Recent shifts in public opinion have mandated changes in all sectors of our society aimed at correcting age-old patterns of abuse. People who have been subjected to damaging treatment have felt encouraged to speak up and seek redress for the wrongs done to them in the past. Memories of painful experiences that individuals have tried not to think about for many years are being revived, and abusers are being confronted with the effects of their deeds. This vanguard of the civil rights movement has generated public indignation and a call for more effective laws and judicial procedures to limit widespread abuses of all types.
But along with the revival of painful memories of abuse that people have done their best to forget, another phenomenon has moved into the public arena — “recovered memories” — which emerge with compelling emotional power but exist to tell a story that could not have or did not occur in the exact or literal manner in which the abuse is so vividly remembered. On the basis of such memories, usually recovered in some psychotherapy or recovery group setting, accusations on a large scale are aimed at people who claim not to be perpetrators of abuse. As of February 1994, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia boasts more than 10,000 member families claiming innocence of the crimes of which they are accused. Highly respected public figures, as well as ordinary, credible private citizens known in their communities to lead basically decent lives, are having the finger of accusation pointed at them. The controversy is heated and, unfortunately, has become drawn along lines of whether the memories of abuse are true or false.
Among this group of otherwise credible people who are being accused are numerous well-established individuals in the mental health field and in all of the other helping professions including nursing, medicine, law, the clergy, teachers, scout leaders, child care workers, and choir leaders — in short, all people in our society vested in any way with caring for others. New laws in more than half the states have changed the statute of limitations to read, “three years from when the abuse is remembered,” though it is not yet clear whether such laws will stand up in court. By now, accusations based on memories recovered in hypnosis, “truth serum” interviews, recovery groups, and psychotherapy are coming under sharp criticism, partly because so many of the accusations are so outlandish, partly because a sizable number of memories have proved faulty, and partly because of the witch hunt atmosphere surrounding the recovered memory controversy, which threatens widespread injustice if responsible social controls are not forthcoming.
There is nothing new about recovered memories of abuse. They have been studied carefully for over a century in psychoanalysis and much is known about their nature. What’s new is that the public has suddenly taken an interest in recovered memories. The highly suspect concept of repression as used by workers doing recovered memory work is being laid at the door of Freud and psychoanalysis when no such slipshod notion exists in psychoanalysis. Similarly, a naive and faulty notion of “body memories” as used by recovery workers is being laid wrongly at the door of bioenergetics analysis and body therapy in general — schools of thought and practice very carefully and responsibly worked out that never speak of body memories in such a careless or addled manner.
There are clearly many issues to sort out before we can regain our individual and collective sanity on this subject. In the chapters that follow I review a century of study on the phenomenon of memories recovered in psychotherapy, concluding that if memories recovered in psychotherapy are not taken seriously in the psychotherapy context, then we will indeed have a disaster on our hands. I then focus in depth on one area of clinical study — multiple personality — to illustrate the kind of careful and reasoned thinking I am advocating, since abuse is widely assumed to be centrally causal in multiple personality.
I then move to consider the chief cause of lawsuits and ethical complaints against therapists — the so-called dual relationship. Once the potentially damaging effects of sexual and other personal kinds of relating between therapist and client began to be understood, the accusation hysteria began sweeping the field of psychotherapy. A narrow moralizing movement began influencing ethics committees and licensing boards, shifting the focus from issues of exploitation and damage to the concrete details of the therapist-client interchange. The new morality of dual relationships would make it unethical, for example, for a therapist to attend a client’s wedding, to send a dozen roses to a bereaved client, to accept a box of Christmas cookies from a client, or to engage in a hug at the end of a particularly meaningful session. One therapist who commutes to practice in an area of California recently hit by a disastrous earthquake brought her patients bottled water. Is this a dual relationship and therefore potentially damaging?
I take the position that the heart of psychotherapy — transference and its interpretation — cannot be accomplished without dual relating. There is a continuum of dual relating that ranges on the one extreme from a fully separate sexual and/or personal relationship to its opposite, the powerful and beneficial essence of therapy — the transference interpretation. If we begin moralistically legislating against all forms of dual relating without regard for interpersonal meaning or therapeutic context, we carelessly and thoughtlessly invade the most valuable and powerful forces operative in psychotherapy. My purpose for reasoning out the problem of dual relationships in psychotherapy is to illustrate how vulnerable therapists and other helping individuals are to accusations in general.
In this book I trace a large class of recovered memories to their source in primitive or psychotic anxieties, left over from the first months of life, that I assume to be operating universally. My thesis is that, while we are now aware of much more real abuse than has ever been acknowledged before, this widely reported class of memories surfacing in psychotherapy today is not new and cannot be understood literally. Memories recovered during the course of psychotherapy need to be taken seriously — considered psychodynamically and dealt with in thoughtful and responsible ways by therapists, not simply believed in and acted upon.
A therapist who takes a simplified recovery approach of encouraging clients to remember the abuse, be validated by being believed, and then confront the abusers, is not only involved in a devious and destructive dual relationship but is actively colluding in the resistance to the emergence of developmentally early transference experiencing with the therapist. Clearly the client has experienced some terrifying and traumatic intrusions — often in the earliest months of life, perhaps even without anyone really being aware that the infant was suffering subtle but devious forms of cumulative strain trauma. Memories from this time period simply cannot be retained in pictures, words, and stories. Rather, the body tissue itself or the interactive emotional response system retains an imprint of the trauma. Psychotherapy provides a place where words, pictures, and somatic experiences can be creatively generated and elaborated for the purpose of expressing in vivid metaphor crucial aspects of early and otherwise unrememberable trauma.
The most powerful and useful form of memory in bringing to light those primordial experiences is reexperiencing, in the context of an intimate and emotionally significant relationship with the psychotherapist, the patterns of the early abuse experience.
I call this earliest level of transference experiencing with the psychotherapist the organizing transference because the traumas to be brought into focus in the relationship occurred during the period of life when an infant is actively engaged in organizing or establishing physical and psychological channels and connections to his or her human environment. Other psychoanalytic researchers speak of the “psychotic transference” or the “transference psychosis.”
I round out my arguments by considering in detail the nature of the organizing transference as it appears in psychotherapy and illustrate its definition and the working-through process with clinical case material. These illustrations make clear how easy it would be for a therapist to become derailed with the client into externalizing onto the past and onto supposed perpetrators the intensity of early transference anxieties. The case illustrations also make clear how easy it would be for the client to establish transference feelings toward the therapist and then to turn the accusatory process, based on early neglect and abuse, against the therapist.
Given the intensity of the early or primitive transference that is being brought to the psychotherapy situation for analysis and the actual dangers to the therapist that this kind of work entails, it is not difficult to understand (1) why many counselors and therapists without training in transference and resistance analysis are eager to direct the intense blame away from themselves and onto others from the client’s past, (2) why so many therapeutic processes end abortively when transference rage and disillusionment emerge and psychotic anxieties are mobilized, and (3) how therapists can so easily become targets for transferentially based accusations of neglect and abuse. If personal responsibility for ongoing internal processes cannot be assumed by the client and worked through, then the blame becomes externalized onto figures of the past or onto the therapist of the present. Continuing externalization of responsibility for feeling victimized and/or not adequately cared for is the hallmark of therapeutic failure.
I conclude with some remarks based upon my study of therapists who have mistakenly stepped over a boundary. I show how personally and professionally vulnerable therapists become when they attempt to empathize with early or primitive traumatic experiences. I specify how it is that a parent, a teacher, a priest, a scout leader, or a therapist, when correctly and empathically in tune with a person’s primitive anxieties, can so easily and unwittingly momentarily lose his or her boundaries and create a violation when none was intended.
