How The Past Matters

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?

Jeffrey Masson

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.

The lovely Perec

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.

20 thoughts on “How The Past Matters

  1. As ever, litlove, with this and the previous post you write so beautifully about complex matters. I would even go so far as to say that all literature – even all language – is an attempt to order and find order in the wild uproar of life. Sometimes, though, inner peace and understanding comes down to something very simple too: like Perec’s poor mother, most people just do the best they can, given their circumstances.

  2. Oh absolutely. Abstract history works through us all in powerful ways, too, in terms of ideology, prevailing recommendations for childcare, geographical and social mobility (or lack of it), as well as the big events of war, poverty, injustice and so on. And then, what matters so much to us often turns out to be something tiny and unexpected – the look on someone’s face, an overheard sentence, the fall of the dice. I think all literature is an attempt to figure out how the small and particular is related to the broad and general, too.

  3. Human psychology is complex at best…I agree with Deborah though…you have somehow managed to take such complexities as they apply to memory and explain it in a coherant, interesting way. Making things even more complex is the notion that inner peace and understanding are phenomena that are interpreted individually…actually parallel with how we look at the conglomeration of thoughts that make up our memory. Very heavy “stuff” indeed.

  4. Excellent post, LL. How I have missed reading your work. For me, Masson seems overly invested in an absolute truth and, in so doing, denies the absolute subjectivity that is the personal reality. To “correct” a false memory is to force another trauma onto the person, just as it would be to persist in seeking out this “truth” without honoring the experience of same. By looking upon memory, knowing its faults and foibles, Freud wasn’t advocating a denial of true events or encouraging lawful action that can, and does, destroy lives. It seems to me his views are more holistic; the client is to be supported, the “truth” that matters is in their experiences. The only caveats to these situations seem in the nature of full out psychotic episodes where delusions can persist. Still, I can’t help but wonder if our investment in the rightness of our own realities does not damage these individuals as well. Can healing occur when the therapist is invested in their notions of “right” being pursued at the cost of denying the person’s experience?

    I love that your posts make me have more questions and thoughts. Thank you so much, LL.

  5. I have a very good memory and still occasionally I find out that I have distorted something from the past. I always find this so scary. How many things do we carry around in ourselves and take for truths that are just tricks of our mind.
    I wasn’t familiar with Perec’s life story at all. Interesting and sad. I was never drawn to him as writer. He is quirky but I cannot relate to his work.

  6. Great post. I hope you’re working this into a longer piece because your insights and reflections are brilliant. Not much to add here except I love it when you write about psychology. More please 😉

  7. As a therapist, myself, I am always fascinated by the “return of the repressed,” the living out of the same patterns over and over since early in life until the trauma can be “worked through” and pushed away from the present and tucked neatly in the past where it belongs. It is not a therapist’s job to judge the accuracy of the memories. We are not Private Investigators. Our job is to help the patient better cope with their subjective beliefs of what happened. That is the reality that needs to be dealt with. Working with children in therapy, however, is quite different, because they often convey their ongoing trauma and abuse through the symbolic language of play and it is the therapist’s job to help rescue the child from the ongoing trauma. Figuring out what did and didn’t happen to a child is in fact the job of the child’s therapist, and it very much helps a therapist who treats adults to have experience treating children, too, for that reason.

  8. Childhood and memory and the effects it has on us as adults is so fascinating. A number of years ago when my sister was in therapy for moderate depression we had several conversations about our childhood and it was like we grew up in two different households with two different parents. We had some similar recollections about family trips and events but the difference between our memories and experiences was astonishingly different.

  9. Until recently, I always thought that my memory about past events and people was exceptional. I’ve had a few experiences in recent years, though, that have convinced me that my memory may not be as reliable as I’ve always thought. I’ve also recently been pondering why it is that we put so very much emphasis on what happens to us in our childhood years and the effects it has while, it seems to me, paying less attention to other stages of life. Granted, childhood is a time when we are very much at the mercy of our caretakers, and we are so sponge-like, trying to learn about our world, but still, as I get older and older, I can’t help thinking how I am affected today not only by what happened to me as a child but also by what happened to me as a twenty-something and as a thirty-something.

  10. Really an interesting post, LLove. Personally I think one of the disservices people do to themselves and others is to insist that literal facts of memory must be real in order for the underlying content to be real. The content, as in the Perec story, can be quite real without the “remembered” framework being real. I remember vividy a story my therapist told me about a young child brought to her by a loving foster family, who had accused her father of sexual abuse, but whose reality had been denied again and again because she described him sticking her arms full of pins, and there was no physical evidence of his having done so. Other factors had caused the child to be placed in foster care, and the family wanted her to have all the help she needed in order to start to make sense of everything that had happened to her. A little bit of investigation revealed that the father had tied the child up with her hands behind her back, causing them to fall asleep and tingle for long periods of time, and this is what she had identified as him sticking her arms full of pins, since she did not have the knowledge to associate the tying of her arms with the pain she had experienced. The facts were wrong, but the substance of the memory was absolutely correct.

  11. I agree that there is a balance between subjective and objective, between needing to know what really happened and accepting an emotional picture of it. Ultimately what matters is finding greater freedom and peace in life, and for some that doesn’t come without returning to particular places in the past. That could be someone’s 20’s or 30’s, but it’s often childhood because that’s when we’re most dependent and have the least choice of where we are. And so the peculiar strategies to live with those circumstances can have a lasting, and as you say, subtle legacy until they’re re-examined.

  12. Seems like a reply to my comments on the last post in a way. Serendipity, but perhaps in my memory it will come to be a reply, who knows? It is that attaching significance which seems to be the key thing, a sort of transformation and that may be a part of how the limiting of the past works, binding a major, possibly long-term condition of existence to a specific incident or situation. Somehow the split needs to be made, but it is not easy of course.

  13. Patti – I completely agree – what constitutes one person’s happiness would be anathema to another! It is complex, but I do love the heavy stuff. I just find it fascinating.

    Kimberley – it’s lovely to have you back blogging again! You’re quite right – our perspective on our life is dynamic and provisional. Truth must have built-in flexibility if it’s going to be of any use to us. And any therapist who tried to persuade a patient into his or her own understanding of their situation would do a great deal more harm than good. The ones I have met have always been brilliant at reflecting back my own feelings, not imposing theirs on me.

    Caroline – it is alarming when you realise how much memory distorts. Although I do think, as David suggests, that its essence is valuable (although not perhaps in the way we first think it will be). I have a real fondness for Perec, but I can see he would not be everyone’s cup of tea. Have you tried W or the Memory of Childhood? It’s probably my favourite.

    Pete – aw bless you, thank you. I just find psychobabble endlessly fascinating!

    Squirrel – what you say is so interesting, and you nail it with your comment that analysts are not private investigators. Quite! But I had never thought of the different job required of child psychologists, although when you point it out, I can quite see why it matters to understand the present then.

    Stefanie – oh how I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at that discussion! I love it when people reminisce about their families. All families are a bit peculiar one way or another and seeing how different members view the situation differently is fascinating. Particularly when it’s not your family!

    Emily – I completely agree. I think the great formative period of my life was 25-30. Childhood lays down a basis, but it’s what happens to it that dictates the great trends of one’s life, I think.

    David – that’s a brilliant anecdote. And I do agree – the emotion transfers perfectly into the memory, but the content will be more like a dream, in that it contains condensation and displacement. We remember in terms of stories, not in terms of facts.

    Lilian – yes, you put your finger on it: what matters is finding freedom and peace, and the entirety of life is up for grabs in that pursuit. But you’re right that childhood has a particularly fixed quality to it that can force children into various survival strategies that make no sense in later life.

    Bookboxed – I’ve been hugely influenced by all the comments I’ve got over this series of posts, and undoubtedly yours have made a contribution to my thinking. What you’re talking about here are cathexes – like an emotional tentacle that rushes out and clings to a person, place, object, memory or relation. Cathexes are fierce and difficult to break, but they are the ley lines of life, along which our energy travels. Often, however, they need a revamp, and that’s easier to say than to do!

  14. I’m afraid this is an area I know very little about really, though I found this post fascinating. I have an awful memory–only bits and pieces of things and I always wonder why. Sometimes it seems like there is so much to know how can you fit it all in and then remember it accurately? I can see how easily it would be to take over someone else’s memory or reality. Life is so complicated, isn’t it.

