissociated self seeks affirmation, confirmation, and inspiration from the selfother and through the ways self-realization is resisted through shame.  But at the symbiotic, character, or "borderline" level of development, the internalized split-off memories of the ways in which self and other interact that are experienced as "all good" or "all bad" take on a "knee jerk" or automatic quality, thereby becoming represented in the transference relationship with which the analyst is expected to be able to reverberate.   Represented interactions which are experienced as good are actively sought out, developed, and affectively rewarded while those represented interactions experienced as bad are avoided, shunned, shut off; and/or affectively punished.

When the therapist shows signs of mistaking or missing the implicit relatedness rules, there may be an intense negative reaction of coldness, collapse, or unmitigated rage — according to whatever style or mode of relatedness punishment the person experienced as a toddler for his or her transgressions.  When the therapist is performing properly there will be a regalia of positive experience.  That is, the passive victim role is turned to active victor.  Memories implicit in the person's ego-affective splits of toddlerhood demand certain kinds of relatedness and foreclose other possible modes of relatedness.2  Therefore, critical splits of memories from the symbiotic period can be effectively represented in the affective interactions or character scenarios of the replicated transference, resistance, and countertransference-in both passive and active versions.

Most therapists are familiar with having to assume the role of "all bad" or "all good" parent imago in the borderline or symbiotic transference interaction.  Therapists are painfully aware that the power of the split-off (remembered) transference role does not diminish with verbal interpretation; but only gradually subsides through long and laborious relating in which the symbiotic interaction that is represented in the transference/countertransference dimension is gradually and relationally confronted by the therapist so that the need for such rigid roles is slowly relinquished.  Resistance is to giving up a way of being in the world that memorializes primordial love for one's (m) other, no matter what the quality of that early interactional attachment may have been.  Depression manifest in suicidal ideation and fears for the health and safety of the real mother mark the relinquishment of symbiotic scenarios.

However, few therapists have systematically learned the psychoanalytic skill of "interpreting the countertransference."  The idea behind the technique is simple.  In the earliest symbiotic relationship with the (m)other, the modes of relating are two way because the earliest way of knowing the (m)other is through primary identification or imitation, physical mimicry — monkey see, monkey do; I smile at you, you smile at me; I gurgle at you, you gurgle back.  That is, the roles of the earliest mother-infant idiom are interchangeable and we internalize both parts of the scenario.  As we simply interact with our analyst, the way we put ourselves out and the kind of responses we anticipate or elicit in return serve to project our infantile position in the symbiotic exchange into the analyst.

Since the interaction to be represented (remembered) is preverbal, presymbolic, and affectively interactive, it is only when the analyst begins to verbalize countertransference responsiveness to being held in such a tight emotional spot with such rigid expectations that the split-off infant role (memory) will at last be given verbal and emotional representation.  That is, speaking the counter-transference, when done carefully and thoughtfully, brings the split-off "unthought known" into the realm of replicated representation in the scenarios which serve as memories of the earliest symbiotic interactions (Hedges, 1992).

Transference and resistance memories from the Oedipal period relate to the driveness of the instinctive life of the four- to seven-year-old child and to his or her internalized means of inhibiting by psychic repression various aspects of somatic life which are not acceptable within the family structure.  Critical relatedness memories from the three-year-old period relate to the way that disavowed or dissociated aspects of the developing self can be realized in relation to the therapist as selfother.  At the four- to 24-month level relatedness memories are manifest in the knee-jerk, character scenarios which are played out in all relationships.

The transference and resistance associated with living out these preverbal, presymbolic symbiotic relatedness modes are met with affective counter-transference and counterresistance from the analyst who alternately experiences split and projected symbiotic relatedness memories of good and bad, parent and toddler, self and other imagos at an affective, interactive level.  Finding ways to refuse the scenarios, using countertransference to comprehend how the borderline scenarios are represented in the replicated affective exchange, points towards ways of relinquishing the tight emotional hold that preverbal, prepictorial relatedness memories (transference) from the symbiotic era have on the person in analysis.