We are far more vulnerable to our own psychotic anxieties than we may wish to think. When we choose to open our lives to people in deep emotional distress, we willingly make ourselves the transference target of organizing level or psychotic anxieties. We are then in a position to be falsely accused of abuse we never committed. Further, the empathy we extend necessarily opens up our own delusional vulnerability. When we empathically connect to trauma arising from the deepest levels of the human psyche, our own most primitive selves become activated without our immediate awareness and against our best intentions and interests. What kinds of safeguards can we institute to protect ourselves from these kinds of vulnerabilities?
In the course of therapeutically remembering and working through deep abuse, the helping partner, in an effort to reach out and offer some helping connection, becomes empathically ensnared in a strong and powerful web of interpersonal and familial insanity that extends backward in time through generations of neglect and abuse.
It is my hope that readers with many different interests will find the issues and concerns I am raising in this book interesting and useful. But my book is finally addressed to the extreme danger faced by, and the ultimate personal vulnerability of, the helping professional, especially the psychotherapist.
Varieties of Remembering and Forgetting
THE EMERGING SCANDAL AROUND RECOVERED MEMORIES
Psychotherapy as we know it today began when Sigmund Freud first had occasion to doubt the veracity of certain molest memories recovered through hypnosis and free association. He was thus forced to reconsider his hypothesis that psychological disturbance was inevitably and directly related to traumatic seduction experiences that were repressed in childhood. 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 in any American city today (personal communication), and that 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 person’s 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 set of 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 impressive pictures of otherwise respectable and ordinary citizens recounting various atrocities that they have been victim of. 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 moving 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 that have resulted in considerable damage to family relations. Newspapers and magazines now carry stories about “recovered memories” — of vengeful accusations and hateful counteraccusations. In short, we have a scandal of major 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 about issues that have evolved over the course of a century to help analysts think through the complex issues involved in (1) considering the general nature of memory, (2) screen and telescoped memories, (3) the search for narrative truth, (4) the varieties of remembering and “forgetting,” (5) recovered memories as relationship dependent, (6) the freezing of environmental failure, (7) the devious and delayed effects of “cumulative strain trauma,” and (8) some ways in which therapists may misunderstand memories and collude with psychic resistance.
Chapter 3 considers four developmentally determined forms of memory as they present themselves in the four broadly defined varieties of personality organization, and then moves to the central puzzle of recovered memories.
Chapter 4 considers 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 formulations regarding recovered memories pose 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 tend to be committed to the belief 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 more or less like sophisticated video cameras, there are widespread discrepancies between stories and pictures recorded by cohabiting cameras! That most homicides involve immediate family members points to the passion with which we hold our own view of things to be correct. Further, we have recently witnessed some dramatic and devastating civil violence in this country. 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 varies 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 — because not only do we not see or remember facts 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, whence comes the passionate plea that our perceptions and memories record unbiased truth? We do, of course, subjectively maintain a certain sense of continuity in our lives. And, regardless of how aware we are of gaps in the human ability to perceive and remember accurately, we often do have the sense that if we just dwell on some past event for a few moments we can likely 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 different set of issues. Diverse and wide-ranging studies confirm that childhood amnesia for most events before the age of 4 or 5 is universal, although 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: (1) memories stimulated or created by photos or family lore, which may or may not be our memories; (2) frightening or otherwise intense or traumatic experiences that seem to be recallable due to the sheer impact certain events had on our lives; and (3) so-called screen and telescoped memories. It seems that these latter kinds of early childhood memories are the most common. Screen memories warrant our focused attention because they are memories subjectively attributable to childhood experiences, which we know do not function like camcorders but rather as complex mental abstractions.
SCREEN AND TELESCOPED MEMORIES
Freud formulated 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 becomes projected onto a screen, as it were, 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 the 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 and 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 serves to collapse 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 that can clearly be placed in one’s adolescence. But that picture may serve to 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 that lead to an understanding of transference and resistance are regularly foreshadowed in dreams, slips of the tongue, sexual fantasies, and childhood memories. Freud observes that phantasmagoric pictures and stories presented to the analyst as early childhood memories contain embedded in them 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 events and more as creative dreamwork that 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 been engaged in studying how the person in analysis tends to reexperience (i.e., to remember by repeating) his or her emotional past in the context of current relationships, especially the one with the analyst. Perhaps the most interesting and widely reported aspect of memories recovered during psychoanalysis occurs when some heretofore unnoticed aspect of the emotional past can be interpretively pointed to 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. It has not been uncommon for analysts to judge the degree of 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 actual memories, screen memories, or complex psychological constructions that serve to 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 must be, is 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 set forth above 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 on a literal understanding of the memories but on 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 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 1970s. 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 that 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 that lends itself to the same kinds of systematic study as other interpretive disciplines. That is, a sharp distinction is to be made between the objectivity involved in studying psychoanalytic work across cases, and the dual subjectivity that necessarily 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/ countertransference 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 and psychologists 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). (The only exception Freud makes is the way links from feelings to memories are dissolved in obsessive-compulsive neurosis.) There are many things around us that 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. Flow 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.
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 Fliess. 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.”
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 the psyche has to place limits on overstimulation arising from within the body. By the age of 5 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 remains perennially precarious and only partially effective so that the forbidden life forces continue to manifest as mysterious “symptoms.”
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. In The Three Faces of Eve (Thigpen and Cleckley 1957) Eve White 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 that 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 that 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” (p. 20). Kernberg thus understands “contradictory and chaotic transference manifestations” as oscillatory activation of mutually unacceptable ego states — representations of “nonmetabolized internalized object relations” (p. 20).
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 toward 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 that 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 on 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 one’s 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 that, 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 that 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 fictional Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the earliest simplified report on Eve in The Three Faces of Eve (Thigpen and 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 survivors’ groups are most likely to hold) that 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 commonsense 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 that 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 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 5- to 7-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 (3- to 4-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” (pp. 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. The intense physical pain encountered is usually thought of as resulting from therapeutically “forcing through” or “breaking through” long established aversive barriers to various kinds of physical experiencing that have been previously forsaken. That is, the threshold to more flexible somatic experience is guarded by painful sensations (parallel with Freud’s  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 that 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 that 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 re-experienced 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 that fosters emotional regression to the dependent infantile state in an environment in which, it is hoped, 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 that 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 that 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 to 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 as therapist, not acted out in the person’s contemporary world. It would seem that many therapists today collude with the acting-out process so as to avoid the difficult and sometimes dangerous transference working-through process.
Winnicott’s formulation clearly points to 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 that held out the most hope for accounting for massive forgetting, which is later subject to accurate recall, fails completely, for three reasons. First, it is a theory about how certain conditions provided by the psychoanalytic situation foster emotional recall, not how a traumatic event is forgotten. Second, 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. Third, the formulation highlights how that damage can be internally repaired, not how memory works. Even the memories that 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, the Holocaust, Korea, and Vietnam — has certainly failed to discover it. To the contrary, psychoanalytic research supports an understanding of various types of memory that are characteristic of different levels of human psychic development, the emergence of which is situation 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 that 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. The next chapter takes up these issues from several other vantage points.
Transference and Resistance Memories
FOUR DEVELOPMENTALLY DETERMINED FORMS OF MEMORY
Childhood memories recovered in the psychoanalytic situation fall into four general classes: (1) recollections of wishes and fears of oedipal triangular (4- to 7-year-olds) relating; (2) realizations of self-to-selfother (3-year-olds) resonances; (3) representations of self and other (4- to 24-month-olds) scenarios — in both passive and active interpersonal replications; and (4) 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 that 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 that follows because our understanding of the nature of early childhood memories has historically evolved developmentally downward.
