The belief that trauma can cause amnesia is a recent medical revelation. Some researchers have gone the opposite way, claiming it isn't real, it is fake because people didn't understand it 200 years ago. I will examine this tangled mess further.
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007; Page A08
But when researchers recently mounted an exhaustive effort to find examples of trauma-related amnesia in literary works before the 19th century, they drew a blank. If repressed memories are one way the brain deals with painful memories, why would there be no literary examples of the phenomenon that are more than 200 years old?
In an unusual study, a group of psychiatrists and literary scholars, led by Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School, recently argued that the psychiatric disorder known as dissociative amnesia (often called "repressed memory") is a "culture-bound syndrome" -- a creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century.
There are several elements here: one is memory. Everyone thinks their own memory is correct and yet there are always disputes as to what is actually real and what is fantasy. Most people can't remember any dreams so they can't tell if a memory is a dream or actual factual reality. One can assemble information and data that reveals one's past events such as births and which schools one attended and other raw data.
Remembering events is always trickier. Many times, one remembers stories about events: collective family mythologies and such. Early on, I would write about various interesting 'events' within my own family and of course, by framing them, setting them down as words and adding some personal blather to them, I made stories become living things rather than a few ragged shreds of memories.
Creating and maintaining a roster of stories is important, I think, because it is part of one's own self and most people live more or less in the present with no past and no future, a sens of being in the here and now ruling their existence. This is radically different from writers, poets and artists of all kinds.
The main thing about childhood memories is, no human culture values them at all except for Western civilization starting with a specific time, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the simultaneous Romatic Rebellion.
Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Académie de Dijon - Discours sur les sciences et les arts. 'Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?' (1750: 29). In this essay we see a familiar theme: that humans are by nature good - and it is society's institutions that corrupt them (Smith and Smith 1994: 184). The essay earned him considerable fame and he reacted against it. He seems to have fallen out with a number of his friends and the (high-society) people with whom he was expected to mix. This was a period of reappraisal. On a visit to Geneva reconverted to Calvinism (and gained Genevan citizenship). There was also a fairly public infatuation with Mme d'Houderot that with his other erratic behaviour, led some of his friends to consider him insane.
Rousseau's mental health was a matter of some concern for the rest of his life. There were significant periods when he found it difficult to be in the company of others, when he believed himself to be the focus of hostility and duplicity (a feeling probably compounded by the fact that there was some truth in this). He frequently acted 'oddly' with sudden changes of mood. These 'oscillations' led to situations where he falsely accused others and behaved with scant respect for their humanity. There was something about what, and the way, he wrote and how he acted with others that contributed to his being on the receiving end of strong, and sometimes malicious, attacks by people like Voltaire. The 'oscillations' could also open up 'another universe' in which he could see the world in a different, and illuminating, way (see Grimsley 1969).
The new history of Childhood which changed from being an annoying state of being to be rushed through as fast as possible, to an enchanted palace where the real person was formed and lived forever, was a real social revolution. Since the dawn of civilization, children scarcely mattered. The earliest biographers glossed over the nativity of their subjects for it was of little interest.
Only a few sketchy points were made for magical reasons: Julius Caesar had a strange birth, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf, Oedipus was exposed as a baby by his kingly father, etc. The Bible is one of the few books which have various stories about the childhoods of characters such as Moses or Jesus but even these were mostly about the divinity of their unusual births and then skipping off to adulthood almost immediately, they focus mostly on adult actions with no psychology about the odd and bizarre births.
Indeed, outside of Oedipus, the births really had little to do with later adult actions, the heroes being 'normal' and not warped by their strange beginnings.
The 18th century saw the invention of the novel, launched by people like Daniel Defoe. These romantic novels all focused on adult problems and foibles. Children were characters but attempts at understanding their psychology barely existed. Children were still dressed like little adults once they left the cradle and the breast. But as social revolutions like the one in the USA and France swept the world, a quieter revolution changed children from little, imperfect adults into a new social class. It is no wonder this caused a huge revolution in how schools were run.
