Recurrent Trauma and Representational Memory


Today’s post and my next one, planned for two days from now, on Wednesday, March 18, contain entries in my philosophical journal from last summer concerning a book by Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally, in which he takes to task the idea of the repression of the memory of trauma.  Although in my journal entries below and to be posted Wednesday I am critical of what I understand to be McNally’s own position on the matter, the issues that he and various other scholars have raised perform a valuable service by pointing to crucial obscurities in the notion of repression itself.  Critiques such as his can thus spur us to refine our thinking about repression and related matters, even if they do not provide good grounds for rejecting the very notion of repression, as I understand McNally to be suggesting we do.

As McNally, of one, is well aware, the issue of repression cannot be separated from that of the nature of memory in general, and the connection of memory to representation. All three of those key terms–repression, memory, and trauma–are richly and essentially ambiguous. To my own way of thinking, formed as it has been by better than four decades of reading Heidegger, the challenge is not to remove that ambiguity or even to “control” it, so much as it is to respect it, heed it, and remain open to the flashes of insight that the interplay of the variety of meanings may continue to bring us.

At any rate, I have touched on the interconnections of memory, trauma, repression, and representation in a number of posts already made at this site. The interested reader should refer to the table of contents for this blog that has now been created and posted, to find those earlier discussions. What is more, I will revisit the same general issues many times yet in the entries from my journal still to be posted.

The reservations I express below concerning McNally’s position should not be taken as my final word on the matter of memory, tauma, repression, and representation–or even as any last word on McNally’s view, since my reservations below on that score are meant to be very tentative and exploratory. My own thinking on the whole complex of issues involved here is very much still in process. If and when that thinking eventually succeeds in becoming fully thought, I will no doubt post the news here.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Richard J. McNally, Remembering Trauma(Cambridge, MA:  Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, 2005).  P. 2:  “the  purpose of this book is to lay out the evidence that supports these [following 3] conclusions.”  To wit:  “First, people remember horrific experiences all too well.   Victims are seldom incapable of remembering their trauma.  Second, people sometimes do not think about disturbing events for long periods of time, only to be reminded of them later.   However, events that are experienced as overwhelmingly traumatic at the time  of their occurrence rarely slip from awareness.  Third, there is no reason to postulate a special mechanism of repression or dissociation to explain why people may not think about disturbing experiences for long periods.  A failure to think about something does not entail an inability to remember it.”

Even if we grant his 3 theses, I’ll be interested to see how–if at all–he addresses the issue of what, in effect, motivates not thinking about such experiences for long periods:  If they are so disturbing, why are they not thought about for such long periods so often?  The avoidance  of recollections of disturbing memories is a sort of willful ignorance of them, it would seem.  What does that say about us and trauma?


Some points of interest, at any rate.

P. 35:  “People with posttraumatic stress disorder suffer from involuntary explicit memory [rather than “implicit” memory] as exemplified by unbidden, intrusive recollection of horrific events from their past.  [Which, by the way, would run against the effort “not to think about” such events, surely!]  Involuntary explicit memory deserves more attention from psychologists in how people remember trauma.”

P. 36:  He introduces “what psychologist Ulric Neisser calls a repisodic memory–a memory constructed from repeated episodes of the same type,” and goes on to note:  “The more episodes of a certain type we experience, the harder it becomes to  distinguish among them.” However:  “While repetition makes it harder to retrieve any specific episode, it strengthens overall memory for the entire class of event.  Frequent flyers are highly unlikely to forget having flown on airplanes even though their memories of individual flights may blur together.  Likewise, a person  who suffers many beatings as a child may find it difficult to recall details from any particular attack–unless something unusual occurred during it–yet will never forget what it was like to be subjected to such violence.”  So far, I’d say, okay in general (though [one might wonder] why someone who cites evidence for whatever he can cites none here–for the point on flying or its extension to cover traumatic events as well as such non-traumatic ones today as air travel).  But what he goes on next to make of this is much more questionable:  He faults”some psychologists,” such as Lenore Terr (the only one he actually mentions), who “actually believe that the more frequently a person is traumatized, the less likely the person is to remember having been traumatized,” as, for example, Terr says that children who  experience repeated trauma “often forget,” and may even “forget whole segments of childhood–from birth to age 9, for instance.”

This, he says, “flies in the face of everything we know about memory.”  But I don’t buy that analysis.  Indeed, when I  first read his remarks about “some psychologists” and Terr, I  thought they were merely elaborating upon the points he had just recapitulated on “repisodic” memory–not contradicting them.  Then when I reread the paragraph after being thrown by his concluding remark about “flying in the face” of the evidence, I had to take him to  be meaning that, for Terr, all memory of having been abused would have to vanish, for what she says to be true, analogously to all memory of having flown in airplanes being erased by recurrent flying.

