Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Repressed-memory syndrome—a claim that dissociative amnesia follows a traumatic experience—was one of the most popular psychiatric diagnosis in the 1980s and 1990s. Back in 2003, Paul McHugh wrote what was probably the definitive account of the long struggle by a handful of psychiatrists and researchers to contain the metastasizing diagnosis, which was being offered as an explanation for nearly everything unpleasant in human life. To large degree, they succeeded: The memory wars are over, for the most part, and it’s hard to find anyone willing to stand up and defend the broad application of repressed memories.

Still, the diagnosis has not entirely disappeared, and a researcher in Boston, Harrison Pope, began wondering what exactly it would mean to claim that dissociative amnesia is a disease to which the human brain is innately susceptible. Surely we could find references to it throughout the history of literature. So, in collaboration with a team of other researchers, he began pouring through fiction and memories from the classical age on—and he offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a work from before 1800 that revealed the phenomenon.

The Harvard alumni magazine has a short account of the result. The researchers themselves came up with two Victorian examples: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities , in which a man forgets he is a doctor during his time in the Bastille, and Kipling’s Captains Courageous , in which a man forgets he is a minister after the death of his family in a flood. The $1,000 prize for pre-1800 examples was awarded just once, for a 1786 French opera, Nina , in which the heroine forgets that she saw her lover apparently killed in a duel and waits for him daily to return.

The social and artistic explanations that Pope offers are interesting, though not immediately persuasive. Still, he seems to have lit upon an interesting point in the absence of references to dissociative amnesia before 1786. “The challenge,” he points out, “falls upon anyone who believes that repressed memory is real to explain its absence for thousands of years.”



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles