Past tense


Freud declared in exasperation in the early phase of his work that female sexuality is a dark continent, and yet, he endeavoured to throw light onto the past, as though this could fully illuminate the present. Psychoanalysis could be defined as the science (or rather the art in my view!) of understanding the present through analysing the past, but this is easier said than done on a number of epistemological and ethical levels. As we all know and as neuroscience and cognitive psychology (neither an area of expertise for me) have demonstrated with ample research, the creation and construction of memory is highly complex and selective. What is it that gets represented as memory from the rich repertoire of life experience, especially as a set of distant memories from childhood, and why? Are all our memories to be trusted or could some be amalgams of stories transmitted to us by others or even complete fabrications? And even more importantly, does it matter if our memories are accurate or not when it comes to conveying our emotions and understanding of ourselves?

In psychoanalysis, the debate on memory is both complex and highly political. In his early work on hysteria (Breuer and Freud), Freud recovered memories of sexual abuse in a surprisingly large number of his patients. In his later theorisation on infantile sexuality, he argued that recovered childhood memories need to be treated as phantasies and not accurate recollections of events. This was reputedly a political turn within psychoanalysis, as allegations that many young women raised in prominent Viennese families had been sexually abused in childhood were not welcome by those who would be prepared fund a lengthy psychoanalytic treatment in Freud’s consulting room. This debate is not unknown to us in later years with the scandal of the so-called false memories syndrome that had shaken America a few decades ago, where apparently memories of sexual abuse were proven to be false and constructed through suggestion during therapy, and more recently with the reverse scandal of the so-called ‘me too movement’, where more and more people have come out with memories and confirmation of sexual abuse and violation usually from a public figure.

This is not the place to go into these very complex and political debates, so what I would like to focus on is the huge sense of ethical responsibility at the core of the process of helping another human being to deconstruct and articulate the complex emotional reality of their childhood. I think that it goes without saying that as much as the present is coloured by the past, the reverse is equally true. When in a dark or persecutory state of mind, people tend to remember experiences that made them feel unsafe or neglected, while in happier states of mind, memories of pleasure, care and love may emerge. And yet, as much as our memory may be selective and temperamental, it should not be forgotten that it takes courage to deconstruct one’s history and to be able to articulate one’s own account of childhood and not adhere to the official version of such history, which is what we all inevitably inherit from our parents. I would go as far as saying that deconstructing one’s history is paramount to developing a full adult identity, being a subject in one’s own right.

This week, I was faced several times with my clients’ stories which were trying to make sense of the ‘dark continent’ of their past. I am always surprised and unsettled by how in my clinical, but also in my personal experience, forgotten and repressed significant events from the past can still emerge and be revisited, even after several years of being in therapy. Though I never think that any memories or conclusions about one’s childhood are written in stone, as I am aware that feelings and thoughts about the past get processed in the long term and can shift significantly, I would not want to treat memories emerging during the course of therapy as fantasies or focus on my clients’ inner world rather than their understanding of their actual environment. I feel that such stand absolves the therapist from the ethical responsibility of being a companion to their patients’ journey. And being a companion to another person’s journey, even when the places they visit in the past tense turn out to be particularly dark and treacherous is in my mind at the core of the therapy process.

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