Traumatic memory

One need not be a chamber to be haunted. One need not be a house. Far safer, through an abbey gallop, than unarmed, one’s self encountered in a lonesome place. Ourself behind ourself, concealed should startle most.
—Emily Dickinson (1890/1997), from “Poem 670”

Bromberg (2006) reflecting on poem 670 asks, “What makes Emily Dickinson’s imagery seem so right? Why should one part of oneself be terrified of meeting another part in a lonesome place? How does a person come to feel ‘haunted’?” (p. 153). Nearly a century ago, Charcot, Janet, and James were aware that some memories of past events were illusive yet haunting. Particularly relevant to current ideas about the traumatic disintegration of the narrative self, Janet thought that the nucleus of psychopathology was disintegrated memories and that psychological health depended on the proper functioning of the memory system, which unified within one system the diverse aspects of experience: sensations, emotions, thoughts, and actions (Ross 1991; van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995).

Janet distinguished automatic memory, or habit memory, similar to the current concept of implicit memory (Schacter 1987) and a memory that is shared with animals, from narrative memory, which is uniquely human. Narrative memory for Janet is the integration of ordinary events that are witnessed into “ever-enlarging and flexible meaning schemes” (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995, p. 159). This integration makes it impossible to decode the nature of specific memories and introduces inaccuracies because narrative memories are altered by their association with other experiences, as well as by the emotional state of the person at the moment of recall (van der Kolk and Fisler 1995). As Janet saw it, narrative memory is a creative act that under ideal circumstances “works harmoniously, such that emotions, thoughts, and actions are assessed and integrated into a unitary consciousness that is under voluntary control” (Howell 2005, p. 56).

Janet claims that narrative “memory is a social reaction in a condition of absence” (quoted in Ross 1991, p. 148). He notes that whereas human beings use words, signs, gestures, chants, and dance to mimic missing objects in an attempt to make absent objects present, narrative memory is more complicated in that it brings back events and makes palpable for others the emotions associated with these events. As such, narrative memory is the transmission of feelings and facts related to the experience of an event with the intent of making it real for another and developmentally begins, according to Janet, when a child is able to say, “I will tell it to mama” (Ross 1991). Memory is thus not passive. As Janet (1919/1925) observes, “Memory, like belief, like all psychological phenomena, is an action; essentially, it is the action of telling a story” (p. 661).

According to Janet, traumatic memories resist integration; they overwhelm existing mental structures and constructs. He writes how “Forgetting the [traumatic] event which precipitated the emotion … has frequently been found to accompany intense emotional experiences in the form of continuous and retrograde amnesia” (Janet 1909, p. 1607). When people experience such intense emotions, they are often “unable to make the recital which we call narrative memory” (Janet 1919/1925, p. 660). Traumatic memories are stored differently and probably should not be called memories, Janet argues, since they are not available to the ordinary mechanisms of memory retrieval. Rather, because they are removed from conscious awareness and voluntary control, they are triggered and erupt autonomously (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995). Janet (1919–1925/1984) explains:
It is only for convenience that we speak of it as a “traumatic memory.” The subject is often incapable of making the necessary narrative which we call memory regarding the event; and yet he remains confronted by a difficult situation in which he has not been able to play a satisfactory part, one to which his adaptation had been imperfect, so that he continues to make efforts at adaptation (p. 663, as quoted in van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995, p. 160).

Whereas narrative memory is social, traumatic memory is rigidly tied to the traumatic moment and invariable. According to van der Kolk and van der Hart (1995), traumatic memory in Janet’s view “is not addressed to anybody, the patient does not respond to anybody; it is a solitary activity” (p. 162). It is an unconscious repetition of the past that takes place without regard to an audience. As Freud (1926/1959) noted in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, a person who cannot remember is more apt to act out, to reproduce it “not as a memory” but as some action he repeats “without knowing, of course, that he is repeating, and in the end, we understand that this is his way of remembering” (p. 150).

Gampel (2000) provides a striking illustration of this “way of remembering” in her account of the father of one of her patients who had been forced to bury the naked corpses in a German concentration camp where he was incarcerated. She writes, “[He] would lie around in the family living room wearing nothing but a baggy pair of underpants that exposed his sex organs. Although my patient and her family were so ashamed of this ‘exhibitionist’ behavior that they refrained from inviting friends home, it is clear that this man was not a sexual exhibitionist, and that his appearing dressed—or undressed—in this manner was a form of identification with the dead bodies of long ago” (p. 60). This example highlights the impersonal nature of traumatic memories. Because they are not integrated into narrative memory and “placed in a symbolic, verbal form that is personal [italics added]” (van der Hart et al. 2006, p. 38), traumatic memories are reenacted, oftentimes from multiple perspectives, including that of victimizer (van der Kolk 1989). In the case of the father in this example, the reenactment took place from the perspective of the corpse.

