The à-propos of Pierre Janet in the false-memory controversy

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:

    • If the psychoanalytical method means, at any cost, and with the aid of the most improbable and most ridiculous interpretations, the discovery of sexual fixed ideas, it is clear that the authors I have quoted, and I myself, have not practised psychoanalysis. Are we to blame for that? The very thing we are discussing is the justification for pushing this method of sexual interpretation to an extreme. Before insisting upon its application to all and sundry in season and out of season, it would be well to begin by proving that it is legitimate, by showing, without ‘interpretation’, that traumatism of a sexual kind is a general factor of the neuroses. Unless we are to fall into a vicious circle, we must search for these sexual disturbances without psychoanalysis, by the ordinary means of psychological analysis, and in accordance with the ordinary rules of this method, for we have no right to invent new rules. Who is entitled to insist upon our using a method which seems to us to be discredited by our own observations?


    • 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.

It is easy to imagine that Janet was persona non grata in psychoanalytic circles. In fact, Ellenberger considers the psychoanalysts’ attacks on Janet a major factor contributing to his sinking into oblivion. Janet never denied, though, the importance of sexuality as a possible element in pathology. Nevertheless, it is with good reason that he denounced generalizations:

    • Psychological analysts always recognized that in neuropaths sexual disturbances were common, that these patients had in many instances had sexual adventures and mishaps concerning which they had retained distressing and dangerous memories…In the writings of the analysts of the old school we find accounts of such phenomena, and Freud is only in their line of succession when he describes sexual perturbations.


    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:

    • …I had never claimed that all neuropathic weaknesses were exclusively the consequence of a traumatic reminiscence.


    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:

    • We would have to review the whole field of mental pathology and an important part of the one of physical pathology to show all the psychological disorders that can be caused by a thougt which is persisting out of personal consciousness.


    • 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.

In the four major works published by Janet between 1889 and 1903, namely L’automatisme psychologique (1889), L’État mental des hystériques (1894), Névroses et idées fixes (1898), Les Obsessions et la psychasténie (1903), 591 cases are presented more or less in detail. Almost half of those cases, 257 to be exact, had a psychological trauma as their origin.

Unknown to the person:

    It soon became apparent to me that many of the most important traumatic memories might be imperfectly known by the subject, who was unable to give a clear account of the matter even when he tried to do so. It was necessary, therefore, to institute a search for hidden memories, for memories which the patient preserved in his mind without being aware of them…This is not a true oblivion, for tendencies that have been really forgotten are no longer active; whereas the latent tendencies we are now considering are still active, for they give rise to dreams, delusions, attacks of delirium, and many other disorders. We must not suppose, either, that the patient is feigning forgetfulness, from unwillingness to avow the tormenting thoughts We have to do with a genuine inability to cognise what is going on in the mind, and to express it oneself. There is a peculiar modification of consciousness…affecting the individual consciousness rather than the tendency. As long ago as 1889 I attempted to describe this modification as ‘subconsciousness due to psychological disaggregation’. Thus, the memories capable of causing symptoms took the form of subconscious memories.

There are traumatic memories with a sexual content:

    We must, then, be concerned with a sexual adventure or mishap serious enough to have disturbed the subject to such a degree that it has left a distressing memory, one still able, at the time when the patient comes to consult us, to arouse emotion, fatigue, and psychological disturbances. If the term be understood in this sense, then psychological analysts, as contrasted with psychoanalysts, declare that in their experience such sexual adventures have not happened to every neuropath. They declare that only in a restricted number of their neuropathic patients can they find evidence of the existence of traumatic memories of this kind….The essential point of the criticism is that such disturbances are not present in all neuropaths without exception, that in these patients a traumatic memory with a sexual content is not a constant and necessary pathogenic factor…

There are others of diverse origins:

    Impartial psychological analysis discloses in neuropaths disturbances and traumatic memories which we have no right to confound with memories of sexual adventures and mishaps…Further, we have to recognise that hysterical symptoms are often the outcome of fixed ideas of a very different kind.

The diagnosis should take into account the possible existence of traumatic memories:

    • The traumatic memory, when thus understood, plays an important part in a certain number of neuroses and psychoses. Whereas some doctors never trouble their heads about traumatic memories, and do not even know that these exist, and whereas others fancy them everywhere, there is a place for persons who take a middle course, and who believe they are able to detect the existence of traumatic memories in specific cases…When we can find no explanation in the subject extant life, we are certainly entitled to delve into his past.


    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.

The treatment: the reintegration of consciousness using hypnosis:

The Redintegration of Consciousness

    • .–In my early studies concerning traumatic memories (1889-1892), I drew attention to a remarkable fact, namely that in many cases the searching out of past happenings, the giving an account by the subject of the difficulties he had met with and the sufferings he had endured in connextion with these happenings, would bring about a signal and speedy transformation in the morbid condition, and would cause a very surprising cure…In the hypnotic state she (Marie, a client) gave a detailed account of how the house where she had lived in the country had been burned down, and how a gardener named Lucien had rescued her from the flames. (I subsequently obtained independent confirmation of this story.) When her memory of the happenings had been fully restored to the waking consciousness, her hysterical attacks ceased.


    • 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.


    • When we can find no explanation in the subject’s extant life, we are certainly entitled to delve into his past.


    • 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)