Whenever we hit problems of any kind in life, the obvious first recourse is to look to the past, in the hope of identifying the origins of our trouble. And yet this exercise of reassessment is by no means as simple as it may appear. In the same way that sedimentary layers of earth become compacted until they transform completely under the weight of subsequent strata, so the events of the distant past are inevitably distorted by the layers of time that supersede them. When we look back, despite the fierce conviction of truth created by the processes of memory, all we really see is a reflection of ourselves looking. The past is undoubtedly a vast and valuable resource for understanding the present, but how to use it wisely, and accurately?
One way to illustrate the problem is through the conflict that erupted between psychoanalysts back in the mid-seventies over child abuse. The row was caused by a brilliant but difficult man called Jeffrey Masson, a researcher in psychoanalysis with an axe to grind. He had trained as a psychotherapist, hated it, failed to make the grade and moved over into more theoretical studies. But the argument he put forth to the body of Freudian psychotherapists, was all about the ultimate power of what had ‘really’ happened in the past. The trouble was over Freud’s seduction theory. When Freud first started seeing patients, he was astonished by how many of the women he spoke to were convinced that they had been molested by an adult male in childhood. To begin with, Freud believed that this was itself the problem – that sexual trauma was always at the heart of any neurosis. But then, he changed his mind. The incidence of abuse began to seem to him so wide-spread that he began to develop the radical idea of an early, profoundly influential fantasy that developed in the minds of children. This was the start of the much misunderstood Oedipus complex, the belief that children experience such intense, bonding love for their parents that it naturally takes the conceptual shape of sexuality, when considered from the adult’s perspective. So, no vulgar Freudianism here, please; it’s not that the child wants to sleep with the parent, as the old-style version of it goes, it’s that the possessive, overwhelming love of child for parent becomes a precursor of sexuality and sexuality, when we get there, always inevitably puts us back in touch with the ghosts of parents past and the way they loved us and taught us what love could do, and what it cost.
And so Freud decided that psychic reality, the constructs of the mind, were far more important and influential than what really happened in the past, and that whatever the patient claimed to have experienced, the point of intervention in a patient’s life was to be found in their fantasies, not in actuality.
Now Jeffrey Masson thought this was a cop-out and a cheat, a slap in the face of all the patients who had suffered child abuse and now had to suffer not being believed. He felt that Freud had been leaned on by the rich burghers of Vienna, who did not want their crimes to be found out. He advocated a return to reality, an insistence that when a patient recounted an episode of abuse, it was to be understood as a memory of a real occurrence and treated as such. He wanted the point of intervention in a patient’s life to be the discovery of, and reaction to, the reality of adult error and crime.
You would think such an argument would be incontrovertible, no? And yet, some of you may remember the subsequent controversy that arose over ‘False Memory Syndrome’ or ‘Recovered Memory Syndrome’ that developed directly out of Masson’s argument. A spate of court cases were tried in America in the eighties when a patient in psychoanalysis ‘remembered’ otherwise entirely forgotten experiences of abuse and took the parent or whoever, to court over it. Many of the accused were bewildered and astounded and pleaded their innocence vehemently. And of course here is the rub: what else would they be likely to do, innocent or guilty of the charges? Families were wrecked, lives and reputations destroyed, but the real question has to be whether anyone actually felt better in the aftermath. Court cases are not known generally for their healing and therapeutic properties.
What we do know about memory, however, is how incredibly unreliable it is. We remember stories we have been told, as if they were memories. We can even remember other people’s memories as if they were our own. What we do to our own memories is extraordinary. Take the French writer, Georges Perec, for instance, who wrote a strange and brilliant book W or the Memory of Childhood, in which he tried to track down as accurately as possible the facts of his traumatic childhood. When the Nazis occupied Paris, his mother put him on a train to the countryside, one of the last to leave, and he never saw her again; within days she had been rounded up and taken to the gas chambers. Young Georges escaped to live with relatives in the South where he had to deny his Jewish inheritance, difficult to do when you see what he looked like. Perec remembered very vividly attending his first school with a broken arm, and he remembered writing, under the tuition of an aunt, his first Jewish letter. Only when he questioned his relatives as a grown man, no one could recall his broken arm, and the Jewish letter he wrote turned out not even to exist in the alphabet. Perec was forced to accept the misleading nature of his memories, although we can interpret them not as lies, but as accurate fictions that attested to his sense of brokenness, and to his foreclosure from his Jewish inheritance. These emotions, too complex for a child to register, had taken on symbolic form of the broken arm and the inexistent letter. Memory, then, is often emotionally astute but factually distorted. And even more powerful and influential is our ability to forget and deny, to turn away from what is too painful to be contemplated, in our own behaviour as well as that of others.
We have to face up to the fact that what we hold in our minds is not always what happened. And that what happened is important, not for its status as an event, but for how it was worked into the inner life. The psychotherapist Leonard Shengold found this conciliatory position with regard to the conflict aroused by Jeffrey Masson: ‘The patient must know what he has suffered, at whose hands, and how it has affected him. The means he uses not to know, to deny, must be made fully conscious.’ But Masson’s theory ‘fits in so well with most patients’ resistances – not just to analysis but to the responsibility for one’s own inner life: “Look what they did to me!” Yet we are all traumatized to some extent, and the need to deny what we believe actually happened (and what may indeed have happened) is also universal. […] The holocausts – public and private – did and do occur. They are hard to register. But they do not explain everything. Neurosis has turned out to be the human condition’.
It seems to me that it is the structure of experience, rather than the individual event, that is most influential in forming the faultlines of character that cause the quakes of later life. And that trouble occurs when what was experienced as difficult to tolerate in childhood is repeated structurally in adulthood. So, an example that I rather like from Margot Waddell’s wonderful book Inside Lives: 89-year-old Mrs Brown suffered extreme jealousy over her belief that her 90-year-old husband, Eric, who had been faithful for nigh on 60 years, had become attracted to their recently widowed friend, the comparatively youthful 80-year-old Gladys. Mrs Brown complained that Gladys ‘was just waiting for me to die so she could move in with Eric.’ Eric was suitably bemused and could only say he did not want to put up with ‘all her awful relatives.’ This was insufficient reassurance for Mrs Brown who interrogated her husband until he stated that Gladys was out of the question as a partner. At that point, she could finally relax.
Waddell explains that, despite her age and the constancy of her marriage, Mrs Brown had been attacked by an early anxiety that stems from the small child’s longing to possess a parent exclusively. Such was the pull of this fear that she was unable to think or function until her mind was put at rest. The early insecurity that had never been acknowledged would return again and again as a certainty of betrayal and abandonment, and indicated that something must have occurred in her early life to make her believe she had been supplanted in the affection of someone necessary to her survival. What had happened was probably quite banal – the birth of a sibling, or the return of a father from the war. But unresolved and buried, that wound could cause Mrs Brown to ignore everything she knew about her husband and turn him into an alarming version of what she most feared.
Waddell writes: ‘One witnesses, in an exchange such as this, the way in which, at any one moment, a person may be in a state of mind which is felt to be unmanageable and impossibly persecuting. These states have to battle with other forces in the personality which belong to a more stable, calm and hopeful self.’ And so here is the other side of the coin: not just what has happened that may have harmed or hurt us, but what life may have given us in terms of resources and strategies to combat the old terrors. When we look to the past to help us, it is as much about gaining access to that ‘stable, calm and hopeful self’, as it is about mapping the places where misinterpretations have arisen, magic promises been made, and damage been done.