The reader will be aware that the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud introduced some radical ideas at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Freud was not necessarily the first person to have such ideas, but he was certainly the person most influential in propagating these ideas.
The first idea to which I refer is that of the unconscious mind. Few psychologists would disagree with the statement that our mind engages in much activity that is below the level of our awareness. In fact there is a deal of modern experimental psychological evidence to support this contention, and it can perhaps be said to be one of the significant legacies of Sigmund Freud. However, this is far from an acceptance of the main thrust of psychoanalytic psychology that Dr. Freud developed, which put in crude terms was essentially that we as human beings are driven by unconscious desires and motivations, and that these unconscious desires and motivations relate to early experiences of which we have no conscious memory.
A major objective of psychoanalytic therapy was to reveal or bring into consciousness not only these desires and motivations, but also memories upon which they were based which were somehow buried in the unconscious. This idea has been largely rejected by modern psychology and psychiatry. The experimental evidence of the way in which memory works and our current understanding of memory simply do not support such contentions.
This is not to say that such a therapeutic approach has no value; in many cases it has great value. But once again, I emphasise the distinction between a forensic process and a therapeutic process. These are two entirely different things.
In my opinion it is interesting that such beliefs which have been largely rejected wholesale by mainstream psychology continue as a part of popular cultural knowledge. When discussing recovered memory I will often use the phrase that a belief in such events owes far more to Hollywood than it owes to psychology. I have an interest in how psychology is portrayed in the cinema and I would draw the reader’s attention to two films— The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945)— that in my opinion popularised this view: a view which, as I note above, continues in popular culture but not in psychological practice.
The Seventh Veil depicts the relationship between an introverted young girl and a controlling older man who whilst encouraging her musical ambitions also subjects her to emotional and physical abuse. As a result of her painful experiences at the hands of this man, the girl matures into a troubled young woman whose career as a concert pianist is in jeopardy. A psychoanalyst helps free her from the repressed trauma of her past, although in the film’s final reel she ends up with her sadistic mentor anyway (a denouement perhaps explainable by the fact that he is played by James Mason at his most elegant and saturnine). Dismissed by the film critic Pauline Kael as “a rich, portentous mixture of Beethoven, Chopin, kitsch and Freud”, The Seventh Veil presents a distorted albeit entertaining view of psychoanalysis.
Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound also features psychoanalysis, only this time psychoanalytic therapy is pressed into service as a crime-solving technique. The film’s opening credits feature this written prologue:
Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane.
The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind.
Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are resolved and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear . . . and the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul.
Ingrid Bergman portrays a junior psychoanalyst working in a psychiatric facility whose new director (Gregory Peck) is revealed to be an amnesiac who is impersonating the actual director who has disappeared. Unable to account for this mysterious turn of events, he stands accused of murder and goes on the run. She meanwhile persuades him to undergo psychoanalysis in an attempt to unravel his fractured identity.
Whilst trying to recover lost memories of the man’s evidently traumatic past, the analyst (assisted by her own psychoanalyst, who appears as a sort of Hollywood caricature of Freud) solves the murder by finding clues to the crime revealed in the dreams her patient reports to her, dreams which appear as surreal cinematic set-pieces (Salvador Dalí collaborated with Hitchcock on the visuals for the film’s main dream sequence). In the end the murder mystery is solved, lost memories are recovered, and analyst and analysand are united in what in 1945 passed for ‘romance’ but which today would be considered an unethical dual relationship.
I should like to thank my devoted assistant and daemon Ann (who knows far more about film than I do) for her contributions to this post.