Both Freud and Janet[6] recognize that traumatic memory, being “mute, unsymbolized, and unintegrated” (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995, p. 167), must become spoken, symbolized, and integrated. For Freud (1895/1955), this meant that “The psychical process which originally took place must be repeated as vividly as possible, it must be brought back to its status nascendi and then given verbal utterance” (p. 6). As Herman (1992) tells us, for Janet “This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story” (p. 175). Herman continues, “Janet described normal memory as ‘the action of telling a story.’ Traumatic memory, by contrast, is wordless and static … The ultimate goal … is to put the story … into words” (pp. 175–76). The survivor, like the child that must tell it to mother, must be able to “… say, ‘I remember’” (Janet 1898/1990, p. 137, as quoted in Leys 2000). Furthermore, “The teller must not only know how to [narrate the event], but must also know how to associate the happening with the other events of his life” (Janet 1898/1990, p. 137, as quoted in Leys 2000).[7] If traumatic memory is not “liquidated” and “translated into a personal narrative” (van der Kolk and Fisler 1995, p. 511), it will continuously be reactivated and haunt the survivor.

The end of the twentieth century saw a revival of Janet’s view of trauma and its root in psychopathology.[8] Van der Kolk and van der Hart (1995) show how many of Janet’s ideas of memory outlined above have recently been reformulated by neurobiologists and neuroscientists. Janet’s theories concerning the storage and integration of memory, for instance, mesh well with the work of Edelman (1987) and Calvin (1990). And Janet’s characterization of memory as depending on flexible meaning schemes resembles many of the ideas of Bartlett (1932), Schacter (1987), Neisser (1967), Mandler (1979), and Young (1987). In psychology, Herman (1992), van der Hart et al. (2006), and many other theorists (Leys 2000; van der Kolk and Fisler 1995) have revived Janet’s theories regarding trauma and its cure, hailing him as a pioneer. According to van der Hart et al. (2006), Janet saw that the core issue in post-traumatic stress was a failure to integrate dissociated traumatic memories within the context of a person’s life history, and the symptoms he describes closely match those listed in contemporary diagnostic guidelines, such as the criteria for PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM). The current DSM IV TR (APA 2000), for example, recognizes that trauma can produce extremes of memory, both intrusive and vivid retention, as well as dissociative amnesia, and notes that most traumatized individuals experience both.[9]

Janet was also one of the first and still remains one of the foremost investigators of dissociation (Putnam 1989; van der Hart et al. 2006; Howell 2005), which for him represented a division among “systems of ideas and functions that constitute personality” (Janet 1907, p. 332).[10] The term dissociation today, as Howell (2005) points out, refers to a wide range of phenomena and processes. It is “both adaptive and maladaptive, both verb and noun, and both cause and effect” (p. 18). It can be considered taxonomic or as existing on a continuum that spans such normal phenomena as spacing out while driving to having near-death out-of-body experiences (Putnam 1997). Erdelyi (1994) goes so far as to subsume the notion of the unconscious under that of dissociation. “In a general sense,” however, to quote Howell (2005), “dissociation refers to the separation of mental and experiential contents [italics added] that would normally be connected” (p. 18).

Van der Kolk and Fisler (1995) report findings in neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD that reflect this separation in traumatic memory between the mental and experiential. In a study conducted by Rauch et al. (1994), for instance, decreased activity in Broca’s area, associated with speech, and increased activity in the right hemisphere, an area in the brain that involves emotions and visual processing, were observed in PET (positron emission tomography) scans of survivors when traumatic memories were elicited. Van der Kolk and Fisler contend “that ‘memories’ of the trauma tend to, at least initially, be experienced primarily as fragments of the sensory components of the event: as visual images, olfactory, auditory, or kinesthetic sensations, or intense waves of feelings (which patients usually claim to be representations of elements of the original traumatic event)” (p. 13).

For Janet, the primary problem in traumatization is nonrealization, the inability of survivors to realize fully what has happened to them, why it has happened, and who they are now as a result of what has happened (van der Hart et al. 2006). Acts of realization are necessary to adapt actions effectively within reality (Janet 1903, 1928, 1935; van der Hart et al. 2006; Steele et al. 2005). Realization involves “meaning making and the creation of a continuous sense of self across time and experience, including a cohesive autobiographical narrative or episodic memory” (van der Hart et al. 2006, p. 134). To paraphrase van der Hart et al. (2006), realization runs the gamut from the mundane to the practical, encompassing both the philosophical and spiritual meanings ascribed to life. Many realizations can be verbalized and embody beliefs that shape and constrain a person’s actions. These beliefs are well thought out, not reactive, but deeply reflective. Realization includes more than intellectual understanding. It is emotional and involves action. In effect, realization means “We … accept all our experiences for better and worse, rejoice in or resign ourselves to them, and recognize our behavior accordingly” (p. 152). Unfortunately, serious forms of nonrealization can go beyond the individual, according to van der Hart et al. (2006), to become endemic in society.[11]