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 5-year-old selves toward 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 cannot 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 that 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 of 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, not to seek a mother or father to marry, not to be codependent, to stop being a victim, a wimp, or a castrating bitch, and to get out of the Cinderella or Peter Pan role! Lately we have 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 that 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.
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 3-year-old selves that he viewed as defensively dissociated from our main personalities: 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 3 the developmental focus is on establishing for the first time a true sense of self that is independent in certain definite ways of 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 3-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 that 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 that 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.
Split Representations of Replicated Self and Other Scenarios
Transference memories from the 4- to 24-month olds’ “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 that serve to 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 does not 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 that 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 that 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 expectable 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 that the analyst is expected to be able to reverberate with. Represented interactions that 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. I have hoped here to make clear that 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. The 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 kinds 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 countertransference, when done carefully and thoughtfully, serves to bring the split-off “unthought known” into the realm of replicated representation in the scenarios that serve as memories of the earliest symbiotic interactions (Hedges 1992).
To review, transference and resistance memories from the oedipal period relate to the driveness of the instinctive life of the 4- to 7-year-old child and to his or her internalized means of inhibiting by psychic repression various aspects of somatic life that are not acceptable within the family structure. Critical relatedness memories from the 3-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 4- to 24-month level relatedness memories are manifest in the knee jerk, character scenarios that are played out in all relationships. The transference and resistance associated with living out these preverbal, presymbolic symbiotic relatedness modes are met with affective countertransference and counterresistance on the part of 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 the countertransference as the “royal road” to comprehending the way that the borderline scenarios are represented in the replicated affective exchange, points to ways of relinquishing the tight emotional hold that preverbal, prepictorial relatedness memories (transference) from the symbiotic era have on the person in analysis.
Expressions of the Search for and the Rupture (Primary Repression) of Channels or Links to the Other
The earliest transference and resistance memories that are presented for analysis are those from the “organizing” period of relatedness development (Hedges 1983b, 1994c). 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 and Cohn 1988) suggests that only about thirty percent 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 that mark “where mother once was.”
Green (1986) speaks of “the dead mother” internalization as the earliest psychic structure (memory) that is laid down by the early sensual, pleasurable links to mother that are bound sooner or later to be 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 that 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 that 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 that 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, The Castle (1926), The Trial (1937), (also see Kafka 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 David Hare’s play Plenty (1983) all vividly portray the primitive and primary organizing search that 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” (Hedges 1994d).
RECOVERED MEMORIES AND FOUR VARIETIES OF PERSONALITY ORGANIZATION
In the previous chapter I reviewed the four basic mechanisms of memory that a century of psychoanalytic research has produced. What emerged was essentially a psychoanalytic theory that inextricably links memory to significant relationships. In repression, the 5-year-old volitionally decides not to experience or spell out in consciousness his or her incestual and parricidal urges that 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 that might lead toward human bonding. Organizing (or psychotic) transference memory involves the search for connection versus a compulsion toward 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 serve to make interpersonal bonding of these somatic experiences a realistic possibility).
It is to this organizing experience and the reluctance to permitting or to sustaining deep, 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 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 4” 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 his or her interpretive work has been successful. The therapist feels a warm glow of narcissistic pleasure that 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: (1) the therapist is a well-bonded person and assumes unwittingly that empathic connection is always experienced as good by everyone; (2) 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; (3) 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; (4) 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; (5) the personality switch, sudden flashback, or change of subject focuses both on the historical causes of the dissociation or other red herrings; or (6) 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 chapter 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 5-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 3-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 3 or 4 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 that has captured the popular imagination is contrary to available knowledge. Memories that 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 that can later be lifted like a veil can possibly occur.
The only possibly explanations for the existing reports of recovered memories of all of the considerations thus far made are the following:
1. Memories that are based upon later hearsay, which has produced pictures believed to be memories but are not.
2. Memories of traumatically intense events that endure by sheer force of their emotional impact. But such memories, like the death of a parent or physical or sexual abuse that 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 later accurately recovered through hypnosis or the free association of psychotherapy. This choosing to remember is different than (policy) secondary repression.
3. Screen or telescoped memories that 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, cannot 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.
4. Memories of environmental failure that 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 undistorted. Further, if the emotional events to be recalled are before the age of 3, 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 courtroom can possibly be remembering 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?
[←1] Kohut’s term is selfobject — as in a love object who is experienced as an extension of the self.
[←2] I have elaborated Kohut’s theory and provided extensive case illustrations of this approach (Hedges 1983b).
The Fear of Breakdown, Emptiness, and Death
TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE
I have pondered considerably how to take memories recovered in psychotherapy seriously, not from a theoretical armchair by any means, but as a witness to twenty-five years of listening to various kinds of recovered memories and as consultant to numerous other therapists who have witnessed amazing experiences with recovered memories of all conceivable types.
As I have considered the problem, one striking feature began to emerge with clarity that was common to or implicit in all circumstances — the demand, insistence, yea the desperate almost life-or-death plea that the person’s memories be believed. Suddenly it struck me that there is more to this single impelling feature than meets the eye. The dramatic and at times almost desperate insistence demands full and literal belief — with the additional claim or veiled threat that, “if you don’t believe me I won’t feel validated in my experience, and I will never be able to feel that I am a real and worthwhile person. These things really happened to me, they must be believed, and if you won’t believe me this ends our relationship and I will find someone who will.” But this (blackmail quality) demand being issued as a desperate plea or a relationship ultimatum doesn’t stop here. “These atrocities happened. You believe me. Now you must support me in my redress of my grievances, my efforts to gain restitution for those crimes committed against me. My ‘recovery’ of my sanity depends upon my being believed, validated, and aided in my attempts to gain redress. ‘They’ must be made to confess and to pay for the wrongs they have done to me.” In the case of alien abduction memories the final part of the plea is not so clear cut, but reads something like, “People must be made to believe that these things are happening, that lives are being ruined, that my life is ruined by the fears I live with. Until the truth is known and believed we will have no collective way of banding together to protect ourselves from these invading aliens and stopping this use of us like common animals in a zoo or research laboratory.”
There is, of course, a certain impelling logic in these various claims and demands. And it would seem that this logic, taken along with the passionate persuasion of its absolute truth value, has led numerous therapists to lose their ordinary therapeutic stance.
As therapists we were all taught while in training to become dynamic psychotherapists never to “believe” anything told to us in psychotherapy, but to take everything told to us seriously. To believe is to step out of the professional therapist role and gets into a dual relationship with the client, which destroys the therapeutic stance and with it the possibility of ever being able to interpret the illusory and delusional aspects of transference and resistance. Ever entering the client’s life in a realistic way colludes with unconscious resistance. So we are taught to remain neutral, equidistant between the personality agencies of id, ego, and superego and the client’s external reality.
Someone arrives in our consulting room and tells us he has a headache because of too much stress. The internist says it’s “nerves.” We would be out of business quickly if we believed either conclusion. Instead, we learn to receive the complaint along with the proffered interpretations. Then we ask the person to continue telling us about himself. A woman comes to tell us that she feels pain during intercourse and it is because her husband is so insistent on having sex with her all the time. We hear that the child who is brought for therapy is lying and stealing despite all of the parent’s best efforts to raise him correctly. In couple or family work we always hear conflicting “realities.” We take each reality seriously as we work, but we refrain from losing our neutrality, our therapeutic stance, and therefore our ability to be of value, by not becoming swept away with the question of whose version of reality is correct or true. And the list goes on. We never take at face value what we are told, but we always receive it seriously and ask for more.
