” One morning after Dad finishes his workout, he pulls a fold-out bunk from the wall and lies down, still unclothed. I sit on the floor beside him. I watch his erection. He slaps his tummy with it. He laughs as if he is surprised. ” Touch it,” he says, holding his penis up, offering it to me. I reached over, hold it with my fingers, and let it go, making a thwack…
…I have seen his penis before when it is hard. He’d tried to put it into my bottom. He is going to do it again, isn’t he?
“I don’t want to be here,” I say. “Unlock the door. Please, Daddy.”
The bunker sits around me, heavy and grotesque. I disappear.”
(de Milly, http://www.walterdemilly.com/chapter.htm)
Who would want to remember this sort of thing? Certainly not the poor child who is recalling it, so why would he? He didn’t, for a long time, because of the pain this memory causes, so he did something that many people do with painful memories. He repressed it. Why do people repress memory, and how can it be recalled? This paper hopes to unlock a few of the secrets of this strange phenomenon.
Firstly, repression, as defined by A Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, is the unconscious and involuntary process by which an unacceptable impulse or idea is rendered unconscious. According to Chip Phillips, repression is where “unconsciously you bury painful or embarrassing memories” (Phillips, Ch. 3).
So what exactly causes someone to repress a memory? As Phillips stated, “painful or embarrassing memories”. Memories of childhood abuse and sexual abuse are very common (Herman & Schatzow, 1-14), as are those of embarrassment (Phillips, lecture). The writer believes that these are valid statements, but believes there needs to be more added to the definition.
The writer believes that repression is where a person subconsciously buries memories of shocking acts and events that caused severe and traumatizing pain and/or embarrassment. This definition is very similar to the others, however, the writer believes that almost permanent repression only happens with the most severe memories. Pain and trauma come in varying degrees, and so the writer believes that repression happens in varying degrees as well. For example, if a person trips and falls in a public place, more often than not they will feel embarrassed about it, but they will not repress the memory for a lifetime, more likely the person will repress it, only to recall it when someone reminds them of the incident. However, if a person were to walk into a surprise party in the nude with family and friends present, depending on the person’s feelings about their body, they may be embarrassed to the point of repressing the memory for years (Phillips, lecture). That allows the individual to move on without having to deal with the pain of the memory.
A lot of the information regarding the roots of repression is found in the works and findings of Freud. According to Frederick Crews, a well known writer on Freud, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory showed that in his rashness, he preferred the arcane explanation to the obvious one. This allowed Freud to take the repressed memories of his patients, and instead of taking the obvious root of the memory, Freud used his trademark suppositions to say that their memories were something else. By prodding both before and after therapy, Freud devised a way to get his patients to recall non-existent sexual memories that are now labeled “false memory syndrome”. Crews further suggests that information taken from Freud’s work points that the experience of subjects who may or may not be the survivors of sexual abuse depended on whether they actually recalled the previously repressed truth, or succumbed to the Freud-induced fantasy (www.vuw.ac.nz/psyc/fitzMemory/repn.html). The writer believes that this is mainly true, given the writer’s knowledge of Freudian theories. The writer believes that Freud’s fixation on sex probably biased all of his work, and therefore a lot of his studies and patients’ “recalled” memories cannot be believed on the whole, but some of their reported memories may be valid.
However, the theory of repression is still believed to reside in the realm of psychoanalysis (Loftus, 1). Basically the repression theory goes like this: Something happens in life that is so shocking that the memory is pushed into some inaccessible corner of the consciousness and “sleeps isolated from the rest of mental life” (Loftus, 518). As the writer’s definition stated, repressed memories seem more like memories that were a total shock to the system of the person, physically, emotionally, etc.
David Holmes suggests that there are three main elements to the theory of repression:
Selective forgetting of materials that cause pain; Not under voluntary control; Material is not lost but stored in unconscious and can be restored to conscious if anxiety associated with the memory is removed (Holmes, 87). The writer accepts these elements, but disagrees with the third element. There can be memories so absolutely horrible and disturbing to the individual that they will never recall the memories, even under hypnosis or in therapy. Other than that, the writer agrees with Holmes’ suggestions.
Now that the writer has explained the some of the theories of memory repression, she will focus on recollection, or recall, of said memories. All memory for the most part is present in the mind, while accessing it may not be easy. There are several ways to successfully recall repressed memories, but the most widely used and known is hypnosis (www.vuw.ac.nz/psyc/fitzMemory/repn.html). Hypnosis is where you are in a more aware state of consciousness, but you appear to be less aware (Phillips, Ch. 7). Once under hypnosis, the patient can be coaxed to “go back to when they were…”. The therapist can use trance logic, a mixture of reality and hallucinations, to get the patient to describe their childhood in great detail. This usually reveals the patient’s traumatizing event, or it may not. Hypnosis is not just used for repression, though, as it is used to rid bad habits and mold behavior also. Not all people can be put under hypnosis however, so this method only works for those succeptable to the hypnotism (Phillips, Ch. 7).
After reviewing all of the material presented here, the writer has come up with several ideas of repression herself. One is that not all repressed memories can be accessed, because if they could, we could actually remember prenatal memories, and thus far there is no known evidence to support prenatal memory that the writer could find. Another idea the writer has realized is that everyone represses memories all the time. Tings happen everyday that we do not remember, and while most aren’t repressed, merely interference with recollection (Phillips, Ch. 3), there are some that are repressed every day. If a person trips and falls, there is a good chance that they will not remember it the next week, until a friend or associate brings it up. It may be temporarily repressed due to the embarrassment, then recalled as soon as a reminder is brought up. The writer is curious to find evidence to support the recall of very early life, like prenatal memory for example, as it would shed more light on the topic of repression and memory in general.
de Milly, W. http://www.walterdemilly.com/chapter.htm.
Herman, J.L. & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-14.
Holmes, D. (1990). The Evidence for Repression: An Examination of Sixty Years of Research. (found in) J. Springer (Ed.). Repression and Dissociation: Implications for Personality, Theory, Psychopathology, and Health (pp. 85-102). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Loftus, E.F. (1993). The Reality of Repressed Memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537.
Phillips, C. (2000). Lecture notes, Ch. 3, Ch. 7, general lecture.