Searching Literary Fiction for the
Elusive Dissociative Amnesia Syndrome

by John A. Speyrer

An interesting wager is being offered by a group of psychiatrists and literary scholars to someone who finds an example of amnesia caused by trauma in a literary work prior to 1800. They claim that they have been unsuccessful in finding these elusive writings and offer $1000 to any successful claimant.

The study group, being led by Harvard Medical School physician Harrison Pope and Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post, conclude that the repressed memory syndrome (dissociate amnesia) is simply a creation of the literary culture beginning during the 19th century.

The search was not limited to common European languages but extended to Arabic, and eastern languages. The study was published in Psychological Medicine. Pope and Shankar claim that none of the examples with which they were presented met their exact standards.

They ask, "if repressed memories are one way the brain deals with painful memories, why would there be no literary examples of the phenomenon that are more than 200 years old?" My answer is that perhaps the principal authors had weaker imaginations than was thought and believed that the use of such an element was not interesting enough to be used as a plot device. The most logical reason for the paucity of literary novels dealing with repressed memories before 1800 is that there were relatively very few novels being written!

I am sure that the many thousands of clients of regression therapies as well as their therapists would be amazed that their recovered dissociate memories were simply a figment of their imagination or at minimum would not have merited a literary allusion during all the subsequent period prior from January 1, 1800 going back to the invention of writing.

It is unfortuate that the search was restricted to only literary characters as one usually does not find potential therapeutic remedies in fictional thematic plots.

The existence of repressed traumas is ubiquitous and appears in the offices of all mental health practitioners except those who spend their time prescribing medicine rather than engaging their clients on a more than superficial level. Doing the necessary uncovering work would show that such memories do indeed exist. Reliving the memories, as in primal therapy, holotropic breathwork and the earlier widespread use of psychedelic drugs will indeed accomplish the task of uncovering the repressed memories which are the origin of most psychiatric symptoms.

Even apart from traumatic memories unveiled, clients in such therapies, after successful regressions, become convinced that the contents of parts of their minds were hidden away from their perception, They soon realize that many secrets are contained therein. If the pre-1800 authors neglected to use the repressed memory concept in their novels, they missed a good literary plot, but this, in itself, offers no proof whether or not a repressed memory exists.

A simple perusal of the literature shows that numerous examples are quite easy to find. While not following the rules of what would qualify, the pre- and post-1800 quotes below show that their authors were insightfully knowledgable of the existence of the unconcious mind without which there would be no dissociative disorder category of diagnosis.

This article is a good reason to display some of my collection. Why did not fictional authors use the concept in their literacy endeavors? Who knows? The sudden exposing of repressed memories with resultant insights has occurred throughout recorded history. Intimations by authors concerning the neurological underpinings of blocked mentation has only of late kept apace with scientific discovery in that field, so there will be fewer and fewer reasons why later authors would not use the concept. I don't believe we can arrive at any conclusion as to the earlier motivations of literary authors, but their prescient knowledge, although unscientific, cannot be denied.

It has taken a long time for this evidence to accumulate as has the evidence of the heliocentric theory of the solar system and a concise theory of evolution. This may well explain the slowness of the use of repressed trauma in literary endeavors of the past.

During the past 30 years, I have been interested in locating examples which, at minimum, show that philosophers and literary authors believed that repressed memories do exist. In the last quotation, in the chart below, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, acknowledges that there is a "huge amount" of evidence which shows that the conscious portion of the mind is but a small part of the whole.

Some of my favorite observations of others dealing with this subject include:


"The absence of a conscious perception is no proof of the absence of mental activity."
-- Plotinus (204-70 AD)
"I do not observe my soul apart from its act. There are thus processes in the soul of which we are not immediately aware."
-- St Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)
"My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr'd; And I myself see not the bottom of it."
(Troilus and Cressida, III,iii, 311.)
-- Shakespeare (1564-1616)
"The heart has reasons that reason does not know."
-- Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

". . .the reliques of sensation may exist for an indefinite time in a latent state . . .''
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
"Men are to be viewed as the organs of their century, which operate mainly unconsciously."
--Goethe (1749-1832)

"Men regard themselves as free, since they are aware of their will and their desires, and do not even in dreams think of the causes which determine their desiring and willing, as they do not know them."
-- Spinoza (1632-1677)
"It is by no means certain that our individual personality is the single inhabitant of these our corporeal frames. We all do things both awake and asleep which surprise us. Perhaps we have co-tenants in the house we live in."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
"Let no one imagine that I would join the Cartesians in asserting that nothing can be in the mind of which it is not aware. . . . That is a prejudice, which impedes the understanding of the mind. . . "
-- C. v. Wikff (1679-1752)
"Our days, our deeds, all we achieve or are, Lay folded in our infancy; the things Of good or ill we choose while yet unborn."
-- John T. Trowbridge (1827 ?)
"In sooth, I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born I am to learn.''
Merchant of Venice
--Shakespeare (1564-1616)
"We do not see things as they are but as we are"
-- Talmud (1632-1677)

"There is a pain -- so utter It swallows substance up Then covers the abyss with trace so memory can step around -- across.''
-- Emily Dickenson (1630-1886))
"Symptoms are a form of remembering without consciousness"
--M. L. Ederlye

"The world, according to Plato, was composed of archetypal ideas that always remained deep in the brain."
-- Voltaire (1694-1778)
"We do not live in the past, but the past in us."
-- U. B. Phillips (1632-1677)
"The unconscious is actually the past in the present."
-- Robert W. Godwin (2004)
"For more it is than I can well express And that deep torture may be called a hell when more is felt than one hath power to tell."
(The Rape of Lucrece)
--Shakespeare (1564-1616)
"The memory of birth and the expectation of death always lurks within the human being"
-- E. M. Forester (1879 -1970)
What I Believe

"The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it . . . this is his way of remembering."
--Sigmund Freud
"One's own self is well hidden from oneself; of all mine's of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up."
-- Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
"Huge amounts of evidence support the view that the 'conscious self' is in fact a very small portion of the mind's activity. . . . To put it another way, we are much, much more than our conscious processes."
--Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
The Developing Mind
, 1999



Harvard Physician Harrison Pope is a member of the scientific advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an exponent of denying recovered memories of early sexual abuse. In a Washington Post discussion group he stated that he does not receive compensation from the foundation, and has no role in their activities, nor do they have any role or jurisdiction over the scientific papers that he publishes.


Other articles on this website relating to the repressed memory issue:

Repressed Memories Revisited
The False Memory Syndrome and its Implications in Primal Therapy
The Skeptical Inquirer Magazine Inquires About Primal Therapy
Primal Scream: A Persistent New Age Therapy Article Review
Others Reply to Martin Gardner's Attack On Primal Therapy
On False Memories, Primal Therapy and its Alternatives



If you enjoyed reading the quotations above check out the hundreds I have compiled.

-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page


Return to the Primal Psychotherapy Page