Narrative memory and the impact of trauma on individuals with reference to one short sequence from “Memento”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The text by Bessel Van der Kolk and Onno Van der Hart “The Intrusive Past” provides an overview of the work and achievement of Jean – Martin Charcot´s and Pierre Janet’s study about how the mind processes memories and the effects of traumatic memories on consciousness.

With the following text, I will present a couple of central aspects of Janet’s study and the phenomena of dissociation and the reconstruction of the past through narrative memory and project them onto one short sequence from “Memento” (2001) to further support my argument. The main point of this text is to illustrate how narrative memory reshapes the past in a variety of ways and that the main character in “Memento”, who has lived through a traumatic experience, creates and recreates his past through the means of a combination of the already mentioned dissociation and narrative memory.

Janet considered “the memory system as the central organizing apparatus of the mind, which categorizes and integrates all aspects of experience and automatically integrates them into ever – enlarging and flexible meaning schemes.”[1] He differentiates between the subconscious automatic integration of familiar and expectable experiences into existing meaning schemes and the difficult integration of frightening and novel experiences, which might either totally resist integration or be remembered extremely vivid. The subconscious integration of memories occurs because they fit easily into the meaning scheme, they do not pose a threat or form a contradiction to the already existing beliefs, values and meanings of the world.

Whereas the automatic integration of new information happens without conscious attention, the narrative memory is something very deliberate and conscious. Narrative memory is not the act of remembering something that happened in the past but an act of recreating the past, of changing the memory. Janet explains this phenomena as mental constructs, “which people use to make sense out of experience.”[2] This suggests that the individual’s existing meaning schemes may be entirely unable to integrate a specific terrifying experience, which causes the memory to be stored differently, and therefore might not be available for the act of remembering. The traumatic experience may either be remembered extremely regular and intense or through sporadic fragments of the event or may not even be remembered at all, depending on one’s overall character or what Janet termed as “temperament.”[3] The narrative memory is a way for trauma survivors to make sense of their experience and their new situation that resulted out of the traumatic event. The survivor substitutes created images and constructed memories for the real memories, which are too painful to remember. With the help of conditioning and repeating to remember the same false memories over and over again the trauma survivor believes his new memories and integrates them into his meaning scheme as his legitimate past. The real fragments of the traumatic event are pushed to the bottom of the memory system where they can only be remembered through the stimulation of a question or a certain situation.[4] Janet also uses the term traumatic memory, but explains that there is a difference between traumatic memory and narrative memory. While narrative memory allows the remembering of a trauma through the stimulation of questions or comments, traumatic memory is evoked under particular conditions similar to the original traumatic experience, which then leads to the re-enactment of everything that happened during the original experience until the end of it. “When one element of a traumatic experience is evoked, all other elements follow automatically.”[5]

Sigmund Freud has also written about Janet’s idea of narrative memory and how memory disturbances occur because new information cannot be integrated into existing meaning schemes. He argued that memory disturbances and re-enactments seen in hysteria are not because new memories cannot be integrated into schemes but because the individual actively represses them. Trauma survivors are more concerned with not thinking about the event. Janet questions this idea of “active repression” where the subject pushes the unwanted memory away. He differentiates between repression and dissociation. The act of dissociation occurs just as the trauma is occurring and not afterwards, therefore suggesting that a deliberate repression afterwards is impossible. Yet this does not entirely rule out active repression. There are cases where trauma survivors repress certain memories after the original experience rather than dissociate themselves from it. Nonetheless, Janet favors the idea of dissociation and gives examples of many trauma survivors, who described their experience as if the tragic event was happening to someone else. They were automatically removed from the scene. “They look at it from a distance or disappear altogether, leaving other parts of their personality to suffer and store the overwhelming experience. […] When survivors later on suffer from flashbacks and related phenomena and subsequently become amnestic again for the trauma, they keep dissociating the traumatic memory.”[6] The common description by incest survivors is: “I moved up to the ceiling from where I saw this little girl being molested and I felt very sorry for her.”[7] This act of dissociation can even lead to the most extreme example of having events bypass the consciousness, which is multiple personality disorder. According to Janet, once a trauma survivor has adapted the concept of dissociation and sees his fate in somebody else’s, then he has developed separate identities. This might be a real character or an imagined one, but one no longer feels like this particular experience has actually happened to oneself but to somebody else. Therefore, the survivor is only observer and becomes detached from what originally and in reality is his own problem. Janet explains the difference between repression and dissociation as follows:


[1] Van der Kolk: The Intrusive Past, p.159.

[2] Ebd. p. 160.

[3] Ebd. p. 159.

[4] Ebd. p. 163.

[5] Ebd. p. 163.

[6] Ebd. p. 168.

[7] Ebd. p. 168.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Narrative memory and the impact of trauma on individuals with reference to one short sequence from “Memento”
Free University of Berlin  (John F. Kennedy Institut Berlin)
HS American Cultural Memory: Trauma, Collective Imagery and the Politics of Remembering
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Narrative, American, Cultural, Memory, Trauma, Collective, Imagery, Politics, Remembering
Quote paper
Michael Schmid (Author), 2004, Narrative memory and the impact of trauma on individuals with reference to one short sequence from “Memento”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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