The Freud Museum

Events Archive

1 November 1998

Memory in Dispute

Conference Report

To mark the publication of a book of the same title, edited by Valerie Sinason, the Freud Museum held a well-attended conference in November called 'Memory in Dispute'.

The problem of memory is at the heart of Freud’s work. Even before the introduction of a dynamic unconscious in his theories he argues that the stuff of psychotherapy is memories and that neuroses are determined by the pathogenic effect of memories. Yet his famous aphorism to describe the impact of psychic trauma - ‘Hysterics suffer from reminiscences’ - in some ways compounds the therapeutic dilemma. Does it mean that the patient is cured when they can no longer remember the traumatic events, or when they can remember fully and clearly? Both possibilities are suggested in the Studies on Hysteria, indicating the inherent ambiguity which surrounds the whole topic. We hold on to memories, suffer from them, create them and recreate them. In ‘Screen Memories’ Freud saw a psychological function of general importance, glossing over as we do the shreds and patches in our perceptions of reality. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud introduces a stratified conception of memory which raises the possibility that memories at different phases of development are reorganised and changed in their psychical ‘valuation’ (a memory with a positive affect at one phase may have a negative tone at another); or memories may be constructed out of a mosaic of conative, cognitive, affective and perceptual levels, as well as in interaction with previous memories. That simple diagram in Chapter 7 of the Dream Book is thus one of the main underpinnings of a dynamic theory of the unconscious.

Investigation of psychic trauma, sexual abuse, memory and false memory is therefore fundamental to the origin of psychoanalysis, and interest shown in the conference confirmed that a hundred years later the issues are still alive and kicking.

In his introduction to the day, chairman Brett Kahr, a psychotherapist and lecturer at Regents College, told a story to illustrate the fallibility of memory. While researching his recent biography of Donald Winnicott he interviewed a nurse who had been at Paddington Green Hospital during Winnicott’s tenure. Her memory for detail was remarkable - the room layout, nurses uniforms, working conditions and portrait of Winnicott the man were all remembered with great accuracy, and could be checked by cross reference with other sources. Brett was brought up short, however, when he was about to take his leave: 'I’m sure you’ll find if you check your facts, young man, that his name was Geoffrey Winnicott'.

Yet might this misremembering have contained a subjective truth? Such was the possibility offered by Patrick Casement’s paper which reintroduced into the debate one of Freud’s essential notions, the idea of ‘psychic reality’. He asserted that material from the unconscious can resurface in the form of a memory which does not necessarily validate the accuracy of the memory. The difficult thing for the therapist is to remain with the paradox - to believe the psychological truth of the memories without being sure of their ‘reality’. (This might seem like a fudge, and incest survivors say that not being really believed feels like another abuse. But consider the following scenario: a patient starts complaining about an abusive neighbour (or a spouse, or colleagues at work). Does the therapist tell him to call the police or does he treat these complaints as material for the analysis?).

Yet as Valerie Sinason exposed in her passionate contribution, and as Freud in his last major work acknowledged, the amount of abuse is extensive and underestimated. From her point of view, quoting Marjorie Orr, the most common ‘false memory’ is the memory of a ‘happy childhood’. Violence to children, abuse and neglect, is sadly a common experience in families. Only relatively recently have we become aware of the emotional damage and the cycle of violence it has engendered. All psychotherapists would agree that memories are open to distortion, but the fact is, Valerie maintained, there often is corroborating evidence of abuse but victims still find difficulty in being listened to. She wryly commented that sometimes social workers seemed to forget who their client was.

But what happens to memories in the therapeutic setting? In a wide ranging paper Bob Hinshelwood reminded us of a contrast in forms of psychotherapy between suggestive psychotherapy and analytic methods. Suggestive techniques such as hypnosis or cognitive therapy, aim to put something into the patient - a lost memory, a right way of thinking - psychoanalysis aims to facilitate the expression of something already there. Central to Freud’s method was the idea of conversion into words and the importance of transference. By helping the person to clarify underlying feelings in a non-intrusive setting psychoanalysis allows us to try to understand the meaning of abuse for each individual rather than apply blanket preconceptions about it. Hinshelwood implied that by applying these preconceptions another form of abuse is perpetrated - an abuse of the complex and contradictory reality of the emotional life of human beings. Therapy attempts a ‘negotiated entry’ into somebody else’s experience in order to alter the form of a memory from enactment to words. But in all cases the possibility arises of violation of the patient’s privacy and a repetition of abuse. The implication is that the analyst must be engaged and yet uninterested in the patient - ‘indifferent’ was the word Freud once used - or, as a visitor to the museum once said when told of Anna Freud’s knitting during analysis: 'At least you knew she was not taking notes'.

In the final contribution to the day, a truly challenging account by Jennifer John, the extreme pressure put on the analyst was brought into deep relief. Jennifer recounted her experiences when listening to a patient’s account of cruel and perverse abuse. She felt as if she were having a heart attack; she found herself in shock and unable to listen; also deeply humiliated by her own body letting her down. This was more than a ‘normal’ countertransference reaction, it was a terrifying bodily experience and a real fear of death. The systematic perversion of all values - the annihilation of all that is good - is difficult to hear. One needs to limit exposure to protect oneself. The wish to establish the ‘truth’ of the account may act as a defensive flight into reality, while the patient on witnessing the analysts distress may abandon the fundamental rule of analysis. Jennifer John’s brave paper highlighted the whole issue of the bodily experience of the therapist, which will be the topic of a conference next year. It was a deeply moving and sobering end to the day.

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