Critical Analysis of The Repressed Memory Notion
The concept of repressed memories has long held an important place in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. It is the thesis of this paper that repressed memories are fact and that they fill an important role in the efforts of the individual to adjust to traumatic experiences. An aspect of this thesis is that, with prover circumstances supporting the patient, the repressions may lift. It is the aim of this inquiry to weigh the evidence regarding suppression of memories and aspects of psychoanalysis that relate to this phenomenon. As a part of this inquiry, related psychological and psychoanalytical terms and concepts regarding the process of repression and remembering are defined and explained.
Not all experts believe that memories are repressed. Freud himself at one point questioned his own ideas regarding memory repression because he had sexual dreams and feelings toward his own daughters. This impulse was apparently so disturbing to him that he reinterpreted his early, powerful material dealing with child sexuality. From this point on in his work, he attributed a patient’s recounting of sexual trauma in childhood to oedipal fantasy productions. Never again did he deal with sexuality as emanating from adult males to children (Lerman, 1986, p. 59).
Freud was unfortunately unable to accept the idea that incest of children was widespread. “Then the surprise that in all cases the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse . . . whereas surely such widespread perversions towards children are not very probable” (Lerman, 1986, p. 60). Freud at this time began a personal and professional shift in view.
Modern research has taught us that researchers find what they expect to find. When Freud believed in the prevalence of childhood sexual trauma and the resulting repressed memories, he found much evidence to support it. When he no longer believed in it, he found it no longer existed (Lerman, 1986, p. 64).
Unfortunately it is impossible to relate Freud’s beliefs at either stage to any body of data. Irving Sarnoff comments that “no other avowedly scientific psychological theory has ever gained even a fraction of such widespread adherence” without support from objective, precise data (1971, p. 1). Sarnoff comments that Freud’s ideas carried so much power because of his brilliance in reporting style. Freud resisted experimental assessment (Sarnoff, 1971, p. 7). His idea was that the patients’ experiences speak for themselves.
Overwhelmingly, the early work of Freud, the work of Carl Jung and later therapists, not to mention the countless experiences of individual clients who repressed memories and regained them at a later time, stand in strong support of the idea of repressed memories. How is it that memories can be repressed? What happens within the mind and emotions of the experience of the individual who represses memories and later retrieves them?
In A Primer of Freudian Psychology Calvin Hall substantiates the process of repression and describes how it happens. Based on Freud’s early findings, it seems that during the course of living, the individual may encounter various threats and dangers which arouse anxiety. The individuals ego may attempt to master danger by using realistic problem-solving methods. If this is unsuccessful, the ego uses other methods which deny, falsify, or distort reality. These latter processes are called defense mechanisms. Repression is one of these defense mechanisms (Hall, 1954, p. 85).
In a threatened individual, especially a child, repression forces a dangerous memory, idea, or perception safely out of awareness and sets up a psychological barrier against it. This defense mechanism allows the person to continue functioning, which often would be impossible if the trauma were fully incorporated before the individual is strong enough to withstand the dangerous memory. As an example, repression allows a child incest victim to continue living with a perpetrator, which is usually necessary for survival. As a further example, repression allows a person not to see something that is within plain view. He may distort that which he does see or falsify what is perceived in order to protect the ego from apprehending a dangerous situation. A woman who lives with a battering husband may not discern that she is in danger as a way of coping with an untenable situation – a person who says he loves her repeatedly beating her up. She may not recall the details of those domestic events until later, during therapy, or when she is safely out of the threatening situation.
Repression often happens with traumatic memories or memories that are associated with a traumatic experience. The associated memories may not be harmful, but recalling them also runs the risk of recalling a primary trauma. Therefore, a whole constellation of events may be blocked from the person’s memory. Along with memories, dangerous ideas or perceptions may be repressed in an effort to reduce anxiety (Hall, 1954, p. 86). This process of memory repression keeps people sane under untenable circumstances.
