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.