Monday, October 8, 2012

Richard Reichbart - The Concept of Screen Memories: An Historical Review

"The general sense of a "screen memory" today is of a memory characterized by a clear and heightened sense of reality, focused on a seemingly innocuous event that screens from memory a contiguous or associated traumatic event. This screen memory is generally considered to be unchanged and of long standing; because of its seemingly innocuous nature, its retention is often something of a mystery to its possessor. Indeed, this is a kind of screen memory, but as will become clear it is not the only one that Freud identified or that was elaborated by later commentators. Freud was very much fascinated by screen memories, in a way we do not appear to be today. Modern case presentations, for example, would not generally be formulated using what Freud wrote in 1914: "Not only some but all of what is essential in childhood has been retained in these [screen] memories. It is simply a question of knowing how to extract it out of them by analysis. They represent the forgotten years of childhood as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts" (Freud 1914, p. 148).

Sixty-six years later, Greenacre (1980) wrote that the "functions and significance of screen memories still seem of marginal importance to many analysts" (p.40). In fact, discussions about the "screening" function of memories have tended to generalize to such an extent, often introducing new terms (see, e.g., Lewin 1946; Greenson 1958; Reider 1953; Blum 1994, p. 28), that even the particular characteristics of a screen memory, such as its brightness and immediacy, its intactness throughout most of a treatment, and its lengthy imperviousness to analysis, have been lost.

There are probably a number of reasons that screen memory has come into disfavor as a concept worth exploration in contemporary work. Two come to mind. The first is that screen memory is sometimes considered an antiquated and dusty concept, involved solely in reconstruction of the patient's past, a relic of the old archaeological model of psychoanalysis that Freud initially favored. In other words, a screen memory is not seen as alive and crucial in the here and now of the transference interactions of a treatment or in the establishment of object relations. And it is true that despite Freud's fascination with screen memory, at no point did he specifically discuss its importance to the transference. Many decades later, Mahon and Battin (1981; Mahon and Battin-Mahon 1983) did make masterful observations about the role of the screen memory in the transference, but by comparing this memory to a container whose contents flow into the transference only when the power of the memory begins to break up as treatment progresses, they failed to convey the sense of overwhelming power that a screen memory can exert on the transference from the very beginning of treatment. On the other hand, it appears to have escaped notice by subsequent commentators that in one brief and passing reference Freud made an incisive observation about the importance of screen memory in establishing a person's object choice, which I elaborate on below. Indeed, his examples of screen memory can be interpreted as embodying this concept. In what follows I will emphasize this aspect of screen memories, as well as the importance of screen memories to object relations in general.

Freud's fascination with screen memories first appeared in print in 1899, prior to the appearance of The Interpretation of Dreams, in a paper that in a letter to Fliess he said he liked immensely (Masson 1985, p. 351). Here he formally coined the term screen memory and described the characteristics of the phenomenon, using as an example a disguised memory of his own from his adolescence, as well as examples from a paper published by V. and C. Henri in 1897. He stated that a screen memory is a "compromise": "What is recorded as a mnemic image is not the relevant experience itself—in this respect the resistance gets its way; what is recorded is another psychical element closely associated with the objectionable one." Screen memories are like "shams": "they are not made of gold themselves but have lain beside something that is made of gold" (1899, p. 307). Very unlike other childhood memories, a screen memory has an hallucinatory quality; it is what he referred to as "ultra-clear." Diagnostically, Freud did not go beyond contending somewhat tentatively,as had the Henris, that screen memories occur frequently in the childhood memory of "neurotics."

As his thoughts advanced, Freud stated more emphatically how significant screen memories are to psychoanalysis. In 1914 his publications suggested that his thinking had advanced considerably. Not only did he make the remark I have cited about a screen memory containing all of what is essential in childhood; he also published the Wolf Man case, in which screen memories played a prominent role. In 1920, Freud added an intriguing footnote to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). There he compared a screen memory developmentally to a fetish: "behind the first recollection of the fetish's appearance there lies a submerged and forgotten phase of sexual development. The ‘fetish,’ like the screen-memory, represents this phase and is thus a remnant and precipitate of it" (pp. 154-155).Further Elaborations