According to Hall, sometimes repression is so severe that it affects normal functioning of the physical body. A repressed person may be sexually dysfunctional or hysterically blind or paralyzed. In these cases, the organs and muscles are perfectly sound, but the mental process prevents physical functioning. Certain so-called psychosomatic disorders may arise from repressed memories – arthritis, asthma, and ulcers. Inhibition of anger, fear, and hostility create tension and cause the person to breathe in a shallow manner, further aggravating the physical condition (Hall, 1954, p. 87).
Repressed memories may find displacement onto other people or in the symbolic fulfillment of dreams. Hall recounts Freud’s earlier theory on how this change occurs. The repressions are apparently lifted when the source of the threat disappears, but the individual does go through a testing process while the repression is still in place. Many people carry around fears that are leftovers from childhood, never discovering that the fears have no foundation. The lifting of repressed memories does not happen automatically. The person may find himself in a life situation that demands a new behavior or becomes sufficiently secure such that the repression lessens. The lifting of repressions as one grows more mature frees the energy for more productive activity, although the lifting process may be extremely taxing (Hall, 1954, pp. 88-89).
Both Freud and Carl Jung strongly believed that repression of memories was fact in their patients, and both experienced it in their own analysis. Freud early on contended that most repression is associated with early sexual trauma. Jung felt that in many cases of repression, the question of sexuality played a subordinate role, and other factors were stronger -social adaptation, tragic circumstances, or prestige considerations (Jung, 1965, p. 147). Carl lung is known for his powerful, authoritative work in dream analysis in which the patients’ repressed memories first find expression in dreams, and the process of psychoanalysis allowed the patient and therapist to identify symbols and eventually lift the memory of the repressed event.
Freud insisted that most people repress much of the childhood memories prior to about age five, even though small children are very intelligent and able to handle complex information. Their minds and memories are relatively unburdened and there is no reason for memory to be regarded as a difficult activity. However, the fact is that most people recall only a few representative events from the early years. These may be actual incidents, or many typical incidents may be telescoped into one memory (Freud, 1966, pp. 199-200).
Freud’s concept of screen memories explains the baffling enigma of why certain childhood incidents are recalled and others forgotten. The remembered happenings are at times a displaced reservoir of many other childhood experiences. Upon examination in analysis, the previously repressed experiences may rush forth. The forgotten years were not really forgotten; they were only inaccessible and stored as part of the unconscious. Dreams may be the first indication of memories emerging.
The dream-life apparently knows how to access those latent experiences. In this aspect the mind is much like a computer in which massive amounts of information is stored, but only some of it is easily accessible, and only then if the operator knows the correct code. Analytical dream work may consist of breaking the code, determining the symbolic meaning of certain persons and events, helping the individual to develop a workable system of dream symbology. Freud recalled a dream of a man that he knew before he was three – “a one-eyed man of small stature, stout, and with his head sunk deep in his shoulders” (Freud, 1966, p. 201). Freud inquired of his mother, who was still living, about the figure in this dream and determined that such a person did exist. He was a doctor who saved Freud after an accident that occurred before he was three years old. So experiences of even very young children are filed away in the subconscious until some later life event jogs them to the surface.
Another avenue to regaining access to repressed memories is the process of transference, which often occurs during the psychoanalytic process. The patient grows to deeply trust the analyst and gradually the analyst “takes on” the qualities of the significant figure of the past, usually a parent. As the patient emotionally relives the original relationship, much buried information becomes available. The patient may fall in love with the therapist, become angry or deeply terrified. The patient who is courageous enough to remain in the psychoanalytic relationship may through this learning process become free of old repressed memories. Some clients leave therapy before this happens because the process is so difficult.
The successful patient finds under the repressed memories an original, untraumaed self, the way the person would have turned out without the horror of unpleasant past events. The achievement of this purer self requires a mutually loving and trusting relationship between the therapist and patient. It is quite difficult work for both parties, often involving several years of diligent inquiry and intense emotion. At the time the repressions lift, the patient will usually feel the emotions that were buried at the time the memory was initially repressed – often the emotions of a helpless child in distress, intense fear, even life-threatening terror.