  15. So insightful, as usual. I can’t remember something from my childhood at all — my mother physically abusing me. She’s told me about it (she hit my head against something long enough for me to have bruises) and I can remember things from before and after, but not that. Maybe I don’t really want to, but it troubles me. (I also once had a person in church tell me god had told him I’d been sexually abused as a child, but uh that one is even more disturbing and odd to think about. Again, I have no memory of it either way.) I don’t have anxiety attacks or any kind of physical sickness from anxiety, but I have ongoing obsessive thoughts that I’ll be physically attacked (or will harm myself or others, this especially coming from the fact that it was my mother who hurt me and the fear that if I ever became a mother I’d do the same) and I have to keep thinking of how I’ll try to deal with endless situations my mind works up. I’ve never known how to really deal with this, since my mom has always demanded all the attention by talking about how her parents abused her too (through excessively harsh spankings). I saw a therapist after it happened (my mom was put in therapy right away afterwards and it never happened again), but he seemed to think I was fine, which always angers me. How the hell could he tell if I was repressing it?? I remember being in the therapist’s waiting room with a Care Bear (child of the 80s!) and knowing my mom was inside the room with some strange man, but didn’t know why or why she went away for a while or why she was trying to be so nice to us after. It was only through hints she would drop over the years that my sense of unease grew, until I asked her as an adult to tell me what really happened. I don’t think knowing about it has made it better though, I feel such sorrow thinking that my child self had to go through that. I don’t know how to think or talk about it in a healthy way, how to contextualize it. I know others have been through far worse and of course others have had it better too. The strongest emotion I feel about it is still fear — that someone could hold such malice towards me, as an innocent child, that they would do that. As you said, it constantly makes me worry it will happen again, especially at the hands of someone I love and trust.

    Maybe this is a bit too personal, but I often privately despair over it, I’ve never been able to find a therapist to help me work through it (partly because I can’t afford an expensive one), everyone seems to think that because I’m intelligent and funny or whatever and don’t have huge mental problems, I’m basically ok. But the depression and fear and low self esteem linger.

  16. Voula – thank you so much! What a lovely comment.

    Danielle – well, given that traumatic memory is the only kind of memory where we recall in absolute and crystal clear detail, I think I should just give you a clean bill of mental health! All memory is ropey – and we remember in a healthy, normal way as ‘narrative memory’, which is to say we remember by means of categories and associations, putting all the bits and pieces into an ongoing storyline that changes every time we look at it. I got very interested in memory for a while and did a lot of research on it- that’s the only reason I know this stuff!

    Carolyn – I think the sorrow you feel for your young self is in fact very healthy. It’s true, isn’t it? It IS a reason to feel sad and upset, and you may well need to mourn all the things you didn’t have – a safe, stable childhood without fear and with perfect trust in your primary carer. But I think you might also be able to loosen the grip of that old fear by acknowledging that your mother did get help, and it was a one-off incident and even, if you can think that far, that when it happened, it wasn’t exactly about you. It wasn’t your fault. You happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, an unfortunate, innocent bystander. I so feel for you that nothing was explained and it was all opaque and confusing – I think it’s the chronic states that affect children, not the acute ones. But now you have a chance to redefine your life and work through that distress; it won’t happen overnight. These things take a long time, and I’ve made the mistake often of being cross with myself because I’m not making enough progress. This only holds matters up. We tend towards healthiness, if we can, just as nature tends towards rebirth every spring. If you can listen to yourself, and find your inner voice, you will know what to do to comfort and reassure yourself. I’ve read up a lot around the subject, too, and that’s helped me. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert is a good place to start. And husbands, friends, all loved ones can provide ongoing support. Bon courage – I can feel you really want to deal with this, and that’s the only important factor you need to get to a better place.

  17. What a great explanation of the Oedipus Complex! Explained the way you do, it makes so much more sense than the usual explanation you hear. The idea of memory being so very unreliable when it comes to facts, but accurate when it comes to emotions, is fascinating. The implications of that idea on the memoir genre are surely very important. It makes the calls for absolute factual accuracy seem absurd.

  18. I READ YOUR POST AND HONWESTLY I AM SPEECHLESS.It deserves to be publishe in ST or an academic journal.You are master at writing.As a physician myself I have faced situations where truth was evasive.My daughter who
    is bipolar, told me that her psychiatrist had blamed me for not having been treated when she was a little girl.
    I was deeply hurt because she was a normal girl to me ,even though reluctant to talk and not willing to open her heart to me.Human mind is a black box.ONCE AGAIN,CONGRATULATIONS!

  19. Dorothy – I’ve read several narrative-style memoirs now, and it’s a genre I love, but I can’t see how it could possibly be factually accurate. I have trouble remembering conversations I had yesterday, let alone twenty years ago! But emotions somehow DO get recalled quite accurately, I think. I can remember how an event made me feel, even if I can’t recall how it was played out. I admit to being fascinated by all this sort of thing. I researched it a lot at one time and return to that material in all kinds of situations.

    Victor – that is so nice of you, thank you so much! I think that it is almost impossible to assign responsibility and blame in real life situations because they are always so complex and affected by so many different influences, not all of which can ever be known by any one person. I do hope, though, that your daughter is leading a contented life now – no reason why she shouldn’t if she has the right kind of support.

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