Screen Memory

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A screen memory (like forgetting and amnesia) is a compromise between repressed elements and defense against them. A paradoxical feature of recollections of this kind is they are less childhood memories than memories about childhood, characterized typically by their singular clarity and the apparent insignificance of their content. Important facts are not retained; instead, their psychic significance is displaced onto closely associated but less important details. Displacement is indeed the main mechanism here, as it is in the case of mnemic symbols or in the forgetting of a proper name, although to some degree condensation may also be present.

The notion of screen memories was first presented by Freud in his paper so named (1899a), an extension of his work on mnemic symbols and the recollection of trauma in hysteria, a paper written as he was beginning to develop the idea of unconscious fantasy. Later, he concluded that such memories, so long as one knew how to interpret them, supplied the best available source of knowledge about the "forgotten" childhood years (1914g, p. 148). Any memory could be a screen memory inasmuch as one aspect of it screened out something unacceptable to the ego.

In the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), Freud told of Emma, who attributed her phobia to an insignificant scene recalled from adolescence while repressing a more important childhood event. The scene from adolescence, described by Freud as pseudos, was in effect a screen memory serving to negate the unacceptable fact of the traumatic seduction of a child by an adult, the memory of which was transformed into age-appropriate amorous feelings of adolescence (pp. 352-54). Freud clarified his notion of the defensive and idealizing falsification of memories in his account of the "Rat Man" case, where he noted "that people's 'childhood memories' are only consolidated at a later period, usually at the age of puberty, and that this involves a complicated process of remodeling, analogous in every way to the process by which a nation constructs legends about its early history. It at once becomes evident that in his phantasies about his infancy the individual as he grows up "endeavours to efface the recollection of his auto-erotic activities " (1909d, p. 206n). The adolescent's memories concerning his or her childhood thus sought to negate an infantile sexuality incapable of oedipal victory and replaced it with more heroic ideas by means of a process that Freud compared to the creation of legends and myths.

In "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g), Freud compared screen memories and dreams, observing that their common trait of visual representability enabled them to contain mnemic traces, albeit in the form of "dream-thoughts." He added that the analysis of dreams and screen memories facilitated access to the reality of the direct experience of the past just as effectively as the analysis of simple memories: screen memories, he wrote, retained "all of what is essential. . . . They represent the forgotten years of childhood as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts" (p. 148). Could screen memories conceivably be considered a more faithful representation than memories per se? A note added in 1920 to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality drew an analogy between screen memories and the fetish which conceals female castration (1905d, p. 154n); and in Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, memory covers up a fantasy of the mother with a penis (1910c, p. 98). This fetishistic aspect of screen memories, as likewise of sensorily intense mnemic symbols and images, clearly foreshadows Freud's later view of fetishism.

The key reference here nevertheless remains "Screen Memories" (1899a). In this paper Freud evoked one of his own memories of childhood (though he ascribed it to someone else), in which he saw himself playing with other children in a very green meadow across which vivid yellow flowers were sprinkled; analysis led to a later memory, from adolescence, in which he was in love with a girl in a yellow dress. Thus the childhood memory was in this case screening off a later sexual wish: "there was no childhood memory, but only a phantasy put back into childhood" (p. 315). The displacement was flagged by the intensity of sensory representability (a gauge of the persistence of the wish). Sensory representability was not always primary, however: figurative elements could sometimes reflect wishful verbal connections, as, in the present context, when the delicious taste of bread in memory could be interpreted as reflecting the adolescent wish to "earn one's bread" like an adult.

As early as 1899, then, Freud suspected that any memory that presented itself to consciousness with great intensity might be a screen, so creating a theory of memory as a realm deeply affected by elements of fantasy: "There is in general no guarantee of the data produced by our memory" (p. 315). Without such a guarantee, psychoanalytical interpretation would place its hopes in the study of repetition (1914g) or on the evidence from analytic constructions (1937d).

Inasmuch as screen memories cover up that which is unacceptable to the ego, they may be considered essentially defensive in nature. Their illusory aspect tends to infect all remembering, which thus may always be suspected of having a screen function. The notion tends to subvert the idea of historical reality, for it prompts the question whether such a reality is the outcome of creative interpretation or of genuine access to mnemic traces. In analyzing his own screen memories, therefore, Freud developed an idea that implied a new epistemology of time and of the complexity of reality: "as though a memory-trace from childhood had here been translated back . . . at a later date" (p. 321). "The recognition of this fact must diminish the distinction we have drawn between screen memories and other memories derived from our childhood" (p. 322).

FranÇois Richard

See also: Adolescence; Bernfeld, Siegfried; Lifting of amnesia; Memory.


Freud, Sigmund. (1899a). Screen memories. SE, 3: 299-322.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12: 145-156.

. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE,23:255-269.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.