History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 March 2007

Repression Challenge

No, not that kind of repression, but since you've read this far don't stop now.

In 2007 I wrote a post about a literary challenge from the Biological Psychiatric Laboratory at Mclean Hospital (a research lab from Harvard Medical School) which offered a $1000 prize to anyone who could find literary evidence ,written before the 19th century, of a person who suffered a traumatic event, repressed the memory and later recovered.

As I said in my two years post post, it sounds like a scam, right? But it was not. An Washington Post discussed the research of scientists and literary scholars who published their findings in the journal of Psychological Medicine.

The group, headed by Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical school, claim that repressed memory, also known as amnesia is "a culture-bound syndrome' --- creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century." Apparently literature as far back as Homer show characters suffering from other disorders ranging from disjointed thinking, schizophrenia and depression. The literary work of other cultures was explored and no "convincing" example was found of a traumatic event followed by repressed memory and recovery of the memory before the year 1800.

In the second half of the 19th century evidence of trauma related amnesia in literature is plentiful -- the article refers to Dickens TALE OF TWO CITIES in which Dr Manette's time in the Bastille is so terrible that he has no memory of it until events in the plot cause him to recall the experience. The researchers contend that if the condition existed before this and other literary proof, evidence would be found. There in lay the challenge.

The news is that the challenge has been won. It's old news, actually, but I feel compelled to inform all historical writers so they no longer think that they must avoid stories with an amnesia plot. Here is what the Biopsychlab reported in May of 2007:

"The libretto of the 1786 opera, “Nina,” wins our $1000 award for a case of “repressed memory” in a written work before 1800.

“Nina” is a one-act opera with a score written by Nicholas Dalayrac and a libretto written by Marsollier. The full title is: Nina, ou La folle par amour, comedie en un acte, en prose, melee d’ariettes, par M. M. D. V. Musique de M. Dalayrac. It was published by Brunet in Paris in 1786. Several subsequent translations into English are available; one of the best known is the 1787 translation by Berkeley, which is available online through Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The libretto is not available online.

Nina's repressed memory is global, that is she recognizes no one and remembers nothing after the traumatic event, which involved the death of her lover in a duel with another suitor. I encourage you to read the full article at biopsychlab.com where there is a discussion of the differences between the 18th century understanding of amnesia and what it has evolved to today.

This post is based on information from a Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam, the Biopsychlab website and from my previous post of March 6, 2007

Have you ever used amnesia in a book or do you have an idea working? How do you describe current medical conditions in historical terms in your work?


Blogger Unknown said...

Do you know how much I want to spend the day searching Google Books? Argh!!!

7:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great point about amnesia and its overuse in historica romance, Mary.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I knew you would react that way, Kalen!

10:29 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Overused -- sure, but it is such anuseful device. Wonder how many people have any idea that science is unclear as to whether amnesia existed before 1800?

10:31 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

And . . . Mary, there is still great debate amongst neurologists as to whether or not amnesia exists today (other than in Alzheimer's, or as very short term memory loss after a blow to the head).

IMO, it's an annoying plot device . . . I'd hate to count the number of times it could be documented on TV soap operas!

11:19 AM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

I, too, find amnesia an annoying plot device. Almost always throws me out of a story, because I just can't *buy* it!

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful blessing to never have had an experience so horrific you willfully forget it. I find it difficult to believe that it did not happen earlier in history. Simply because it was not written about does not mean it didn't happen. By that theory, plenty of things happened that were never written about so couldn't be real....

Imagine the Salem witch trials. How well would one come out of that who admitted to not remembering? Can you imagine the ridicule? Is it possible they might even have been thought of as possessed? If being burned at the stake were a possible consequence, I'm quite certain withholding the truth would be preferable. Science is ever changing and ever expanding its knowledge, and there is still so much to learn.

I confess that I sometimes find amnesia in a story too convenient and contrived, but in such cases it isn't the only problem I have with the story. I've also found stories where it suits very well and adds and interesting facet.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I agree amnesia is over-used infiction, and I get tired of it. But I'm really skeptical of the notion that it did not exist before 1800. The brain is far too complex an organ and too little is known about it to be making such assumptions about brains that can no longer be studied. I can think of lots of illnesses that did not exist or were ignored even fifty years ago. If no one looks, no one sees.

Delle Jacobs

10:14 PM  

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