Dickens was the very first to delve deeply into the psychology of childhood and who understood things from a child's perspective. To this day, his novels stand out as important revelations concerning the inner working of a child's mind. His ability to remember his own very traumatic childhood was due lack of embarrassment. Namely, thanks to the ongoing revolution in understanding children and reforming schools, people were taking children more seriously and trying to understand them better rather than letting them fester in the domestic chambers until tamed and ready for adult needs.
The romanticizing of childhood ran alongside abusively working children to death in the new capitalist economy. Dickens, to his great credit, fought this tooth and nail and was one of the great reformers fighting for the right of children to have a childhood. The attitude about children and their memories was simple: they would 'grow out of' whatever traumas life inflicted on them. Dickens begged to differ. This is similar to the attitude that animals can't think or remember so they don't feel pain (a very bizarre idea indeed!).
Throughout his life Clemens occasionally had recurring, emotional and profoundly touching dreams which he wrote were real. He recounted these dreams in the short story My Platonic Sweetheart. The dreams were about a young woman in the dream plane of existence, whom he loved, and who loved him in return. In all the dreams, regardless of Clemens' waking age, they both appeared to be about 15 years old. The dreams appeared to have a timeless continuity, that is, even though several waking years might have passed between meetings, in the dream world there seemed to have passed little time. Their physical appearance was different each time, the names they called each other were different, and in a couple of the dreams she died, but none of this seemed to be the slightest impediment to their continuing loving relationship each time they met.
Like Dickens or Rousseau, Mark Twain had a very active dream life. Most adults can't remember dreams but many children can and perhaps this murky inner world is the key difference between adult and the child. I can remember many of my dreams to this day. This might even be a personal defect. I will note that through history, the great dreamers who all built the new psychological matrix we live in today, were all a bit nutty, too. One problem with dreams is they can confuse a person terribly for a dream is every bit as vivid as a waking memory as far as the brain is concerned.
Because of our deep psychological environment is built into the brain and evolved with the brain, balancing it with daily life is difficult. Many people who think they are sane are not because there is no sanity, we are all crazy due to our brains and our basic psychology. The solution most cultures have for this is to ignore it all and muddle along anyway. Trauma was basically ignored or even mocked. It is like living in Iraq today: the madness of life can only be accepted or one can go on the rampage and kill.
In his 40s, Freud himself suffered from many cases of psychosomatic diseases as well as many kinds of fears, and during this period he applied many of his theories on himself, including psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. Through this self-analysis he managed to discover the cause of his psychical suffering.
He decided that all humans were basically born set up to suffer sexual and psychological trauma which is why he concentrated on the dream world. Not because this was 'real memories' but because it would show his patients how their innermost minds were responsible for them remembering things and the ancient prism set up by evolution warped things and they could deal with this creatively by talking, writing and making pictures, etc.
This revolution fueled great art works which still illuminate the cultural heavens. We live in the afterglow. And right on the heels of this, the tormented psychopath, Hitler, rose to power and acted out one of the most insane episodes in the history of Europe. Many people want to probe his childhood to understand why he grew up the way he became. But that is unnecessary. What happened when he was an adult is what really shaped him in the bitter end.
He turned his own WWI trauma into a WWII nightmare.
I am the victim of 'repressed memory'. Namely, I was really raped as a child and to this day, I can barely remember any details at all, when I accidentally retraced my steps to the door of the man who did this, he did confess to me. This didn't 'fix' anything in my psyche, it simply justified what people told me over the years (the doctors, etc). The wound this caused me isn't all that important next to all the stupid things that happen domestically that makes life annoying. I do notice that people can and will be hostile or nasty just because they are in a bad mood, stressed out or that is their personality. There is no medicine for this and probing the past won't fix it.
It is just part of being a human with a big, fat brain. This is our wonder and our greatest annoyance. This is why I call humans, 'the Insane Ape.'