The à-propos of Pierre Janet
in the false-memory controversy
Par Jean Côté , psychologist
In the context of a therapy based on the delayed recall of traumatic memories, it is impossible not to refer to the issue of false memory. If there is anyone who should have his say in this controversy, it is certainly Pierre Janet, who severely criticized therapists of his time, namely the psychoanalysts, because they considered all pathology to be caused by some type of sexual problem. On the other hand, Janet never denied the existence of traumatic memories with a sexual content; quite the contrary!
Because of his extensive clinical experience, Janet could assert that he treated severe cases of hysteria where there was no sexual problem. Irene, one of his most famous clients, was such a case. He also stated that sexual problems were quite often the consequences, and not the causes, of the neurosis. As was expected, the psychoanalysts replied that Janet could make such statements because he had not used psychoanalysis and that, if he had done so, he would have found sexual problems to be the cause of all his patients’ problems. Janet’s response to this was rather scathing:
Alas, Dr Jones is right, I have not practised psychoanalysis. That is to say, I have not interpreted the utterances of my patients in accordance with a preconceived dogma. I could not bring myself to do anything of the kind, for I do not believe in dogma, and my aim is to establish the truth. My critic reasons like the faithful who will not allow any one to say a word against their religion. –‘I have read the sacred books’, says the sceptic, ‘and I find in them numerous contradictions and incoherencies.’ –‘That is because you lack faith’, replies the believer. ‘If you had read the books with the eyes of faith, you would not have seen any contradictions.’ I am only too well aware that faith is a requisite in order to understand to the full the symbolical interpretations of the psychoanalysts....Such oratorial exercises are easy. With a little interpretation, displacement, dramatisation, and elaboration, in conjunction with a lack of critical faculty, anything in the world can be generalised, and anything can be made into an element of everything.
The main defect of psychoanalysis is that it does...invariably set to work in order to discover a traumatic memory, with the a priori conviction that it is there to be discovered--like a detective who has a fixed idea where the culprit is to be found. The worst of it is that such detectives will always run their culprit to earth in the end. So, too, will the psychoanalysts; owing to the nature of their methods, they can invariably find what they seek.
The difference between Freud and the earlier analysts is merely one of degree, but this is one of the cases in which a difference of degree is fundamental. Whenever Freud says ‘all patients’, ordinary psychological analysts say ‘some patients’ or ‘a great many patients’. The difference is that which exists between unrestricted generalization and a precise statement of particulars.
«A precise statement of particulars»
This is the key expression used by Janet to guide us in dealing with traumatic memories. Using his writings, I will present his well-balanced position, which is still valuable and eminently relevant in the controversy about false memories.
One must not see traumatic memories everywhere:
We are only entitled to regard as traumatic memories, those memories which recur again and again at the present time, and which lead the patient to make efforts which are frequent, obvious, and competent to induce exhaustion. I cannot repeat too often that much caution is necessary in this diagnostic investigation. It is doubtless true that traumatic memories are not always perfectly definite, and that they may sometimes be masked in various ways; but we must not therefore feel that we are entitled to accept all kinds of easy-going explanations...What we have to shun is the subconscious which we never see, and which we can only construct imaginatively.
Nevertheless, traumatic memories exist:
It is none the less impossible to deny that there are other cases in which an event and its persistent effects continue to play an important part in the illness.
In seeking the conditions of this weakening which in my opinion are numerous, I was led to recognize in certain cases the role of one or several events in the subject’s past life. These events, which had established a violent emotion and a destruction of the psychological system, had left traces...This notion has been fruitful and has given rise to a whole theory of neurosis and psychosis by the subconscious persistence of an emotional traumatism, and a whole method of research has been worked out to the utmost of this kind of traumatism.
Unknown to the person:
There are traumatic memories with a sexual content:
There are others of diverse origins:
Régis and Hesnard are afraid that if we do this we shall risk attracting the patient’s attention to the details of his life and to his fixed idea. I cannot wholly agree with their criticism. Obviously, such a study of the patient’s past history has been compromised by foolish exaggerations. But exaggeration in the other direction would be just as bad. We might as well say that a surgeon must never touch a wound for fear of infecting it. Everyone knows that a surgeon must put his fingers and instruments into a wound, but that his fingers and instruments must be cleaned. If the doctor is careful not to make his mind beforeand that he will find a memory responsible for the whole illness, and if he is not obstinately determined that the memory of which he is in search must relate to a sexual happening, he will be able to make his examination tactfully and without unduly troubling the patient’s mind.
In these earlier writings, I drew the inference, though with some surprise, that the memory was morbific because it was dissociated. It existed in isolation, apart from the totality of the sensations and the ideas which comprised the subject’s personality; it developed in isolation, without control and without counterpoise; the morbid symptoms disappeared when the memory again became part of the synthesis that makes up individuality.
More often (than using automatic writing) we have observed that the subject, in a state of hypnosis, completely recovered the memory of subconscious fixed ideas.
Régis and Hesnard are afraid that if we do this we shall risk attracting the patient’s attention to the details of his life and to his fixed ideas. I cannot wholly agree with their criticism. Obviously, such a study of the patient’s past history has been compromised by foolish exaggerations. But exaggeration in the other direction would be just as bad. (italics are mine)
In my opinion, the writings of Janet cited above demonstrate that his theory is still very relevant. Moreover, the citations indicate his position concerning traumatic memories: their existence, the diversity of their content, the necessity of taking them into consideration in the diagnosis and their integration using hypnosis. This is precisely what tunnel therapy does.
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