Malachi McCoy : Selective Memories ?*

A simple re-reading of Freud's 19th Century paper Screen Memories** reminds us of the present-day conflict in mental life.




Freud begins his paper on Screen Memories confirming that:

No one calls in question the fact that the experiences of the earliest years of childhood leave ineradicable traces in the depths of our minds. If, however, we seek in our memories to ascertain what were the impressions that were destined to influence us to the end of our lives, the outcome is either nothing at all or a relatively small number of isolated recollections which are often of dubious or enigmatic importance.[1] 


In his 1899 text Freud skilfully brings the analytic enquirer on a journey back in time; a symbolic journey, delving into the constructs of the psyche. Unearthing omissions, the reader is consciously challenged. In the complicated processes of mental life, where the work of displacement actively preoccupies the psychological, we find a conflict. What emerges from this text relates directly to our work with those subjects suffering from the consequences of amnesia…and the forming of their selected memories.

When do we begin to forget?


Fragmentary recollections of the earliest years of childhood are often retained in memory. A time to when “great pathogenic importance must be must be attributed.”[2] Is it not strange however, that it is only from the age of six or seven - maybe even from ten years onward that we can remember a connected chain of events? From this period in our history we can link a significant event with its retention in our memory. It seems odd that we would forget something important. It is equally surprising to remember something of indifference.

Why is it, the psychoanalyst asks, that the psychical functioning of children and adults are so strikingly different? How is it, that the clearly demonstrated and highly organized mental functioning, shown in the three or four-year-old’s expression of feelings, be subsequently overtaken by amnesia? Have we become so familiar with this pathology, this striking loss of memory, that we overlook the unrealized problem?  Freud draws an analogy between the hysteric, “who habitually shows amnesia for some or all of the experiences which led to the onset of his illness…and the normal amnesia affecting our early years [which] give a valuable hint at the intimate connection that exists between the psychical content of neuroses and our infantile life”[3]. It is critical for psychoanalysis, to remember this. The present-day symptom has an old alibi!

Freud’s researches were motivated by the suffering of his neurotic patients. Thankfully, he was to delve further than the interesting psychological results of that time. They confirmed that the existence of fragmentary recollections and detached memories of childhood were commonplace in the memory of adults. Examples are given where recollections of indifferent events are represented in mnemic images and whose content is, curiously, recollected too clearly in every detail[4]. One such illustration runs as follows:

A professor of philology whose earliest memory, dating back to between the ages of three and four, showed him a table laid for a meal and on it a basin of ice. At the same period there occurred the death of his grandmother which, according to his parents, was a severe blow to the child. But the professor of philology as he now is, has no recollection of this bereavement; all that he remembers of those days is the basin of ice.[5]    


An explanation of this curious phenomenon given in the text of the psychologists’ survey suggests that the relevant scene may have only been incompletely retained in memory: … the forgotten parts probably containing everything that made the experience noteworthy.[6]

The psychoanalyst agrees. However, his experience confirms that it is what has been omitted, rather than forgotten that is important! Upon this Freud introduces the term Screen Memories. In researching the frequency of this with his neurotic patients, he is able analyse the mechanism of the two psychical forces which construct memories of this sort.

Two opposing forces:

-          The first psychical force takes the importance of the experience as a motive for remembering it.   

-          The second – resistance, tries to prevent it from being shown.               

The opposing forces neither cancel each other out, nor overpower one another. A compromise is brought about in a mnemic image; resistance gets its way producing, not the relevant image itself, but one closely associated to the objectionable one.  The mental conflict brings about a displacement, where the objectionable – significant elements are clearly substituted in memory by the trivial! What appears to be incomprehensibly retained in childhood memories is not due to the virtue of its own content, but instead we find a related idea whose essential elements have been suppressed.