Then I began to realize that some of my colleagues are not plagued by this demand to believe the recovered memories told them. Surprise! I suddenly realize that they are the most seasoned therapists, those with the greatest experience and competence in analyzing transference and resistance, regardless of what school of therapy they have been trained in. They take what is told to them seriously and ask for more. Now the trail is getting hotter! Seasoned therapists who understand transference and resistance work, no matter how they label it, feel no need to believe the childhood abuse or abduction memories, but take everyone’s concerns and beliefs very seriously and go to work. Oh, if pressed, they might be more or less inclined to believe that a given person’s experience actually did or did not happen, but that is not their concern. They are aware of the existence of massive abuse and denial in our society (Hilton 1993). And without overwhelming objective evidence of specific facts, they have no need to believe or doubt — they are acutely aware that believing simply isn’t their job as psychotherapists. One colleague asked, “Whoever gave it to us to be the arbitrators of objective truth? Where but the psychotherapy consulting room are we less likely to be indulged with objective fact?!”
THE PROBLEM OF RECOVERY THROUGH BEING BELIEVED
Now the insistence (1) on “being believed,” (2) on “having to have one’s experiences validated,” and (3) on “only being able to achieve recovery by being supported in actually seeking realistic redress” began to look more like symptoms of something else. But if so, I asked myself, “What is the common root to these many symptomatic demands?”
Almost as if by divine intervention, a deeply distressed and horrified therapist appeared in my next consultation group. Her horror? “Tomorrow a client I have worked with for two-and-a-half years has arranged, with the aid of members of her survivors’ support group, a full family confrontation of her childhood molests.”
Consultant: Survivors’ groups encourage this kind of thing all the time, what’s the problem — surely you’re not involved in all that?
“No, of course not. But after six months of therapy when all of these abusive memories began coming out during sessions she became quite fragmented and was having a hard time functioning. I sent her to a psychiatrist who put her on Prozac, which helped. She is on a managed health care plan so her psychotherapy benefits ran out rapidly. I continued to see her once a week for a low fee but she clearly needed more. I suggested she check out the Community Women’s Center for a support group. At the Center she was referred to an incest survivors’ group. I thought, ‘Oh, well, she is working on those issues so maybe they can help her.’ Over the last two years numerous memories have emerged of absolutely terrible things that happened with her father and brothers. She insisted on my believing all of the memories that came up in group and in session.”
Consultant: And were the things believable?
“Well, that’s hard to say. She is clearly very damaged, borderline at best with organizing pockets around all of this abuse. I don’t question whether she has been somehow badly abused. But I have no idea about the actual memories — there are so many of them and they are so grotesque.”
Consultant: But she insisted on your believing all of them?
“Yes, she did.”
Consultant: And how did you handle that?
“Well, I did my best to get out of it. You know, to tell her that I know some horrible things must have happened to her, that we would do our best to figure things out and find ways for her to face whatever happened and to find new ways to live — I said it all. But she had to know that I believed her. Then the memories began to be more explicit, things an infant can’t possibly imagine unless they had actually happened to her.”
Consultant: And so you believed her?
“Well, in a way yes. I mean, I don’t know about all of the memories but clearly something awful happened to her. I let her know I believed that. But I’m sure she thinks I believe it all, just like her survivors’ group does. But what I’m worried about now is she has all of this energy and support gathered for the grand confrontation tomorrow. She wants them all to confess, to say that they did all of these horrible things to her, to say they are sorry, that they are horrible people to have ever done such things, that they can never forgive themselves, and that there is no way they can ever make it up to her.”
Consultant: Is that what she wants, some form of recompense?
“I don’t really know what she wants. Her father and her brothers do have money, maybe she wants some kind of payment. And there is a lot of insurance money. Her survivors’ group has educated her to that. But that’s not the main thing. Or at least I don’t think so. It’s like her sanity is somehow at stake. She now has amassed all of the believers she needs to validate her experiences and her memories. She now feels absolutely certain that these many things happened. If they don’t confess, if they don’t grovel, if they don’t agree that she is right and they are wrong I’m afraid she’ll have a psychotic break! But what’s got me scared is that I have somehow colluded in all of this without really meaning to. She is going to confront the family about all of these things, things that I have no way of knowing ever happened. And she’s going to say that she remembered all of this in therapy and that her group helped her get the courage to finally speak the truth. You see, it’s awful. I don’t know how I got into this jam. And just yesterday I read about a group that’s helping families fight back. They are encouraging families to sue the therapist for encouraging people to believe false memories. And, of course, therapists have lots of money to sue for. I have three million dollars in insurance this family could come after. And do you know what’s scariest? I have all of those memories written down in my notes. Sure enough, with her shaking, sobbing, writhing as she remembered it all — event by event. Her family — at least on the surface — appears ordinary and normal. I don’t think they’re going to take well to being told they’re criminals, and to being threatened with lawsuits for crimes they supposedly committed twenty-five years ago. It’s all one horrible mess and I have no protection in all of this. If the family contacts me for information, I am bound by confidentiality. I can’t tell them anything or help mediate in any way. The bottom line is, I’m fucked!”
Consultant: Follow me for a minute as I throw out some possibilities. When I hear your dilemma from the perspective of borderline or symbiotic personality organization, I hear the bottom line is that your client has succeeded in molesting you, violating your personal and professional boundaries in much the same intrusive or forceful way she may once have experienced herself as a very young child. According to this way of considering your dilemma, you are telling me that your life is now in as much danger as she may have felt in as an infant or toddler when all of whatever happened took place. The flashback dream memories are vivid and intensely sexual. What she experienced may have objectively looked very different. But the grotesque sexualized memories metaphorically express a certain true sense of how she felt then, or at least how she feels now when attempting to express intense body sensations that do contain a memory. By this view, you are saying that all this time you have been held emotional hostage in a similar helpless and vulnerable position to the one she felt she was in as a child — without having the slightest idea of how to protect yourself from this violence.
“Oh, God, I’m sick in the pit of my stomach just realizing how true what you are saying is. I’m feeling all of the abuse in the symbiotic role reversal of the countertransference.”
Similar versions of this story are being lived in therapist’s offices wherever psychotherapy is practiced. Talk shows are filled with the same human tragedy. Television audiences are being forced into the same position as this therapist of somehow judging the fate of those who are producing recovered memories. Judges and juries are being asked to decide the fate of family members who stand accused by the emergence of recovered memories from many years ago. The therapist I described is bright, well trained, sincere, and well intentioned. Her course was carefully thought out and managed but nevertheless has proven dangerous. Her training, like that of the vast majority of therapists practicing today, did not include how to work with primitive transference and resistance states so as to forestall massive acting out. By the therapist’s own report her client was in danger of a mental breakdown.
The source of the powerful energy that fuels the recovery movement is primordial fear, which leads therapists to search for memories that aim the helplessness and rage toward an external source in the past and thereby to shift the focus of this terrifying energy out of the present transference situation. If the client were allowed her breakdown, terrifying and primitive body states would emerge in the consulting room and involve her therapist. She would, for that time period, lose completely her ability to observe her own experience, to test reality, and she would experience the therapist as the abuser, the molester. The accusation and demand for confession and empathic understanding would be ideally aimed at the therapist in such a way that the primitive transference and resistance memories could at last be worked through rather than externalized and acted out. Freud discovered before the turn of the century (1895b) that hypnotic “remembering” and cathartic abreacting may indeed be intense emotional experiences that are momentarily compelling and tension relieving; but that without the activation of ego and body-ego memories in transference and resistance and without an intense and extensive working-through process there is no transformative cure.
When we believe people, are we perpetuating a fraud? When we fail to believe people, are we refusing to help them with their recovery? And what will ethics committees, licensing boards, and malpractice judges and juries be saying about how we conducted ourselves a decade from now when the psychotic transference finally slips into place and it is we who finally, but now publicly, stand helplessly accused of abusing this person in any of a variety of ways — by believing, by not believing, by molesting, by seducing …? “It looks like we’re all fucked!,” was the response of the consultation group.