Realization, according to Janet, depends on two activities: presentification (Janet 1928) and personification (Janet 1903). Presentification is “our ability to constitute the present as present and to connect the stories we tell about ourselves with present reality and our actual experiences” (Leys 2000, p. 112). In other words, it is the ability to connect the past to the present in a reflective fashion. The acting out of the trauma sufferer occurs because the sufferer is unable to metabolize and re-present the traumatic memory as a narrative with meaning in the present. Personification, in contrast, is the capacity to take ownership of experiences, to say “This is my experience” (van der Hart et al. 2006, p. 153). It requires both “self-observation and self-representation … by which at any moment we are compelled to attend to and communicate our present experiences to ourselves and above all to others—for memory is preeminently a social phenomenon—and to situate and organize those experiences in their proper place and time” (Leys 2000, p. 112). According to van der Hart et al. (2006), people need other people to solidify realizations.

Near the end of her testimony at the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, a woman made this statement: “We wanted to survive so as to live one day after Hitler, in order to be able to tell our story.” Laub (1992b), reflecting on this woman’s comment, observes that the opposite is actually true. Survivors need to tell stories because they could not survive if they did not do so: “One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life” (p. 78). But how does one come to know one’s buried truth? How is it possible for one to reassemble the fragmentary images, sensations, and emotions of traumatic memory—to cross the seemly insurmountable gap of the unspeakable—to say it?

Note 6: Janet was three years younger than Freud, but it appears that many of his ideas predate those of Freud. On several occasions, Janet complained that Freud had taken his ideas and renamed them without attribution (Ellenberger 1970). Whereas Janet (1919/1925) spoke of the subconscious (a term he coined), Freud referred to the unconscious. The same is true, Janet claimed, regarding his notion of psychological analysis, which Freud renamed psychoanalysis, and his description of narrowing the field of consciousness, was called repression in Freud's work (Ellenberger 1970). Ellenberger adds to the list "Janet's ‘function of reality' which was transposed into psychoanalysis under the name ‘reality principle,'" and "‘automatic talking’” which was changed to “Freud’s method of free association" (p. 539). The most striking similarity in Ellenberger's opinion "is that between [Freud's] psychoanalytic transference and Janet's systematic use of those varieties of rapport between therapist and patient that he called ‘somnambulic influence’ and ‘need for direction’ " (p. 539). Freud did acknowledged using Janet's "subconscious fixed ideas" and its cure via, what Freud and Breuer called, "catharsis" (Ellenberger 1970).
Note 7: To illustrate the importance of this point, Janet (1919/1925) uses the analogy of a sentinel who watches over a camp. Upon encountering the enemy, the sentinel must either fight or flee. In either case, if he survives, he must make it back to the captain so that he can report his experience to him using words. He cannot reenact what actually took place. The experience must be organized into a "recital of the event to others and to ourselves, and this recital [must be put] in its place as one of the chapters in our personal history" (p. 57). This chapter can then be retold in ways that take into account many variables, including the social contexts of the teller's own life (as soldier, father, and friend) and that of his listeners (as captain, child, and friend).
Note 8: Van der Hart et al. (2006) remark that inclusion of Janet's work in their text on trauma and its treatment, entitled The Haunted Self, "is not a romantic flight into history" (p. 132) but substantive.
Note 9: Howell (2005) says the following regarding Janet's theory of trauma, "the key premise of his theory on trauma and dissociation is that when people are terrified or overwhelmed by extreme emotion, they are unable to assimilate the experience into already existing mental frameworks, and are therefore unable to link the experience with the rest of personal history. Overwhelming terror or overwhelming ‘vehement emotion' interrupts the coherence of experience; as a result, the synthesizing functions of the psyche fail. This is still the key premise of trauma theory today" (p. 52).
Note 10: Erdelyi (1994) defines Janetian dissociation as an "insufficiency of binding energy, caused by hereditary factors, life stresses, or traumas, or an interaction among them, [that] results in the splitting off of personality clusters from the ego, the core personality. The split-off clusters or fragments constitute minipersonalities or, if they cohere, an alternate personality" (p. 9).
Note 11: Van der Hart et al. (2006), for instance, note that in Western societies, "there is much outrage expressed that abuse happens, but there is little treatment accessible to survivors, even though we know that childhood abuse often has devastating and life-long consequences. Our society seems to have a depersonalize awareness in which people can feel comfortable in being aware enough to acknowledge a problem, but not to the degree that they demand that difficult and complex social and interpersonal changes be made. Thus on both individual and social levels there if often virtually no support for survivors to realize their devastating experiences" (p. 153).