In working with men and women who have accepted a diagnosis of psychosis it is helpful to hear what Freud writes when he references a case from The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence[7]. Here too, Freud outlines a similar mechanism at work,

in the analysis of a patient suffering from paranoia. The woman in question hallucinated voices, which used to repeat long passages from Otto Ludwig’s novel Die Heiterethei to her. But the passages they chose were the most trifling and irrelevant in the book. The analysis showed, however, that there were other passages in the same work which had stirred up the most distressing thoughts in the patient. The distressing affect was a motive for putting up a defence against them.[8]


Compromise does this – it allows indifferent passages to emerge with pathological strength and clarity…The process at work – conflict, repression, and substitution involving a compromise - returns in all psychoneurotic symptoms and gives us a key to understanding their formation.[9]      

This process operates in mental life influencing the choice of childhood memories; highlighting the intimate relations between the mental life of children and the psychical material of the neuroses. What we find at work is a defence with its subsequent displacement. The process of this psychical activity engages Freud’s research further. Not content with the neglect of the activity of our mental life - with all its latent potential, Freud places under psychoanalytic investigation the bewildering activity of displacing one memory for another; a process where the psychical intensity of one presentation, is substituted to another. Further research of indifferent childhood memories reminds us that they conceal a wealth of meaning.

Freud describes the early memories of a man who, we read, is not at all, or only slightly neurotic.[10]  These memories occur at the time when he was between two and three and fall into three groups. In the third group, upon which the text focusses, we are told that the man states “There I am met by material – one rather long scene and several smaller pictures- with which I can make no headway at all. The scene appears to me fairly indifferent and I cannot understand why it should have become fixed in my memory”.[11]

Freud describes a long indifferent scene fixed in his memory. [12] The analysis continues…“It seems to me almost a certainty [he recalls] that this childhood memory never occurred to me at all in my early years. But I can also recall the occasion which led to my recovering this and many other recollections of my earliest childhood.”[13] The fixed scene first emerged when he was seventeen. He was on holiday from secondary school, and returned to the place of his birth where he stayed with old family friends. Three years later brought with it the second occasion for stirring up impressions of his childhood. The subject visited his uncle and met again his two cousins.  

In analysing the phantasies within the fixed memory we are drawn back to the psychical process at work, a process creating an idea which the author maintains almost amounted to a hallucination.[14] Freud places symbolic language centrally in listening to the elements presented in the phantasies. Two sets of phantasies amalgamate – that of the seventeen year old, and the second three years later. We learn that the subject’s amalgamated phantasies were projected on to one another whereupon he made a childhood memory of them. Freud assures us that “people often construct such things unconsciously-almost likes works of fiction.[15]

How can this be? How is it that there exists no childhood memory but only a phantasy put back into childhood? That is despite, a feeling telling me that the scene is genuine, how does that fit in? The psychoanalyst asserts that there is no guarantee of data produced by memory.  The genuineness of the scene is supported by its selection from innumerable others on account of its indifferent content representing important phantasies. [16]

Screen Memories                       

The value of recollections of this kind are appropriately called Screen Memories.[17] The symbolic content of the screen memory represents impressions and thoughts of a later date.  Hence, the slipping away of repressed thoughts and wishes into childhood memories…Unconscious thoughts which are a prolongation of conscious ones.[18] A psychical activity found in hysterical patients.  The childhood scene therefore, facilitating, by recollection of the remotest past, some pleasurable current motive!  

A question arises: are we dealing with scenes that never happen at all, but have been unjustifiably smuggled in among childhood memories? Repressed phantasies make their way into a childhood scene where there is a memory trace offering a link as a point of contact – meeting it half way. During the psychical process the plasticity of the childhood scene allows for changes. It is with certainty Freud insists, the same way that falsifications of memory may be brought about.  A screen memory therefore, is “one which owes its value as a memory not to its own content but to the relation existing between that content and some other that has been suppressed… They are extremely well remembered but their content is completely indifferent.”[19] 

It may be described as ‘retrogressive’ or as having ‘pushed forward’ according to the chronological relation between the screen and the screened-off. In other words according to whether the displacement operates in a backward or forward direction. Screen memories can also be distinguished as positive or negative. In this paper on screen memories Freud points out what complicated processes are involved in the building up of our store of memories; a process he reminds us again, which is analogous to the formation of hysterical symptoms.[20]    