But even by that interpretation, what he claims does not necessarily follow.  It would only follow if there are no sufficiently powerful relevant differences between repeated travelling by air and repeated being abused–relevant with regard for possible mechanisms accounting for Tarr’s claim, even while granting “the evidence” on “repisodic” memory.  After all, for example, flying on airplanes is not as such traumatic (though it may be episodically so, if there is some trouble on a given flight), whereas being abused is as such traumatic.  Well, perhaps the overall numbing that would tend to accompany living in an abusive household flattens being abused itself out to the level of “normal,” which flying virtually never would be (one does not live on airplanes, as one can even on houseboats–and I can imagine someone who’d spent her whole life on a houseboat, surrounded by others living on houseboats, who  might “forget” that it was even a houseboat, and just remember it as a house), such that whole decades could just sort of be lived out, but without making any lasting impression on memory.

I’m not saying that’s how it is, just that that’s how it might be.  But the latter is all it takes to throw McNally’s claim out.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Frank,

    Your use and understanding of Heidegger seems very aligned with psychoanalytic theory here:
    “To my own way of thinking, formed as it has been by better than four decades of reading Heidegger, the challenge is not to remove that ambiguity or even to “control” it, so much as it is to respect it, heed it, and remain open to the flashes of insight that the interplay of the variety of meanings may continue to bring us.” Learning to respect and pay attention to ambiguity is most definitely a practice which, in my mind, philosophy (and I’m sure psychology as well) has not been particularly strong at encouraging students of these disciplines to hold. I’m continually impressed and intrigued by your ability to hold ambiguity, make tentative conclusions, and allow the ambiguity to shine light, however dim, on many of these issues being struggled with. They all seem fundamentally tied, in my thoughts, to our notions of narrativity and identity (repressed memories being blockages and disruptions to narrativity of selves having experienced the trauma and the connection to DID.)

  2. (Please excuse my writing ability, as the rest of my entire family are high scholastic acheivers – Masters Degrees at the very least -, though once sodomized and gang raped from ages 8 to 10 my ability to concentrate vanished)

    McNally can not adequately perform studies without severely traumatizing a child first, then following through. And then unless he himself has been severely traumatized as a child, he would also lack experience. As statistics may define a girl as a sexy girl in panties meets all the criteria, the shock becomes when the panties drop. And we can have variations to that too.

    Trauma not processed is exacting, we can not alter it simply because it never made it into processed memory. We never attached it to all its parts and formed it through some level of reasoning. If we had, then expect it to lose its accuracy over time. Unprocessed, it should remain exacting no matter when processed. Actually the later in life the greater chances of better processing due to a mature mind.

    Imagine a small child sodomized several times, life threatening. That child may not even cry, I didn’t. After all, crying would mean we had to do some processing. It is hardly “absentmindedness” that kept the child from telling.

    We can prove tgis easily; Many adults have had unprocessed memories as a result of a minor trauma. A good example is while in a drunken state, something terrifyingly stupid was done. The next day they begin to recall, something stops them. It was if there were a wrapper labeled around the event’s snapshots that warned, do not open. They may start to open with the less embarrassing episodes first, then abruptly stop. This is a mild trauma that threatens social status. It is pushed away. A few years later it begins to pop up again by some trigger, again it is quickly dispelled. Much late in life it appears again and this time the now more mature adult will open it and recall the events, they may even laugh as just another foolish thing young adults do. What they find amazing is the vividness, so many incredible details that surround that event, unlike even a memory from yesterday. This is simply an example of trauma and unprocessed events, they don’t lose accuracy.

    A child sodomized, on the other hand, experienced an even greater trauma. Just as the adult pushed it away, so did the child. The difference is the greater the trauma, the more quickly it is pushed back. The more severe warning label, the longer before any trigger can touch it.

    Another note, we can not compare a child victim of the holocaust with one who experienced violent rape. During the holocaust, the child victim was with others. More importantly, the adults tried to lessen the pain. In effect, the child processed the events into memory. Processed into memory will now expose the memory to fading and distortion over time. Unprocessed we would maintain exacting details. In fact during the rape, our senses where heightened thereby collecting even more information.

    Consider that every aspect of learning begins with unprocessed data. Now imagine if our minds couldn’t rely on those? We would be in an awful mess in society.

  3. Hi Frank
    Read the above with interest. I suffered 15 years of appaling childhood abuse. t am not trained as a mental medic but I can tell you that I remember my abuse from the age of 2 as a daily event – it never stopped. I remember some more than others at different ages in my life. However the trauma upon trauma has ment that there are common key triggers for adult melt down.. I also know that in prder to function as an adult I HAD to repress the memories of childhood and it is only at the point of difficult life experiences that the feeliongs of abuse are re-experienced – the memories I still resolutely triy to kick out as this would leave me completely unable to survive the event.
    All of this is conducted in a sense of total isolation, again part of the abuse: where are the coping strategies? What is and is not real? Madness or sanity – there are no role models because the abused child has had a lifetime experience of knowing they are different to the rest of the world.

    Last point- comparing experiences of flying with abuse is silly because you have completely omitted the concept of choice – the nature of abuse is fundamently about the lack of choice on the part of the abused.


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