Sunday, October 24, 2010

Forgetting as an expression of Death Wish

In Psychopathology of Everyday life Freud discusses how ordinary forgetting, mislaying of objects, slips of tongue, errors in execution of goal directed motor movements, for example making a wrong turn while driving or accidentally pressing upon the accelerator instead of the brakes, they all indicate hidden [repressed] motives. They cannot be dismissed as purely chance errors. They indicate the existence of some repressed complex which, when opportunity had presented itself, had seized upon the consciously directed behavior - to which it was connected in some way - and had interfered with it. The links between the repressed complex and the goal-directed conscious behavior occur in the unconscious and through Primary Process logic. In conscious mind we just perceive the silly error and cannot account as to why it happened or more likely give false explanations like it happened due to fatigue or distraction.
Freud's book goes into details of how forgetting of a name often indicates some negative association with that name, and in order to not allow the unpleasant affect attached to the negative memory to emerge in the consciousness, the person, along with the affect, blocks out [forgets] the name as well.
I once had devil of a time trying to recall the name of a teacher of mine from my medical school, of whom I had pleasant memories. So why would I block the name of a person whose memory did not provoke any unpleasant affect? For he was a nice man and kind to me, and his physiognomy and complexion, and the way he carried himself, reminded me of of an uncle of mine. He was a teacher in the department of Pathology. It made no sense. You do not block the name of a person of whom you are fond of. Unless of course something else is attached to the memory of that name which is unpleasant or which you rather not deal with. The analysis of the forgetting of his name affirmed this general rule.
Let us see why I forgot his name.
One morning, during a time when I was under lot of stress trying to get a Residency Training Program going that I had nurtured from scratch, and also was having devil of a time with insomnia due to my inability to get my personal and professional life in a trajectory which would be commensurate with what I believed I deserved, I woke up and found myself thinking of this teacher. His face popped up in my mind's eye as clear as day, but for the world I could not recall his name. I racked my brain for weeks. And weeks turned to months. Then my mind must have put the issue on a backburner for I ceased trying to think of dozens of other names in order to arrive at the right one. Though every now and then I would get preoccupied with the puzzle and would wonder as to why the name had become a closed book to me. Only when I went back to the medical college for a Class Reunion, where his name was mentioned by someone did I recall it perfectly and could not be more amazed as to why such an easy and familiar name had disappeared from my consciousness. The name was Anand Daate.
And I at once knew too as to why I had forgotten his name. He had always reminded me of one of my uncles, whose name too was Anand. And I had blocked out the name common to both, because they had many other features in common besides the name.
But why was I trying to block the memory of my uncle?
It was only one particular aspect of my uncle that I was trying to banish from my memory. My uncle was a child prodigy, who had won numerous prizes in school and colleges and every one was expecting him to be a trailblazer on reaching maturity. Yet once his education was over, he could find no other job in his speciality of Chemistry, but the job of a school teacher. In a few years of trying to exhort his students to do extraordinary things, which landed one of them to try to swim across a lake and drowning in the attempt, his job became a dead end for his extraordinary abilities. He became increasingly mentally disturbed over this cruel turn of fate, withdrew from the world, resigned as a teacher and turned into a monk. So his life trajectory had not turned out to be commensurate with what he deserved. Now that was exactly what I was dreading was happening to my career and life trajectory. As a Veterans Hospital psychiatrist I was doing not much in way of treating patients other than medicating them. Yes, I was doing a large scale study on lithium's usefulness in schizophrenia, and had over half a million dollar grant for it, but I knew at heart that the study was worthless. The residency program was somewhat satisfying, but I did not think I was cut out for that kind of bureaucratic career.
So what I was trying to block out from fully realizing and submitting to the fact that I was becoming more and more like my loser uncle. And along with blocking out the realization of this commonness between my uncle and myself, I was also blocking out his name.
But that does not explain as to why suddenly waking up one morning, completely out of the blue, I would recall the face but not the name of the teacher who had been nice to me. If anything I should have neither recalled his face nor his name. That would be more in keeping with how our mind works - block out all associations that would provoke the unwanted emotions.
Now the reason why his face emerged without any rhyme or reason was to counterbalance the dreaded possibility that I was turning into my uncle. The pathology professor looked, carried himself, and even had the name common with my uncle, but he did not look unhappy with his life as a teacher unlike my uncle. So it was his [hopeful] face that my mind had conjured up as a counterbalance to the depressing memory of my uncle. And so the mind did two activities that were diametrically opposite to each other. It blocked out the memory of the fate of my uncle and its residue the [common] name from my consciousness, while it brought out the memory of my pathology teacher [with the same name] with extra emphasis.
And why did I not recall his last name Daate?
One was because if I had recalled his last name I would have recalled the first name as well. They always called him with both his name. But there was another unpleasant memory associated with the last name. There was a military officer Captain Datta, who I had befriended in a military regiment in Kashmir, when I was 16. I had gone in summer vacation to another uncle of mine - brother of the uncle who turned into a monk - who was a medical officer there, and Captain Datta was stationed at the same regiment. He boasted himself as the youngest captain in whole of India. And he was just 21 years old. I identified with him, and had looked up to him, till in a social get together he had tried appearing funny at my expense, which left a bitter taste of him in my memory. Since he was also in the category of Uncles in my mind, I had put him and Anand Daate together and by using the phonetic similarity had used the unpleasantness associated with the captain in blocking out the last name of the pathology professor.
And now to the title of the essay which is that we forget and distort names as an attempt to show our distaste for the other person or something distasteful connected with the other person, and which often implies wishing them to disappear/die . I don't recall Freud specifically going into any discussion into how forgetting of name has very often at its root a wish for the person to be dead, at least for immediate expediency and not as a permanent solution, and hence the justification for writing this.
We often forget the name of a person who we wish was not there at that particular moment. This wishing for the other person not to be there is in some sense equivalent [in the unconscious] to that person being dead .
In obsessional neurotics who are constantly plagued with death wishes, this impulse to have the other person dead takes an interesting twist. Instead of not remembering the other person's name and other facts about him, the obsessive hyper-remembers not just the name but trivial facts about the other person. It is as if he is overcompensating for his thought/desire for death by making sure that he remembers every single thing and holds the person in such high regard that he takes pain not to wipe out [cause death] even insignificant facts about him.
In one obsessive lady this wish for death of others emerged in wanting to forget their birthdays. By not remembering the birthday of the other person she was declaring in a very roundabout fashion that you are as good as not ever being born as far as I am concerned. This wish for death of hated people had primarily arisen from death wishes towards her younger brother - 2 years her junior and her hated rival in childhood in getting their father's attention - but had now generalized to great number of people. He favorite abuse towards others was saying in contempt,"I don't know from where people like you get born."
Curiously she had a phenomenal memory for remembering the birthdays of all her relatives, and not just siblings and immediate family members, but up to most of her second cousins. She did not fail to call and wish them happy birthday. It was a Reaction Formation to her wish - which was quite strong when she was a child - for them to disappear and for her to be all alone with her father. Now she remembered everyone's birthday religiously as if to tell them that far from harboring any wish for them to have never been born, she values their birth so much that she can never forget such a precious day.

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