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Memory And Phantasy

The Letter, Issue 15, Spring 1999, Pages 125 - 137


MEMORY AND PHANTASY*

Barry O'Donnell


There is a presupposition in the term 'false memory syndrome' that there are memories that are true and memories that are false; that a false memory is something fabricated and that it therefore has no bearing on the truth; and what is fabricated is described as 'phantasy'. This approach distinguishes memory and phantasy so that their content is taken to be mutually exclusive.

A consideration of some texts of Freud problematises this set of assumptions and in the end renders them untenable.

The aim of this contribution to today's debate is to present something of what Freud says of the relations between 'memory' and 'phantasy' so that the status we grant to childhood events recollected in analysis may be called into question.

*****

In 1899 Freud wrote a paper entitled Screen Memories. What follows is the example that Freud gives of a seemingly trivial recollection from childhood which popped into a particular man's mind from time to time during his adult years for no identifiable reason:

I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow- land, green and thickly grown: in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers - evidently common dandelions. At the top end of the meadow there is a cottage and in front of the cottage door two women are standing chatting busily, a peasant-woman with a handkerchief on her head and a children's nurse. Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the others are my boy cousin, who is a year older than me, and his sister, who is almost exactly the same age as I am. We are picking the yellow flowers and each of us is holding a bunch of flowers we have already picked. The little girl has the best bunch; and, as though by mutual agreement, we - the two boys - fall on her and snatch away her flowers. She runs up the meadow in tears and as a consolation the peasant-womangivesherabigpieceofblackbread. Hardly have we seen this than we throw the flowers away, hurry to the cottage and ask to be given some bread too. And we are in fact given some; the peasant-woman cuts the bread with a long knife. In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious - and at that point the scene breaks off.[2]

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