As repressed memories are removed, the patient may resist what needs to be learned. He may prefer that the repressed material stay repressed. Change can be quite threatening, and the analyst may need to repeatedly communicate to the patient the nature of the insight. The intellect is usually willing to receive, even if the emotions initially reject unpleasant information. The therapist may carefully lay the groundwork as a patient teacher might assist a student who is looking through a microscope for the first time. It helps to be instructed as to what to expect to see (Freud, 1966, p. 437).
In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis translator James Strachey reworks Freud’s original Lectures. Freud’s innovative dream work was regarded as something strange, nothing resembling what was known before. Dream work reveals what is stored in the subconscious system, showing information that is quite contrary to that in the consciousness. Dream work allows the patient to entertain ideas that to the conscious system would appear preposterous and incorrect (Freud, 1965, p. 17).
Freud found that dream work is an extremely efficient avenue to uncovering repressed memories. Dreams have a way of compromising the past trauma into a form that is softened, so that the conflict may coexist with the resistance. The distorted, unrecognized forms require patient interpretation in order to overcome the restricting agencies of the conscious mind. The dreams become a bridge to the hidden recesses of the subconscious mind (Freud, 1965, p. 15).
In the process of uncovering repressed memories, Freud found that the patient’s resistance may be so great that they forget dreams, have no awareness of them at all, or cannot relate to any of the symbols as meaningful. Freud calls dreams a condition similar to that of the development of a psychosis, a turning away from the realities of the external world. However, dreaming is a normal, acceptable part of life. The dream-psychosis is a harmless, temporary reprieve from the pressures of waking life, and dreams disappear upon awakening. Repression is somewhat less activated, although even during sleep, some resistance is in operation (Freud, 1965, p. 16).
While assisting patients with repression difficulties, Freud advocates adding the dream communication to other information gleaned from the patient. Dream hallucinations allow pictures to form regarding repressed instincts or incidents. Even though censored, these thoughts and emotions are important in the person’s unconscious life. Displacement may occur in dreams. What seem to be rather ordinary events and images carry powerful emotional overtones. Or the most important symbol recedes to the background and another comes to the forefront (Freud, 1965, p. 22).
Freud’s concept of the id explains a person’s ability to repress memories for years, even decades. Impressions sunk into the id by repression are virtually immortal. If recalled, it will seem that they just occurred. The id knows no time, no bad nor good, no morality, no judgments of value. The id is more concerned with the quality of experiences, particularly those regarding the instinctual nature (Freud, 1965, pp. 74-75).
Both the id and the repressed memories reside in the unconscious. Freud regards the unconscious mind as retaining much more information than the conscious mind, as the tip of an iceberg being equal to the conscious mind. The ego and the super ego exert great force to keep the id and the repressed self in the realm of the unconscious. However, large portions of a person’s behavior are motivated by incidents, attitudes, and beliefs stored in the subconscious.
Otto Rank’s work further substantiates the repression of memories. He emphasized the possibility that the act of birth and separation from the mother may be the origin of many repressed memories and emotions, especially feelings of helplessness and feelings of loss. He discusses this concept in illuminating the relationship between anxiety and repression.
Repressed emotions do not remain under wraps for long. They eventually find expression in physical disorders or some type of obsessional neurosis. It is as if the whole person is always seeking a balance, and if an adjustment has to take place for current comfort or functioning, however limited the level may be, a reaction will occur to facilitate that adjustment.
The process of letting repressed memories resurface may be most unpleasant and demanding. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung devotes an entire chapter to that process in his own life. This is convincing information. As his childhood memories resurfaced, he feared he was going mad. He stopped all lecturing and teaching. He retreated and devoted time to sorting the memories, images, and accompanying emotions. He felt disoriented. He had parted ways with his colleague Freud over the issue of whether dreams related literally to the past. He took up childish pursuits. He felt assaulted by the unconscious and only with demonic strength could he keep himself together (Jung, 1965, pp. 170-177).
During this time period of resurfacing memories, Jung did yoga to keep himself calmer, and he wrote down his dreams and emotions in order to sort them out. He fearlessly plunged into the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind. During this time period of great inner change, he needed constant reassurance that he was sane, that he was married and had a family, and that he was responsible in his professional field of medical practice.