THE FEAR OF BREAKDOWN
This therapist’s horrifying vignette brought abruptly to my attention a second feature of the recovered memory flap going on all around us. She feared that if her client did not get her way in the family confrontation she would have a psychotic breakdown. The therapist herself was afraid of a malpractice suit or disabling ethical complaint. Suddenly I realized that everyone touched in any way by the phenomenon of these popularized recovered memories is somehow afraid that something uncertain but catastrophic is going to happen to them in the vague but foreseeable future. Hmmm … something catastrophic is going to happen in the future that is somehow related to the distant, unknown, and unrememberable past?
At that point the key to taking recovered memories seriously suddenly leapt out in a conversation with Bob and Virginia Hilton.1 Virginia was preparing a paper on the topic for delivery to a bioenergetic conference the following week and we were brainstorming trying to get to the bottom of the recovered memory mystery (V. Hilton 1993). Bob had just finished a paper to be delivered at the same conference on a related topic (R. Hilton 1993) and Winnicott’s last paper, which was published posthumously, “Fear of Breakdown” (1974), was fresh on his mind.
Donald Winnicott was the first pediatrician to become a psychoanalyst. His understandings of the early mother-child interaction have made a significant contribution to British psychoanalysis and his powerful influence is now rapidly spreading worldwide. As a result of Dr. Margaret Little’s (1990) publication of her own analysis with Winnicott, Psychotic Anxieties and Containment, we now realize that Winnicott was the first psychoanalyst to learn how to fully and systematically foster a “regression to dependence” in which the most primitive of human psychotic anxieties could be subjected to analysis — even in people who are otherwise well developed.
In “Fear of Breakdown” Winnicott shows that when people in analysis speak of a fear of a psychotic break, a fear of dying, or a fear of emptiness, they are projecting into the future what has already happened in the infantile past. One can only truly fear what one has experienced. Terrifying and often disabling fears of breakdown, death, and emptiness are distinct ways of remembering terrifying processes that actually happened in a person’s infancy.
This nugget of an idea and all that has followed in its wake has changed the face of psychoanalytic thinking. What is dreaded and seen as a potentially calamitous future event is the necessity of experiencing in the memory of the psychoanalytic transference the horrible, regressive, (once death threatening) dependent breakdown of functioning that one in fact experienced in some form in infancy.
The fear of breakdown manifests itself in many forms as resistance to reexperiencing in transference and resistance (memories) the terror, helplessness, rage, and loss of control once known in infancy. Therapists and clients alike dread disorganizing breakdowns and there are many ways in resistance and counterresistance that two can collude to forestall the curative experience of remembering by reliving the breakdown experience with the therapist. One way of colluding with resistance to therapeutic progress would be to focus on external perpetrators or long-ago traumas to prevent having to live through deeply distressing and frightening breakdown recreations together.
Bob read us the passage from Winnicott that relates the original breakdown to precipitous loss of the infant’s sense of omnipotence, however that may have occurred — before or after birth. When the environmental provision fails to support the infant’s need to control life-giving necessities of his or her world, a massive breakdown of somatopsychic functioning occurs. The break constitutes a loss of whatever body-ego functions the infant may have attained at the time. Rudimentary or developing ego functions are not fully independent of the interpersonal situation in which they are being learned. So when the environment fails at critical moments, the infant experiences a loss of his or her own mind, a loss of any attained sense of control, and a loss of whatever rudimentary sense of self as agency may have been operating. From the point of view of the infant, the loss of psychic control over his or her environment is equivalent to the loss of the necessary life support systems so that fear of death (as an instinctual given) is experienced as terrifyingly imminent, complete with the frantic flailings we see in any mammal whose contact with the warmth and nurturing maternal body is interrupted. The environment is empty, the environment that is not experienced as separate from the infant’s rudimentary consciousness. When the necessary environmental support for ego skills and consciousness is lacking, the infant psyche collapses. In Green’s (1986) terms, the mother of primary desire and pleasure dies.
At the level of the infant’s primary organizing attempts there is a functional equivalence between disruption or failure of environmental provision and a sense of emptiness, loss of control, loss of omnipotence, total panic-stricken and painful psychic breakdown, and the terrifying prospect of death. Memories of primordial breakdowns are embedded in somatic symptoms and terror. Some such memories appear universal since, regardless of how good the parenting processes are, there are unavoidable moments of breakdown that occur in every person’s infancy. However, the subjective experience of intensity, duration, and frequency of breakdowns is markedly traumatic in some people and not possible to be adequately soothed or recovered from. This level of memory is guarded with intense physical pain attributable to the process of (quasi-neurological) primary repression. No one wants to go through the excruciating gross bodily pain and terror necessarily entailed in physically remembering the process of early psychic breakdown. A simplified recovery approach may foster repeated intense abreactions that bring the body to the pain threshold in an acting out that is then endlessly repeated in the name of recovery. But a century of psychoanalytic research has repeatedly and unequivocally demonstrated the futility of this abreaction approach — whether it be acted out in the form of screaming, kicking, accusing, confronting, switching personalities, generating yet more flashbacks, or whatever.
Acting outside or acting inside the therapeutic situation is never seen by psychoanalysts as therapeutic though at times it may be unavoidable or uncontrollable. Analysts and all responsible therapists — whether they work with psychoanalytic transferential concepts or with transference concepts such as parent-child tapes, birth memories, or wounded inner child — seek to frame within the therapeutic relationship the relatedness memories from the past that remain active in the personality. Transference and resistance memories can be secured for analysis and found to be illusory and delusory in contrast to the realistic possibilities offered in the present by real relationships that the person has the capacity to enjoy.
Winnicott (1974) holds that in more normal development the environment is able to manage infantile frustration and disillusionment through small and tolerable doses, so that the terrifying fear of death and an empty world (and therefore an empty self) may be averted and the breakdown of omnipotence gently helped along rather than traumatically forced and abusively intruded into the child’s body and mind. It is now possible to make sense of the strange and compelling nature of recovered memories. Environmental failure in infancy has led to a breakdown of early psychic processes with accompanying terror and the active threat of death (as the infant experiences it). The breakdown experience is blocked by primary repression that says “never go there again.” The breakdown fear lives on as the somatic underpinning of all subsequent emotional relatedness but cannot be recalled because (1) no memory of the experience per se is recorded-only a nameless dread of dependence; (2) the memory of the breakdown experience itself is guarded with intense pain, somatic terror, and physical symptoms of all types; and (3) the trauma occurred before it was possible to record pictures, words, or stories so it cannot be recalled in ordinary ways, but only as bodily terrors of approaching death.
THE MYTHIC THEMES OF RECOVERED MEMORIES
The mythic themes of recovered memories (incest, violence, multiple selves, cult abuse, birth, kidnapping, and alien abduction) have been present in all cultures since the beginning of recorded time and can be called upon by the creative human unconscious to allow for a creative narration to be built in psychotherapy that conveys the emotional essence of the infant’s traumatic experience. The demand to be believed represents in some way the sense of urgency of the violation of infantile boundaries. The primordial boundary violation that is registered can be interpreted in the countertransference as the therapist feeling violated by the demand to “believe me.” The working through of the repeated ruptures of interpersonal contact by flashbacks, sudden physical symptoms, bizarre thoughts, panic attacks, personality switches, and boundary violations can be accomplished through securing the organizing transference and resistance for analysis.
