History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 February 2009

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? How do you research medical conditions you want to use-- using current medical information or from primary sources?

posted by Mary Blayney | 2:51 PM


Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hi, Mary!

I can't remember if I've used amnesia or not....

Seriously, I have used PTSD in The Mysterious Miss M and am using it in this new book, currently (right this minute) in revisions. And I made the father in The Marriage Bargain have a sort of dementia.

The challenge for me is to figure out what the medical terms would be during the early 1800s. A stroke would have been called "apoplexy" for example.

To my knowledge, PTSD was not recognized until WWI, but surely it existed before then. I just have to imagine how my hero would think of what he experiences

7:34 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Diane -- There is no doubt in my mind that PTSD existed as long as man has had a conscience. Call it "soldiers heart" or "battle fatigue"...it does not make it any easier to deal with alone.

Diane also emailed me privately to tell me that I put two R's in repression in the title of my post. I Have no idea how to correct it so I will apologize. Do you want to guess how many times I proofed that entry? Many -- I am the world's worst editor.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm not a fan of amnesia in fiction, or of the variant that I've used: the Memory That Would Solve the Mystery, If Only it Could Be Brought to Mind. I don't like it because, conveniently, it's Brought to Mind just when the plot demands it be.

Nor am I a fan of Repressed Memory as it's been used, with similar convenience, in court cases through recent decades.

But in a genre that is, classically, based upon the discovery of its protagonists' true natures, it certainly has its place -- think of A Midsummer Night's Dream. And I'd like to try it again sometime.

As for period names for ailments: yes, apoplexy for stroke, toxemia for pre-eclampsia, the influenza of course, and the catarrh as well, dropsy (for something or other), melancholy for depression -- and my beloved crapulousness for hangover.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Got it! (You just change it as an edit, Mary -- and then republish, rather than save).

8:18 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Pam - Of course -- change it as an edit!

"Crapulousness" is great. And what is the catarrh in modern parlance?

1:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

some kind of respiratory problem.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Mary! I used amnesia in "Shadows of the Heart." The book opens with an attack on the heroine (the hero comes to her rescue), and she has amnesia for the first half of the book or so, though she starts to get her memory back in bits and pieces. All of which is complicated by the fact that she's pregnant :-).

3:18 PM  

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