Sigmund Freud: Forgetting Things

A young girl was going to make a collar, but she had spoiled the fabric in cutting the collar out. A dressmaker had to be called in to put her mistake right. When she had arrived, and the girl went to fetch the collar from the drawer where she thought she had put it away, she couldn’t find it. She turned the drawer right out, but it was nowhere to be found. […] She realized that of course she was ashamed to let the dressmaker see that she had spoiled something as simple as a collar. Once that had occurred to her she stood up, went to another cupboard, and produced the cut-out collar at once.

Why I read it

I’ve outlined elsewhere the details of the Great Book Cull of 2018 and the shelf of books in limbo. This is one of those ‘limbo books’: to be read and evaluated as Keep or Discard.

Lord knows I could never make it through an entire book of Freud. These two chapters on forgetting, taken from the book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, are short enough (and with a kooky enough cover! David Shrigley! Yay!) to be accessible.

What it’s about

This abridged work contains two chapters from the full book: the first on Forgetting Impressions and Intentions and the second on Forgetting Proper Names. They form a thesis that forgetting is often a result of suppressed memory – a thesis entirely substantiated by a series of anecdotes. And despite Freud being considered a ‘scientist’ (he says himself on p32 that ‘my intention is solely to collect everyday examples and subject them to scientific study’) there seems to be absolutely no scientific method in this book.

The presenting of anecdotes as evidence reminded me of articles that claim to justify extra-sensory perception or other psychic phenomena. You know the type: ‘Here are eight stories told to me by different people of times they happened to be thinking of a long-lost relative, only for the phone to ring and it be someone saying that person had been in an accident! Therefore psychic abilities are a thing.’ Were there further investigations that Freud used to test his theories experimentally, in a controlled and unbiased setting? I don’t know, and no evidence of it is presented in this book.

As a matter of fact it’s difficult to know whether the theories presented here are even falsifiable at all – a prerequisite for something to be considered ‘scientific’. How can he check that the girl who’d misplaced her collar really did do so from a subconscious will to repress something unpleasant? Or perhaps, where are the results from the (say) 100 test subjects who tried to use his theory to ‘unblock’ memories, compared to the control group who tried to remember forgotten things in more standard ways? And if an experiment like this didn’t show a difference, would he abandon his theory, or would he just find ways around it? (‘The therapist wasn’t adhering to my methods’ / ‘The patients were too closed-minded to properly engage’ / ‘They turned out to be forgotten for “simple reasons” not “repression”‘).

Other impressions

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is one of Freud’s earlier works, written nearly twenty years before The Ego and the Id and almost four decades before An Outline of Psycho-Analysis.

Don’t think that Freud’s own ego isn’t already fully-formed, though. In the course of laying out his arguments he is always happy to talk about his extraordinary talents:

I was capable of unusual feats of memory for a short time in my youth. When I was a schoolboy I thought it quite natural that when I had read a page of a book I could recite its contents by heart, and shortly before going to university I was able to write down popular lectures on scientific subjects almost word for word directly after hearing them. I must still have been using what remained of that ability during the stressful period before my last oral examination for my doctorate of medicine, since I almost automatically gave the examiners answers in some subjects faithfully echoing the text of a book that I had once leafed through in great haste.

He is also entirely (sometimes shockingly) comfortable discussing examples where his preoccupation with psychological illness resulted in a failure of duty of care to patients:

M had been a girl of fourteen, the most remarkable case I had treated the previous year and one that taught me something I am unlikely ever to forget. Its outcome was very painful to me. The child fell sick, unmistakably with hysteria, and swiftly and fundamentally improved under my treatment. But after this treatment, the child’s parents withdrew her from my care. She was still complaining of abdominal pains, which had featured prominently as a symptom of her hysteria, and two months later she died of cancer of the abdominal glands. The hysteria to which the child was also predisposed had used the formation of the tumour as a cause provoking it, and I, with my mind on the obvious but harmless hysterical symptoms, had perhaps overlooked the first signs of her progressive and incurable illness.

To me, the book read as an unintentional case-study in the dangers of pseudoscience and the cult of personality. Freud is everything I don’t want in a doctor: an arrogant man, dangerously in thrall of his own untested theories, and unwilling to examine his own biases – sometimes to the detriment of his patients.

Of course, this is a lot to conclude from a short extract from a single book. I have a lot of reading to do to find out if my feelings are justified. But a quick glance at a summary of experts’ writings shows that others more informed than me also have grave misgivings.

Keep or donate?

This book fired me up, so I think I’ll keep it – in case I want to read or write about it in more detail in the future.

This book was mostly read in the Jetstar terminal of Melbourne Airport.

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