4. Expressions of the Search for and the Rupture (Primary Repression) of channels or Links to the Other

The earliest transference and resistance memories which are presented for analysis are those from the "organizing" period of relatedness development (Hedges, 1983).  In utero and in the earliest months of life, the fetus and neonate have the task of organizing channels to the maternal body and mind for nurturance, evacuation, soothing, comfort, and stimulation. Infant research (Tronick & Cohn, 1988) suggests that only about 30% of the time are the efforts made by an infant and mother successful in establishing that "rhythm of safety" (Tustin, 1986) required for two to feel satisfactorily connected.

The many ways in which an infant fails in securing the needed contact from its (m)other become internalized as transference to the failing mother.  Because the biological being of the baby knows (just as every mammal knows), that if it cannot find the maternal body it will die, any serious impingement on the infant's sense of continuity of life, of ''going on being'' (Winnicott, 1965) will be experienced as traumatic.  An internalized terror response marks that failed possible channel of connection with a sign that reads, "never reach this way again."  Such traumatic organizing-level transference memories are not only presymbolic, but preverbal and somatic.  Resistance to ever again reexperiencing such a traumatic, life-threatening breakdown of linking possibilities is expressed in somatic terror and pain which mark "where mother once was."

Green (1986) speaks of "the dead mother" internalization as the earliest psychic structure (memory) which is laid down by the early sensual, pleasurable links to mother which are bound sooner or later to be subject to being experienced as maternal failure.  (Note that the real mother may be working hard to stay attuned to the organizing needs of the infant, but for any of a variety of reasons the pleasurable connection cannot be maintained.)

We are left forever searching for this internalized mother of pleasure who "died," trying in every way to revive her through searching the world for love and stimulation according to the pleasure mode we once experienced with her in a primordial and primeval Eden — the paradise we knew before we tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (splitting).  Of course the search fails because the paradise of life as pleasure is not to be found in the outside world but inside our own bodies.  But the human search for the dead mother of primordial pleasure, along with her failures and our incessant futile efforts to bring her back to life by finding her outside of ourselves, outside of our bodies — expresses the earliest transference and resistance memories we bring to the analytic relationship.

Winnicott (1965) points out that early impingements on the infant's sense of continuity with life oblige the infant to react to environmental failure before the infant is fully prepared to begin reacting and thinking.  The result of premature impingement is the formation of a primary persecutory mode of thought which forms the foundation from which all subsequent thought processes of that person arise. That is, traumatic impingement on the infantile (omnipotent) sense of "going on being," insures that the first memory which is destined to color all later memories is "the world persecutes me by intruding into my mental space and overstimulating (traumatizing) me.  I will forever be on guard for things coming at me which threaten to destroy my sense of being in control of what happens to me (my omnipotence)."

As a lasting imprint this earliest memory is psychotic because the world at large offers many kinds of impingement.  And searching the environment tirelessly for the kind of primary intrusion that once forced the infant to respond in a certain way not only creates perennial paranoid hazards where there may be (in reality) none, but causes the person to miss other realistic dangers that are not being scanned for because of this prior preoccupation of the sensorium.

The literary works of Franz Kafka (1926, 1937, 1979) portray an organizing stance toward the world — always searching, always striving — and then when something good is within tasting distance, always "something happens so it is lost."  Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1970), Patrick Suskind's Perfume (1986), and the movie, Plenty (Pressman & Papp, 1985), all vividly portray the primitive and primary organizing search which never finds satisfactory or sustaining connections.  In the later living out of the organizing experience, whether it exists as pervasive to the personality or only in well defined "pockets," the vital transference memories are set up to prevent connection to the human world.  We hear in our consulting rooms, "I'm weird or strange somehow, not quite human like other people.  I do the right things, go through the right motions, but I don't feel the same emotions as everybody else, I don't quite tune in the way others do.  It's as though I live behind a wall of glass, somehow not participating fully in the human world, feeling somehow not fully human."3