Contemporary therapists Ellen Bass and Laura Davis further document the process of memory storage and memory retrieval in their clients. Apparently the right and left halves of the brain store information in differing ways. The left brain stores sequential, logical, language-oriented experience. The right brain stores spatial, perceptual experiences. Right brain information cannot be retrieved with left brain techniques, such as logic. Perceptual experiences simply cannot be remembered in an orderly way (Bass & Davis, 1988, p. 71).
Bass and Davis’ graphic descriptions of clients working through incest recovery leave no doubt as to the authenticity of memory repression. They relate instances in which the client was abused before the age of learning to talk. In such a case, the memories will also emerge as pre-verbal. These images may be nebulous, diffuse images and awareness that make no sense in the usual terms. When adults recall early childhood traumas, they may also experience great emotional confusion and regression, blurred vision, retreating in many ways to the age of the trauma.
The memories may seem vague and dream-like as they first emerge. They may be fragmented. They may appear as if seen through a fog. Many patients who recall early traumas and subsequently let the repressed memories lift fear that they are going crazy. The visions and sensations are unlike anything experienced before and may severely test their psychological strength. The memories may come in bits and pieces. They may seem as if they are far away. Some people recall pictures but without accompanying emotions. Others recall emotions first without any specific visual memories.
The psychological process of dissociation and memory repression allows a child to remain alive and sane during severe trauma. The child may seem to float on the ceiling, be dead or numb to all sensation in order to accommodate hellish experiences. In adulthood, unusual triggers may provide an avenue back to the original event. One woman described how odd it felt to fixate on light while making love, particularly light under a door. She was aware that she should be concentrating on her lover but instead was obsessively aware of light: “What it was about was watching to see if her father’s footsteps stopped outside her door at night. If they stopped, that meant held come in and molest her” (Bass & Davis, 1988, pp. 72-73). This woman’s memories arose in fragments with the details falling into place once she noticed her fixation on light during sex.
The reviving of repressed memories may also bring flashbacks. Flashbacks may be purely visual or they may bring back the original emotions. They may seem detached or they may be as dramatic as reliving the original abuse. People may not be able to actually see all aspects of the initial trauma but sense the essence of the perpetrator. One usually “knows” the identity of sexual perpetrators, once the memories begin to surface.
Sometimes a particular touch, smell or sound triggers memory awareness. It might happen with a particular aftershave or the smell of vodka on someone. A lover’s particular way of touching may evoke images and memories. The emotions may accompany those images at most inopportune moments. During sex, one woman described feeling that her head was floating off her body. Her legs felt heavy and solid. Then she became nauseous and violently ill (Bass & Davis, 1988, p. 74).
Body memories are the storage of muscular sensations in the body itself. The body has a way of remembering what the mind has repressed. One victim of long-forgotten childhood incest noticed that she flinched every time her husband touched her genitals. Another described feeling dead from the waist down and gradually becoming aware of excruciating pain in the area of the anus and hips. Only after months of talking about the body memories did this person recall nightly episodes of sodomy with an older brother. One woman describes an odd sensation of smelling semen while driving her car on the freeway. Later the awareness came that as a toddler, her father required that she perform fellatio. Another victim of childhood trauma was aware of stiffness in the hips and thighs accompanied by a life-long hatred of the fragrance of talcum powder. Years of therapy finally brought the awareness of regular molestation by her mother in infancy and toddler years. All of Bass and Davis’ accounts substantiate the fact that memories were repressed and later recalled during therapy.
Upon weighing the evidence regarding the concept of repressed memories, one must conclude that there is more in favor of the idea. Freud’s early work, Jung’s work, the findings of Bass and Davis, and the numerous personal accounts of personal experiences – Jung and the clients of Bass and Davis – make it impossible to refute the idea of repressed memories due to past traumas. The fact that vulnerable children can survive nameless traumas, repress them, and survive the remembering as adults attests to the strength of the human mind. The complex process of repression and retrieval during analysis is possible only within strong, courageous, resilient individuals who are able to completely rework their ideas of themselves and the true nature of their pasts. Whatever the course of specific awareness, the unravelling of memories and the sorting out of the facts and emotions speak highly of the incredible tolerance and adjustment capabilities of human beings.