The text asks us to consider this: “unimpeachable childhood scenes, where the subject sees himself in the recollection as a child, with the knowledge that this child is himself; he sees this child, however, as an observer from outside the scene would see him”.[21] What is presented is clearly not an exact repetition of the original impression as the subject would have been in the middle of the situation rather than observing the scene. The contrast between the acting ego and the recollecting ego confirms that the original impression has been worked over. “It looks as though a memory-trace from childhood had here been translated back into a plastic and visual form at a late -  the date of the memory’s arousal.” [22]     

Freud deals with other childhood memories where significant experiences of distinct clarity which have been verified by adults turn out to be falsified. Falsified in the sense that:  

i.            They have shifted an event to a place where it did not occur as outlined in a case.

ii.            Or, that they have merged two people into one, or substituted one for the other.

iii.            Or, the scenes as a whole give signs of being combinations of two separate experiences.  

The text outlines that

Simple inaccuracy of recollection does not play any considerable part here, in view of the high degree of sensory intensity possessed by the images and efficiency of the function of memory in the young; close investigation shows rather that these falsifications of memory are tendentious-that is, that they serve the purposes of the repression and replacement of objectionable or disagreeable impressions. It follows, therefore, that these falsified memories too, must have originated at a period of life when it has become possible for conflicts of this kind and impulsions toward repression to have made a place for themselves in mental life-far later, therefore, than the period to which their content belongs.[23]


Freud’s analysis weakens the distinction drawn between screen memories and other memories from childhood. We re-discover that they did not emerge but were formed! It may well be questioned as to whether we have any memories at all. A vital question, with its full portent must be asked “whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess”![24] Those childhood memories show us our childhood years – not as they were, but as they appear later when aroused. Consequently, in times of arousal memories do not emerge but are formed. Motives, with no concern for historical accuracy play a part in forming selective memories.   



One hundred and sixteen years on from Freud’s text on Screen Memories, how do we respond to the challenge today? How do we listen to the re-presented memories of subjects convinced of the genuineness of those memories? As Lacan writes in The Functional and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis: “What we teach the subject to recognize as his unconscious is his history – that is to say, we help him perfect the present historization of the facts that have already determined a certain number of the historical ‘turning-points’ in his existence.[25]

In forming our memories, let us sew new traces threaded from Symbolic debt, ensuring that repressed childhood wishes do not suppress, falsify or substitute the Freudian scene. Early childhood wishes of killing the father offers a subtle link, a present-day current, suppressing the inconvenient presence of Freud’s discovery. Working with Freud’s texts – the foundations of psychoanalysis, will obviate a process of substituting objectionable and disagreeable truths, uncovered, in the work of the analyst, to a popular, inuring resistance.

Let us remember what that brilliant Freudian, Jacques Lacan writes when he says: “Sexual desire is effectively what man uses to historicize himself, insofar as it’s at this level that the law is introduced for the first time.”[26] 


Malachi McCoy

Address for Correspondence: 17 Cedar Brook Avenue, Cherry Orchard, Dublin 10.

*This paper was presented at an inter-cartel meeting of The Irish School for Lacanian Psychoanalysis on 28th

February 2015. An amended paper was presented at our cartel study day on Saturday 7th March 2015; I am

grateful to Gérard Amiel, our Plus One, for his comments via Skype during the course of our cartel’s work. Our

cartel is comprised of the following members: Glen Brady; Nellie Curtin; Albert Llussà i Torra; Ros McCarthy; Malachi McCoy; Helen Sheehan.

**The paper is a close reading of Freud’s Screen Memories. All references from Freud’s text have been taken from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume III, London, Hogarth Press, 1962. pp 303-322.


[1] Freud, S. Screen Memories. (1899). S. E. III, London, Hogarth Press. p. 303.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., p. 304.

[4] Ibid., p. 305.

[5] Ibid., p. 306.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Freud, S. The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence (1894), S. E. III 

[8] Freud, S. op. cit., p. 308.

[9] Ibid., p. 308.

[10] Ibid., p. 309.

[11] Ibid., p. 311.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 312.

[14] Ibid., p. 315.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 316.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 320.

[20] Ibid., p. 321.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 322. 

[24] Ibid.

[25] Lacan, J. Function and Field of Speech and Language in Écrits: A Selection, (Routledge, London, 1989), p. 52.

[26] Lacan. The Psychoses. Book III. (Routledge, London 1993), p. 156.