THE CONCEPT OF CUMULATIVE TRAUMA
A final consideration regarding the problem of recovered memories relates to the frequent claim by parents, family members, and accused therapists that the adult child now making accusations based on false memories has, until stressful problems in living were encountered, always been basically normal and well adjusted. And that family life has always been characterized by basically sound group life and parenting. Masud Khan’s (1963) concept of “cumulative trauma” adds a new set of possibilities to those already discussed.
Beginning with Freud’s early studies of childhood trauma (1895a, b), psychoanalysis has studied a series of possibilities regarding how the human organism handles overstimulation arising from the environment as well as from within the body. As early as 1920, Freud envisioned the organism turning its receptors toward the environment and gradually developing a “protective shield.”
Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism that reception of stimuli. The protective shield is supplied with its own store of energy and must above all endeavor to preserve the special modes of transformation of energy operating in it against the effects threatened by the enormous energies at work in the external world. [Freud 1920, p. 27]
This protective shield later develops into consciousness, but even so remains somewhat ineffective in protecting from stimuli arising from within the body. One way the organism may attempt to protect itself from overwhelming internal stimuli is to project them into the outer environment and treat them as “though they were acting, not from the inside, but from the outside, so that it may be possible to bring the shield against stimuli into operation as a means of defence against them” (p. 29). The false memory syndrome appears to originate in earliest infancy (pre- or postnatal) when environmental stimuli cannot be effectively screened out, or when strong internal stimuli are projected to the exterior in an effort to screen them out. In either case, due to the operation of primitive mental processes, the environment may be “blamed” by the infant for causing stimulation that cannot be comfortably processed — though blame may be objectively inappropriate to the circumstances. For example, one accuser’s early problems were traced back to placenta abruptio, a detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall giving rise to at least several prenatal days without nourishment. Often accusations are traceable to shortages of oxygen in utero, to early feeding problems, to infant allergies, to surgeries and medical procedures early in life, to incubators, to severely depressed mothers, to marital distress of the parents, or to an endless array of stressful and unusual early life events that were not deliberately cruel or abusive.
Anna Freud (1951, 1952, 1958) and Winnicott (1952) emphasize the role of maternal care in augmenting the protective shield during the period of early infantile dependency. Khan (1963) has introduced the concept of cumulative trauma to take into consideration early psychophysical events that happen between the infant and its mothering partners. The concept of cumulative trauma correlates the effects of early infant caretaking with disturbing personality features that only appear much later in life. Cumulative trauma is the result of the effects of numerous kinds of small breaches in the early stimulus barrier or protective shield that are not experienced as traumatic at the time but create a certain strain that, over time, produces an effect on the personality that can only be appreciated retrospectively when it is experienced as traumatic.
Research on infantile trauma and memory (Greenacre 1958, I960; Kris 1951, 1956a,b; Milner 1952) demonstrates the specific effects on somatic and psychic structure of cumulative strain trauma. Khan holds that “‘the strain trauma’ and the screen memories or precocious early memories that the patients recount are derivatives of the partial breakdown of the protective shield function of the mother and an attempt to symbolize its effects (cf. Anna Freud, 1958)” (p. 52). Khan further comments:
Cumulative trauma has its beginnings in the period of development when the infant needs and uses the mother as his protective shield. The inevitable temporary failures of the mother as protective shield are corrected and recovered from the evolving complexity and rhythm of the maturational processes. Where these failures of the mother in her role as protective shield are significantly frequent and lead to impingement on the infant’s psyche-soma, impingements which he has no means of eliminating, they set up a nucleus of pathogenic reaction. These in turn start a process of interplay with the mother which is distinct from her adaptation to the infant’s needs, [p. 53, emphasis added]
According to Khan, the faulty interplay between infant and caretakers that arises in consequence of strain reactions may lead to (1) premature and selective ego distortion and development, (2) special responsiveness to certain features of the mother’s personality such as her moods, (3) dissociation of archaic dependency from precocious and fiercely acted out independency, (4) an attitude of excessive concern for the mother and excessive craving for concern from the mother (co-dependency), (5) a precocious adaptation to internal and external realities, and (6) specific body-ego organizations that heavily influence later personality organization.
Khan points out that the developing child can and does recover from breaches in the protective shield and can make creative use of them so as to arrive at a fairly healthy and effective normal functioning personality. But the person with vulnerabilities left over from infantile cumulative strain trauma “nevertheless can in later life break down as a result of acute stress and crisis” (p. 56). When there is a later breakdown and earlier cumulative strain trauma can be inferred, Khan is clear that the earlier disturbances of maternal care were neither gross nor acute at the time they occurred. He cites infant research in which careful and detailed notes, recorded by well-trained researchers, failed to observe traumas that only retrospectively could be seen as producing this type of cumulative strain trauma. Anna Freud has similarly described instances in which, “subtle harm is being inflicted on this child, and … the consequences of it will become manifest at some future date” (A. Freud 1958, p. 57).
There are several implications of this research for the problem of recovered memory. There are many kinds of trauma that an infant can silently and invisibly be reacting to that are not the result of gross negligence or poor parenting. In such instances only retrospectively, in light of later disturbance or breakdown of personality functioning, can the effect of cumulative strain trauma be inferred. The origin of the difficulty can be traced to the environmental function of the protective shield, to the (m)other’s role in providing an effective barrier that protects the child from intense, frequent, and/or prolonged stimuli that produce strain, though there may be no visible signs of trauma at the time.
Early or recovered childhood memories representing cumulative trauma are seen by psychoanalysts as screen memories that abstract, condense, displace, symbolize, and represent visually the strain effect. The unconscious of the client creates a compelling picture or narrative that describes in metaphor what the strain trauma looked like in the mind and body of the infant.
Many symptoms and/or breakdowns in later life, occasioned by conditions of acute living stress, have their origins in infancy. The adult experience of vague and undefinable earlier trauma is attributable to the cumulative effects of strain in infancy caused by environmental failure to provide an effective stimulus barrier during the period of infantile dependency. There may have been no way at the time of knowing what kinds of stimuli were causing undue strain on the infant because they were not gross and they were operating silently and invisibly. Or the circumstance may have been beyond the parent’s capacity to shield, as in the case of medical problems, constitutional problems, or uncontrollable environmental problems, for example, war, food shortages, concentration camps, family discord, and so on. But the key consideration for our present topic is that when a person in later years, under conditions of living stress, produces memories of the effects of the cumulative strain trauma, what is remembered is abstracted, condensed, displaced, symbolized, and represented visually in screen memories that operate like dreams so that an accurate picture of objective facts is, in principle, forever impossible to obtain from recovered memories.
BEYOND THE UNTHOUGHT KNOWN
Bollas (1987), following Winnicott, speaks extensively of psychoanalysis of “the unthought known.” His focus is on preverbal patterns, emotions, and moods that characterize the early interactions the child establishes with its caretakers. As these patterns become established in the here-and-now emotional interaction of psychoanalytic relating, what has heretofore been “unthought known” can now be thought in the developing relatedness context. Memories of the unthought known from the first three or four years of life do not arrive in pictures or narrations. Rather they are relatedness memories embedded deeply in our characters and in our characteristic modes of interacting with significant others (Hedges 1983b). Memories recovered from this period in the form of pictures and stories are bound to be unreliable as such. When the memories emerge within the context of detailed analysis of resistance and transference that directly involve the analyst and the analytic process, then two can participate in the creation of words, pictures, and stories that serve as metaphors of what the early experiences that are being nonverbally and somatically revived in the present might have looked like. The objective facts of early emotional life are simply not accurately retrievable in the form of pictorial and narrational memories, no matter how vivid and emotionally compelling mental pictures and somatic sensations relating to the past may be.
