Barry O’Donnell – Memory and Phantasy

THE LETTER 15 (Spring 1999) pages 125-137

There is a presupposition in the term ‘false memory syndrome’ that there are memories that are true and memories that are false; that a false memory is something fabricated and that it therefore has no bearing on the truth; and what is fabricated is described as ‘phantasy’. This approach distinguishes memory and phantasy so that their content is taken to be mutually exclusive.

A consideration of some texts of Freud problematises this set of assumptions and in the end renders them untenable.

The aim of this contribution to today’s debate is to present something of what Freud says of the relations between ‘memory’ and ‘phantasy’ so that the status we grant to childhood events recollected in analysis may be called into question.


In 1899 Freud wrote a paper entitled Screen Memories. What follows is the example that Freud gives of a seemingly trivial recollection from childhood which popped into a particular man’s mind from time to time during his adult years for no identifiable reason:

I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown: in the green there are a great

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