The Screening Function of Traumatic Memories

International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Volume 10: Pages 90-93, 1929.


Commenting recently on the technical aspect of screen-memories, I had occasion to point out that actual memories of traumatic events happening in childhood should be carefully scrutinized, on the ground that they are well adapted to the defensive purpose of covering repressed material. The ordinary screen-memory can scarcely avoid arousing analytical suspicion because the nature of the memory image does not account for its persistence over a number of years or for its frequent repetition during the earlier stages of analysis. When, however, the memory image is in itself of a sufficiently traumatic nature there is some possibility that its credentials may be too easily accepted at their face value. The following example illustrates with some precision this screening function of infantile traumatic memories.

The case was one of severe and protracted impotence. The early stages of analysis were characterized by profound amnesia covering the events of early childhood and extending well into the latency period. As is to be expected, the great majority of memories which had persisted from these periods were typical screen memories: they referred to seemingly insignificant events and unimportant places, but it was possible in most instances to uncover a more elaborate and emotional substratum. A few emotionally tinged events were recalled, mainly scenes of domestic conflict and correction, e.g. quarrels with a sister, correction by his mother, etc., but they were very few and far between. Some details of illnesses in boyhood were remembered, but there was no special affect during their recital. One of these seemed to be a little more significant from the analytic point of view in that it had occurred in earlier childhood. It was a memory of having his hand burned on a domestic stove.

At the time, however, the patient paid no special attention to this burn memory, and his analysis continued its ordinary course. It was marked by phases of intense resistance. He gave a somewhat grudging intellectual assent to any explanation of the infantile nature and exciting cause of these resistances and his progress was extremely slow. Gradually some infantile phobias were uncovered and his led inevitably to the interpretation of his castration-anxiety. Several months had passed before it transpired that he had been circumcised in childhood. Some comment was made on the importance of this historical fact, together with the significance of its omission from his historical material. This elicited the reply that, so far as he knew, the circumcision had been performed in early infancy, in all probability within a few months of birth. It had not occurred to him to mention the fact because it did not appear to be of any consequence; it was a natural hygienic operation, etc. etc. His system of rationalization was watertight.

Within a few days the situation had altered considerably. Stimulated, no doubt, by this earlier passage, the patient had of his own accord instituted some inquiries and learned indirectly from his mother that the circumcision had actually taken place when he was between the ages of three and a half four years. The immediate result was to induce an altered attitude to the subject of infantile amnesia. The patient was startled into dragging his infantile years for further recoveries, but, as is not surprising, with little result. In particular he was unable to recall anything at all about the circumcision, in spite of the fact that he could remember quite clearly some events which took place prior to the alleged date of the operation.

Again the analysis resumed its course, the resistances against castration images being, if any thing more pronounced. The second discovery was made a month or so later, when the patient had an opportunity of going into the matter with his mother in person. The facts elicited ware as follows. During his infancy his mother was from time to time advised on matters of child hygiene by a medical practitioner who was a close relative of her own. He seems to have had a mania for performing the operation of circumcision, and very few children who came within his ken escaped this fate. His own children were circumcised. In spite of the fact that our patient's prepuce and glans were normal in every respect, this surgeon never failed to impress on the patient's mother the inestimable advantages to be obtained from circumcision. There were evidently good psychological reasons for this vicarious sacrifice on his part, but, except in so far as these contributed to a somewhat intimidating personality and thereby increased the child's apprehensions concerning this father substitute, they need not concern us. He seems to have been a man of sombre disposition, with a heavy, overbearing manner, and the patient as a child was not slow to accept the uneasy valuation of his possibilities current among his holiday playmates, the doctor's own children. On the occasion of a particular holiday visit the mother's scruples were finally overcome, and she consented to have the circumcision performed on her child. The final step in gaining her consent took the form of visiting the nursery. The patient was awakened out of his sleep by having his bedclothes abruptly pulled away: He woke up to find the sinister figure of the doctor leaning over the bed. His penis was unceremoniously seized by the surgeon's left hand, with the right the motion of cutting was imitated and the mother, who stood on the opposite side of the bed, was asked to note how simple a matter it was to cut off the foreskin, or words to that effect. She was rather concerned at the whole performance, and observed that he son showed signs of panic, but she did not interfere with the demonstration. The technique must have been rather crude, because the process of healing was delayed. The wound had to be dressed daily, and each dressing aroused agonized anticipations and was followed by wailing protestation. On protestation in particular took the form of a reproach directed at his mother. The day after the operation he is said to have cried out to his mother, Why did you let him cut it off? After a week's dressings the wound began to heal by granulation, and there is no exact record of its subsequent course. There was, however, no doubt in the mother's mind that the experience was an agonizing one for the child, and she regretted her decision for a long time afterwards.

Shorn of a certain amount of elaboration, the main facts were as given above, but, in spite of the most circumstantial detail, the patient was still unable to remember one iota of the whole affair. He added the following important comment: It surprises me very much that I cannot remember at all about my circumcision, because I can remember very well something that happened at the very same visit; it was during that visit that I burned my hand upon the stove. I remember the whole thing perfectly, and that I had to have my hand dressed for some days. He was certain that there could be no mistake. They had only once visited that particular house, a fact which the mother confirmed.

The possibility had still to be considered that the whole burn story was a substitution, and on this point it was hard to obtain absolutely convincing evidence. The patient could not remember whether the burn took place before or after the circumcision, although, judging from the duration of stay and the period of circumcision dressing, it seems likely that it occurred before the operation. The mother's testimony was not very satisfactory, because in the first instance she could not remember the burn and was mainly concerned with the circumcision. On the other hand, the patient was able to recall many incidents relating to the same visit, including games and conversations with the sons of the house: his recollection of the circumstances of the burned hand, the occasion of the accident, its cause, the stove, the dressings, and of many other confirmatory details were unshakable. The amnesia for the circumcision, however, remained for the time being complete.

Edward Glover, London


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