Recovered Memories and Four Varieties of Personality Organization

In the first part of this article I discussed the four basic mechanisms of memory which a century of psychoanalytic research has produced.  What emerged was essentially a psychoanalytic theory that inextricably links memory to significant relationships.  In repression, the five-year-old volitionally decides not to experience or spell out in consciousness incestual and parricidal urges which have proven undesirable within the family structure.  In dissociation, a whole line of personality development, or a whole sector of the personality such as narcissism, is disavowed or dissociated — walled off from being realized as an active part of the central personality as it relates to others.  In splitting, various whole sequences of emotional interaction, symbiotic character scenarios, are valued as good and sought out, or devalued as bad and shunned based upon the person's original experience with the mothering partner.  In expressions of searching for and breaking off (primary repression of) the possibility of contact with others, the early traumatic ways the nurturing other ruptured or failed to sustain contact live on as transference and resistance memories in subsequent attempts to make human contact which might lead toward human bonding.

Organizing (or psychotic) transference memory involves the search for connection versus a compulsion towards discontinuity, disjunction, and rupture of connections.  The resistance memory exists as the person's automatic or inadvertent reluctance to establish and/or sustain consistent and reliable connection to the other (which might make interpersonal bonding of these somatic experiences a realistic possibility).

It is to this organizing experience and the reluctance to permitting or to sustaining depth, here-and-now connectedness experience, that we will later return in order to show how "recovered memories operate in the therapeutic relationship.  A brief example will suffice at this point to be suggestive: A therapist working with a multiple personality presents her work to a consultant.  After an overview and general considerations, the consultant asks for the therapist to bring "process notes" (event by event) of the next session for review.  The therapist begins reading the process notes, telling how her client, Victor, began the hour and how the client gradually zeroed in on a particular emotional issue.  The therapist hears the concerns and very skillfully empathizes with the client's thoughts and feelings.  Suddenly "little Victoria, age four" appears in the room.  The "switch" is significant in all regards and the therapist now listens to what the alter, Victoria, has to say.  The consultant asks how the therapist understands what has just happened.  The answer is that Victor felt very understood in the prior transaction and in the safety of the presence of the understanding therapist a more regressed alter (Victoria) can now appear.  This kind of event is ubiquitous in the treatment of organizing experiences — an empathic connection is achieved by the therapist and there is a smooth seemingly comfortable shift to another topic, to a flashback memory, or to an alter personality.  The therapist had to work hard to achieve this connection and feels gratified that the interpretive work has been successful.  The therapist feels a warm glow of narcissistic pleasure which is immediately reinforced by the client's ability to move on to the next concern.

Wrong!  When organizing or psychotic issues are brought for analysis, what is most feared on the basis of transference and resistance is an empathic interpersonal connection.  This is because in the infantile situation the contact with the (m)other was terrifying in some regard.  A more viable way of seeing the interaction just cited is to realize that the successful empathic connection was immediately, smoothly, and without notice ruptured with the shift!

The therapist fails to note what happened for perhaps several reasons: (a) The therapist is a well-bonded person and assumes unwittingly that empathic connection is always experienced as good by everyone; (b) The therapist doesn't understand how organizing transference and resistance operate and so is narcissistically pleased by the apparent connection he or she has achieved; (c) The client is a lifetime master at smoothly and efficiently dodging interpersonal connections — across the board or only at certain times when organizing issues are in focus; (d) A subtle mutual seduction is operating in the name of recovery in which resistance and counterresistance are winning the day with both parties afraid of personal and intimate connectedness presumably because of its intense emotional demands; (e) The personality switch, sudden flashback, or change of subject focuses both on the historical causes of the dissociation or other red herrings; or (f) The search for memories and validation forecloses the possibility of here-and-now transference experiencing of the emotional horror and how connection with the therapist is causing it to arise.  Thus the very real possibility of bringing to life and putting to rest traumatic memory is lost by the therapeutic technique being employed!