Hedges (1994c) researches the developmentally earlier (plus or minus four months from birth) organizing level transference that sets up a block to experiencing others before interactions can begin. He cites Fraiberg’s (1982) observations of infants in which “predefenses” — the tendency to fight, flight, or freeze — serve as behavioral modes that characterize the resistance to experiencing the terrifying response sequences that produced in infancy the tendency toward compulsive blocking or rupturing of interpersonal contact.
Early impingements of omission or commission into the infantile sense of continuity force the infant to respond and to problem solve before it is equipped to do so or would ordinarily be inclined to create a response pattern. Such early impingements may be subtle and operate invisibly but do form a person’s basic foundations of thought. By definition they are persecutory in nature, in that these fundamental experiencing templates have been formed based on response to intrusive impingements. Thus faulty primary and primordial learning of thought patterns results, which serves (1) to keep the person focused on certain classes of danger cues when no danger exists, (2) to preoccupy the person with certain classes of danger cues so that he or she misses completely other dangers that “common sense” would otherwise inform the person of, and (3) to freeze for the person certain aspects of sensorimotor responsiveness at the level of infantile dependency — global or amodal perception and motor responsiveness — which forecloses further elaboration by more mature differentiated modes of perception in situations of greater independence. Memories of such primordial persecutory responsiveness that are recalled at later points of life will necessarily be subject to early distorting influences as well as influences of the recall situation. It becomes patently clear that memories recovered from infancy are complex constructions that include many unreliable sources of variance. As such they must be understood to be mentally operating in the same way as dreams — the products of abstraction, condensation, displacement, symbolization, and considerations of visual representability.
Memories recovered in the course of psychotherapy can be taken seriously if one has clearly in mind what kinds of early life events are subject to what forms of later recall and how the recall can be accomplished through transference and resistance analysis. A review of a century of psychoanalytic observation has demonstrated that the kinds of recovered memories arising to public attention currently cannot possibly be veridical memories in the ways and forms that they are being touted. We have long understood the constructed effect of screen and telescoped memories that operate like dreams, as abstracting processes that help to weave together in plausible images and sequences psychic events that might not otherwise belong together, in order to make them seem sane and sensible.
We have studied the way human truth gets projected into creative and expressive narrations and narrative interactions that capture the essence of psychic experience. We know that plausible narration demands such features as a beginning, middle, and end. Characters must have motives and act in believable ways with purposes and effects. In a plausible narrative various gaps or inconsistencies in the story, the character structure, or the cause and effect of purpose are glossed over, filled in, or seamlessly woven together in ways that are vivid, flow naturally, and are emotionally compelling and logically believable.
We are taken in by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because we all know what it means to experience ourselves in various convincing and contradictory parts. Every time Sybil is on national television or a talk show airs live appearances of satanic ritual abuse, our clinics are flooded with self-referrals. After the atomic bomb we looked to the skies for danger and sure enough our efforts quickly brought us flying saucers. We begin affirming more rights for women and children and our culture begins noticing actual abusive incidents as well as many other violent and molest stories that seemed to have other sources. When our culture could no longer believe in conversion hysteria, we saw peptic ulcers, then stress, now viral contagion. When we could no longer believe in Bridie Murphy’s past lives, we turned to multiple selves, alien abductions, and satanic ritual abuse. The list of possibilities goes on and will keep expanding as our collective imagination continues to generate believable images that can be used in our screen, telescoped, and narrative constructions to clarify what our infancies were like and what the structure of our deepest emotional life looks like.
“My parents in raising me were more concerned with creeds and ritual than they were with my needs to love and to be loved by them. The reverence they kept was like a cult. My father was the high priest, my mother a priestess who looked on emotionless while I was led to the altar and forced to kill a baby (me?) and to drink its blood. Then I was placed on the altar as a sacrifice to the carnal wishes of all of their friends, the other participants that supported their belief system. The most unbearable part of all is that I was forced do the same things they did, to become like them, to sacrifice human life in the same manner they did, in the same cult, at the same altar. As a result, I am a damaged wreck.”
“There is a higher intelligence that comes into my sphere, that picks me up, puts me down, and exchanges fluids with me through my umbilicus. They want my soul, my fertility, and they want to impregnate me with their superior mental structure. I have no control over the coming and going of the higher intelligence that governs my life but I am frightened by it and suddenly swept away. It’s like being lost in an endless nightmare that I can’t make go away. Like losing yourself in a horrible science fiction movie you just can’t shake off. I have no control over these higher intelligences that watch me.”
“My father loved me too much, I remember when he used to come into my room. I remember my mother was somewhere in the background. My childhood longings were misread by him and he took advantage of me. If she had done her job in keeping him happy like a wife should I would not have been given to him.”
“My mother ruled my every thought, we were always close, we shared everything. My father was an irrational, alcoholic brute, no one whom I could learn masculinity from. He gave me to her because he didn’t want to deal with her dependency and so I had to be parent to her, husband to her — no wonder I am what I am.”
In all of these familiar stories and more, we can suppose that what must eventually be expressed or represented in the interactional exchange of the psychoanalytic transference and resistance is the loss of power, the loss of control over oneself, and a personal destiny to continue experiencing emptiness, breakdown, and death as a result of internalized environmental failures. The kinds of stories that must be told and the kinds of painful somatic memories that must be relived will vary according to the nature of the infantile breakdown experience.
Someone will arise now to ask, “But isn’t this all speculation? How do we know that all these things didn’t really happen exactly as they are remembered?” The answer lies in our understanding of the hope that the psychotherapeutic situation holds out for people to be helped in reliving a dependent state past trauma. And then, of transforming themselves through better relating in the present. The effects of infantile breakdown resulting from misfortune, misunderstanding, neglect, or abuse can only be transformed in our daily lives through reliving in the transference present the traumas of the infantile past. Acting out or displacing the accusation onto the past never helps us transform our inner lives.
A well-meaning accused parent who has been searching his memory for some evidence that he has, in fact, trespassed in the way his adult daughter alleges, now arises to ask, “But doctor, isn’t it possible that if I were so horrified by the deed I had done that I would have repressed it totally?” The answer is unequivocally “no.”
Repression as conceptualized in psychoanalysis simply doesn’t work this way. When we have been traumatized the problem is that we can’t forget it. We set it aside, we manage not to think about it for long periods of time, but a sudden noise instantly shuttles us back to the concentration camp, to the trench where our buddy lies bleeding and dead, to the bedroom with the yellow flowered wallpaper and musty smell where from our perch on the ceiling we look down watching Father take his pleasure with our unfeeling bodies.
Psychological repression happens to a 5-year-old child whose sexual and aggressive impulses press for forbidden expression. Repression as we have studied it for a century only works against stimulation arising from within the neuropsychic system, not merely in harmony with abstract moral convictions. Such a notion of repression belongs to Hollywood.
“But doctor, isn’t it possible I might begin having flashbacks of my having actually committed the acts my daughter says I did?” Of course, anyone can have flashbacks about anything. But flashbacks operate like dreams, not like memories. Flashbacks are unconscious constructions and, as such, have many determinants. If you were working on my couch and started having flashbacks I would encourage careful and systematic attention to them. I would assume they contained the history of your infantile past that was now being re-created in dream mode in order for us to study how your relationship with me was pointing toward what had happened in your otherwise unrememberable infancy. If the flashbacks seemed also tied to your daughter and other family members, I would be listening for how the infantile past being revived for us to study in our relationship has also been activated at various moments in transference experiences toward them as well. I would never assume we were looking at facts or memories.
