Making Traumatic Memory
A CENTURY AGO, a new kind of memory was born, at the intersection of two streams of scientific inquiry: somatic and psychological. The somatic stream dates from the 1860s and the discovery of a previously unidentified kind of assault, called “nervous shock.” The psychological stream begins earlier, in the 1790s, and leads to the discovery of a previously unidentified kind of forgetting, called “repression” and “dissociation.” By the 1890s, nervous shock and repression/dissociation have been conjoined to produce the traumatic memory, the subject of the present study.
This chapter is divided into three parts. The first provides a history of nervous shock and how it evolved into the idea of a memory that is embodied in the neurophysiology of pain and fear rather than in words and images. The second part recounts the history of repression and dissociation and the pathogenic secret underlying them—a memory so awful that its owner is compelled to hide it from himself. The final portion of the chapter describes events that follow the birth of the traumatic memory, up to the dawn of the First World War.
The earliest entry for “traumatic” in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1656: “belonging to wounds or the cure of wounds.” This definition mirrors the term's Greek root and was the only sense in which the word was used until the nineteenth century, when it was, for the first time, extended to include mental injury. Historical accounts of the traumatic event routinely trace this innovation to the publication of On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System (1866) by John Erichsen, a professor of surgery. Erichsen, like other British physicians responsible for diagnosing and assessing injuries and symptoms attributed to railway accidents, divided these patients into three categories. There were the cases that had originated in powerful blows or “shocks” that damaged neural tissue in ways that would be visible to postmortem examination; the cases resulting from shock that originated in only trivial blows or from shaking and jarring and produced damage that was generally invisible; and the cases in which people fabricated their symptoms in order to collect compensation. In all three cases, the symptoms were outwardly the same (Erichsen 1866:10, 113–114).