In this second part of the article I have reviewed the four major categories of transference and resistance memories that have emerged from a century of study of the kinds of memories that appear in the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic situation.  In neurotic personality organization, the subjective sense of a five-year-old child's instinctual driveness is remembered in transference along with intense fears of experiencing sexual and aggressive impulses toward anyone so intimate as the analyst because such intensity was forbidden in the family, triangular structure.  In narcissistic personality organization a three-year-old's intense needs for admiration, confirmation, and inspiration in relation to his or her selfothers are central to transference memories.  The natural narcissistic needs are enshrouded in shame (resistance memory) surrounding the desire to be at the center of the universe. In borderline personality organization transference remembering is rooted in the replication of a set of emotional scenarios.  Resistance memories mitigate against living out the positively and negatively charged emotional interactions in the analytic relationship so that they can achieve representation and be relinquished. In personalities living out the earliest organizing processes, what is structured in transference memory is the continuous rupturing or breaking of each and every attempt to form sustained organizing channels to the other.  Resistance takes the form of terror and physical pain whenever sustained contact with a significant other threatens.

The Central Puzzle of Recovered Memories

What is manifestly evident from this review of a century of psychoanalytic exploration of early childhood memory is that no known memory mechanisms and no known forms of relatedness memory can conceivably support the widespread popular belief that traumatic experiences occurring before the age of three or four can be subject to massive repression which can later be lifted in such a way as to allow perfect and accurate video camera recall of facts and events.

The view which has captured the popular imagination is contrary to available knowledge.  Memories which do occur as a part of a therapeutic process, and have been studied widely, are memories that link past emotional relatedness experience to the present relationship realities of the psychoanalytic setting through various forms of transference and resistance.  According to the ways in which personalities may be said to organize themselves, there is simply no place in which massive interpersonal trauma resulting in total amnesia which can later be lifted like a veil can possibly occur.

The only possible explanations for the existing reports of recovered memories of all of the considerations thus far made are:

(a) Memories that are based upon later hearsay which has produced pictures believed to be "memories," but which are not.

(b) Memories of traumatically intense events which endure by sheer force of their emotional impact.  But such memories, like the death of a parent or physical or sexual abuse which is known and confirmed at the time, are not "forgotten," but always accessible to memory — though perhaps not thought about for long periods of time because recall is painful and one does not wish to recall unless there is hope of making things better.  That is, memories of known and real trauma may be set aside as painful to remember and not thought about for long periods of time, but they have not been totally lost and then are later accurately recovered through hypnosis or the free association of psychotherapy.  This choosing to remember is different than (policy) secondary repression.

(c) Screen or telescoped memories which are, by definition, like dreams, products of primary process condensation, displacement, symbolization, and visual representability.  But such memories because of their nature and function as abstracting processes can not be considered "fully and objectively real" no matter how vivid or how corroborated by external evidence they may be, or how accurately they portray subjective emotional truths.

(d) Memories of environmental failure which have been "frozen" (Winnicott, 1954) until a relationship situation presents itself in which the failure can be emotionally lived in a present regressed relational state so that the environmental failures of empathy can be made good in the present relationship. This last prospect is the most promising for our purposes. But the emergence of "frozen failure" memory is situation dependent and relationship dependent-and can hardly be considered objective, unmotivated, or and undistorted.  Further, if the emotional events to be recalled are before the age of three, there will be no capacity for verbal, symbolic, or pictorial recall per se that could possibly be operating; so that whatever is recalled must be a construction, a narration artfully created to fit the current relationship situation (or an intervening one) so that the emotional sense of environmental failure from the past can be relived in regressed form in the relational present.

In conclusion, there is no conceivable way that recovered memories as they are being currently touted in the marketplace, public media, and court room, can possibly be anything that we can reliably count as objectively real or totally factual.

But the people who claim absolute and literal truth for their recovered memories are, at least for the greatest part, credible people without discernible motive for deliberately perpetrating a hoax.  Serious intention can be read in the many and wide-ranging reports of recovered memories.  Furthermore, the desperation, the urgency, and the compelling arguments these people offer make clear that their efforts and motives in some essential way must be trusted, must somehow be taken seriously.  But if all evidence regarding the nature of memory goes against their claims and no conceivable understanding we can muster supports their purported ability to remember the complex stories and events in the way they say they remember them, how then do we find a way to take memories recovered in psychotherapy seriously?

[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.