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Pat Barker's "Regeneration"

Pat Barker's brilliant novel "Regeneration' tells the stories of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others who were treated for 'shell shock' during the first world war by the psychiatrist and anthropologist William Rivers at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland. Rivers was influenced by Freud and in turn introduced Freud's work to the British medical establishment. He disagreed with Freud's view that neuroses were caused by sexual factors, but he argued that there was "not a day of clinical experience in which Freud's theory may not be of direct practical use in diagnosis and treatment". Freud provided a "working hypothesis", a "theory of the mechanism by which....experience not directly accessible to consciousness, produces its effect". Freud's principle merit, he felt, lay in his belief "in a process of active suppression of unpleasant experience" (that is to say, 'repression').

The poet Sassoon described this strange process in the following way:

"Shell-shock. How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after-effect in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while the inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour, but now; now, in the sweating, suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining - this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell shock" (Siegfried Sassoon Sherston's Progress)

At Craiglockhart, a hospital for officers only, the patients were spared the electrical shocks and other tortures which were the usual form of treatment for sufferers of war neuroses. Instead they were greeted with sympathy and interest and encouraged to discuss their problems - an approach pioneered by Freud in his treatment of hysteria, of which 'shell shock' was a variant. Dream interpretation and the discussion of mental conflicts formed the staple subjects of conversation. Above all there was an attitude of conscious exploration (Why am I getting these terrors?, Why am I always seeing those things that happened in France? Why do I get so upset?). During an earlier experiment at Maghull hospital near Liverpool, one doctor called it 'a running symposium on the mind'. (Ben Shephard (2000) 'A War of Nerves' London: Jonathan Cape)



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