Therapists who, in the course of working with primitive transferences, have lost their professional boundaries momentarily are regularly able to report vivid memories of experiences of dissociation. There is never any question of what they did or did not do — no matter how heinous or how ego dystonic it was. In a given moment they felt the pull of a desperate (asexual, infantile) woman who needed their touch to keep from falling into blackness and death. As they reached out to her they slipped into the place in themselves where long ago they mobilized total reaching, total yearning, and went for the (asexual) breast so powerfully desired and so potently alluring. Retrospectively, they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they experienced a psychotic moment in themselves while trying to rescue this woman. And while they are duly horrified at what they did, there is no possibility of its ever being truly forgotten. Perpetrators know exactly what they did and did not do, despite however much they squirm to deny, defend, and blame the other. The only exceptions are people who chronically live in psychotic experiences and have never been able to keep very good track of reality. Ordinary people are simply not able to accomplish such repressions no matter how much they may wish to.
A century of accumulated psychoanalytic knowledge says that relatedness memory simply does not work the way so many people claim it does, but rather that relatedness memories are manifest in people’s daily lives and in transference and resistance memories in psychotherapy. People who have experienced infantile breakdowns attempt to turn passive trauma into active mastery by molesting us with their memories, the demand to be believed, and the insistence on being supported by us in their redress. As human beings who have been subjected to infantile trauma they deserve so much more from us than simply being believed!
Believing the traumas, and therapists encouraging people to do things in the real world about the horrible memories they recover in psychotherapy, can only be colluding with the forces of resistance as we know them to arise to prevent painful transference reexperiencing. What is being avoided is clearly the breakdown of primitive mental functions that can only be done in the safety and intimacy of a private transference relationship. Not only clients but therapists also dread the intensity and the intimacy of such primitive transference reliving. We have a whole population of people who have suffered humiliating and traumatizing childhoods and infancies who are yearning for regressive psychotherapy experiences in which disorienting experiences can be subjected to transference, resistance, and countertransference analysis.
There is no shortage of customers. But there is a great shortage of therapists who have been prepared by their professional training to delve deeply into the meanings of recovered memories within the context of the therapeutic relationship. And there is great risk to the therapist working with deep personality trauma. There is not only the risk of litigation arising from the wild acting-out damage that clients are inflicting on their families as a result of recovered memories. There is the greater risk that the therapist will be successful in mobilizing the early organizing or psychotic transference, will be interpretively successful in not having it deflected toward revenge on the family, but will be caught with the accusations aimed squarely at him or her while the client is in a frame of mind with little reality testing. No wonder so many therapists are eager to deflect these psychotic anxieties onto personages in the past rather than to attempt to contain them!
As professionals we have not yet begun to assess the grave danger each of us is in as a result of recovered memories emerging in the therapeutic transference relationship. Escalating law suits, increasing disciplinary action by ethics committees and licensing boards, and skyrocketing costs of malpractice insurance make clear that the problem is real and that it is serious. For these and other reasons I advocate the inclusion of a third party “case monitor” whenever organizing or psychotic transferences are being worked on so that all parties are aware of the work and all parties are protected from accidental derailing of the psychotic process (see Hedges 1994c). We know there are abuses and that they must be limited. But the national wild accusatory atmosphere surrounding recovered memories is only the tip of the iceberg of universal psychotic transference feelings.
It is not abusive or neglectful parents and families that are the proper therapeutic target of primitive abusive transference feelings. It is ourselves and the work we do. How are we individually and collectively to protect ourselves from an abusive psychotic monster that an enlightened society with concern for the emotional well being of everyone has unleashed on us?
IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL AND LEGAL ISSUES
1. Clinical, theoretical, and experimental research fails to support the popularized video camera theory of memory. The widely held view that externally generated psychic trauma can produce total amnesia for many years and then be subject to perfect total recall of fact is a Hollywood invention that is completely fallacious. As a dramatic device for generating horror and suspense, the specter of capricious memory loss in response to unwanted experiences has indeed been successful in convincing millions that such things can and do happen — as attested to by an utterly spellbound population at present.
2. Recovered memories cannot be counted as fact. Consideration from a psychoanalytic point of view shows there to be too many sources of variance in recovered memories for them to ever be considered reliable sources of factual truth. Memories produced in hypnosis, chemically induced interviews, or psychotherapy are setting, technique, and relationship dependent. The most important recovered memories that attest to a history of trauma originate in the earliest months and years of life. Our knowledge of the way the human mind records experiences during this period makes it impossible for pictorial, verbal, narrational, or even screen images to provide facts that are reliable.
3. Nor can memories recovered in psychotherapy be counted as merely false confabulations. We have a series of viable ways to consider the potential truth value of memories recovered within the context of psychotherapy. Much has been said concerning screen memories, telescoped memories, and narrational truth. Little attention has been given in the recovered memory literature to the kinds of transference and resistance memories that can be expected to characterize each developmental epoch of early childhood. The terror that many people experienced in the first months of life due to misfortune, misunderstanding, neglect, and/or abuse is recorded in painful aversions to dependent states that might leave them at risk for psychic breakdown. The effects of cumulative strain trauma in infancy can be devastating in a person’s later life, though no trauma was visible and no abuse present at the time. People resist at almost all cost having to reexperience in transference (i.e., to remember) the terrifying and physically painful memories of environmental failure in earliest infancy. But externalizing responsibility for one’s unhappiness in life onto people and events of childhood goes fundamentally against the grain of responsible psychotherapy.
4. A simplified recovery approach tends to collude with resistance to the establishment of early transference remembering and, to the degree that it does, it is anti-psychotherapeutic. In acceding to the client’s demand to be believed, to have their experiences validated, and to receive support for redress of wrongs, recovery workers foreclose the possibility of securing for analysis the transference and resistance memories mobilized by the psychotherapeutic relationship. Encouraging the acting out of multi-determined recovered memories in the name of psychotherapy is clearly creating malpractice liabilities for these therapists.
5. Studies of recovered memories cannot draw responsible conclusions when collapsing over diverse categories of memory, developmental levels, and modes of personality organization. Nor can conclusions uncritically be generalized from the psychotherapy setting, which is situation and relationship dependent, to other social and legal settings. Human memory is complex, elusive, and multidimensional so that all attempts to arrive at simplified or dogmatic conclusions are bound to be faulty. This includes attempts to consider the physiological aspects of memory as well.
6. Taking recovered memories seriously involves establishing a private and confidential relationship in which all screen, narrational, transference, and resistance memory possibilities can be carefully considered over time and within the ongoing context of the psychotherapeutic relationship. Therapeutic transformation of internal structures left by childhood oversight, neglect, and abuse necessarily involves mobilizing in the therapeutic relationship a duality in which the real relationship with the therapist can be known in contrast to the remembered relationships from childhood that are being projected from within the client onto the person of the analyst and into the process of the analysis as transference and resistance.
Responsible psychotherapeutic work with memories recovered from infancy and early childhood requires much time and a well-developed interpersonal relationship between the client and his or her therapist. The temptation for a therapist to take recovered memories at face value and to encourage restitutive action against presumed perpetrators is great. The current limited managed care approach guarantees that help for the several million who suffer from infantile trauma will not be provided. How many billions of dollars will we spend on litigational activities and criminal prosecutions before prevention and treatment are realistically considered? How many lives will be ruined and families destroyed before we attend to the truly horrible problem of infantile trauma and its effects in later adulthood? How long before we invest in ourselves, in our children, and in our lives as a free people?
[←1] Dr. Robert Hilton is Senior Trainer in the Southern California Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis where Dr. Virginia Wink Hilton is Director of Training.
[←2] A full review of the psychoanalytic dialogue over the last century on the nature of therapeutic “regressions to dependence” has recently been undertaken by Robert Van Sweden (1994).
[←3] See Chapter 2 for Green’s formulations regarding the internalized “dead mother” formed out of a loss of infantile experiences of satisfaction.
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