Writing after Freud, a number of commentators elaborated on the concept of the screen memory. In 1929 Glover clearly stated that a screen memory is not necessarily a memory of an inconsequential event that stands in for a traumatic one. Rather, a traumatic event can act as a screen (and a very convincing one) to a greater trauma (see Good 1998). The example Glover provided was of a patient who was circumcised in a particularly insensitive manner when he was between three and a half and four years of age, an event of which he had no memory. But he did remember in detail an incident that took place on the same day. He had been visiting in the house of the doctor, a family friend of the mother's, who performed the circumcision later that day, and had burned his hand on a hot stove. He recalled the occasion of the accident, its cause, the stove, the dressings, and so on in extraordinary detail, but amnesia for the circumcision itself was complete (Glover 1929).

In 1927 Fenichel used an economic model: a screen memory develops as a "safety valve" (p. 113) in consequence of the pressure of repressed material rising toward consciousness. The conscious recall of the screen memory represents a "partial discharge" (p. 113), so that the pressure is then diminished and repression becomes possible. Fenichel also observed that when the ego struggles with a troubling perception, which it attempts to repress, it develops a "hunger for screen-experiences" (p. 114). In effect, the ego searches for screen experiences and is "economically eased when it finds them" (p. 114). He emphasized that a screen memory often has attached to it a command to remember, an "injunction to note" (p. 116). That is, the individual remembers that at the time of the event represented in the screen memory, he felt an inner injunction, which Fenichel characterized as "Pay attention! You must remember this scene as long as you live!" (p. 114; see also Fenichel 1929). To elaborate on Fenichel, what could equally be stated is that there is an unconscious injunction that is exactly the opposite and of comparable force. It is "Forget, forget as long as you live" the underlying trauma that the screen memory replaces. This internalized vow is what makes the screen memory so impervious to analysis.

Probably no commentator after Freud attempted to characterize screen memories more than Greenacre. Over and over, she emphasized that screen memories are unlike other memories or dreams: "Screen memories are especially helpful, but are often disregarded by students and some analysts who have tried unprofitably to treat them as though they were dreams. Because they are less fluid than dreams and more firmly organized in their defensive function, immediate free association cannot be demanded" (Greenacre 1981, pp. 42-43). Elaborating on what Glover suggested, she contended that there are two forms of screen memory, the one indicated by Freud, in which the memory is apparently of something inconsequential and attended by a special visual "brightness," and another, in which there is a "stubborn persistence but without brightness, and in which the content appears factually disturbing and very little elaborated" (Greenacre 1949, p. 74). She contended that screen memories exist on a continuum, running the gamut from those in which a seemingly inconsequential incident is brightly illuminated and remembered to those in which "really traumatic events may be seized upon as representations of the earliest anxious fantasies or experiences of the child and may be used variously as justification, verification or gratification" (p. 76). This type of screen memory, characterized by persistence rather than triviality and brightness, tends to remain factual and isolated. It is "stubbornly resistant to analysis" (p. 77) and often will not yield to analysis until the end of treatment. (As will be seen, however, the data in this case appear to contradict Greenacre's comment about the lack of brightness attributable to screen memories involving traumatic events.) In and of itself, Greenacre remarked, the screen memory can become symbolic of reality testing for a patient, in which "reality [is used] to cover reality" (p.83).

Greenacre (1949) attempted to explain what accounts for the power of a screen memory, suggesting among other things that the stage of superego development at the time of the event for which the screen memory is substituted has a decisive influence because the superego determines the extent and intensity of the need to deny and contributes to the sense of "actual watchfulness in the screen memory" (p. 76). She hypothesized that the degree of sadomasochistic character structure also plays a role: the more sadomasochistic the character, the more likely it is that the screen memory will involve really traumatic events, and that the memory will be symbolically used to characterize Fate and to justify a sadomasochistic posture toward the world. (She did not explain why this should be; further on, I will attempt to do so.) After Greenacre, the most important contribution has been that of the Mahons, who emphasized the importance of the screen memory to the ongoing psychoanalytic process, and who stated that dissipation of the power of the screen memory is a signal that the terminal phase of psychoanalysis has begun."
(pp. 457-461)


Richard Reichbart (2008). Screen Memory: Its Importance to Object Relations and Transference. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 56:455-481

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