Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering (Book Review)

Author:  Prager, Jeffrey 
Publisher: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998
Reviewed By: Janice Haaken, Winter 2001, pp. 34-35

From the very beginning of the psychoanalytic movement, theoretical debates over psychopathology have drawn much of their heat from the rebellion of women. One of Freud’s most famous and discussed cases–the case of Dora–centers on a dramatic struggle between Freud and his adolescent patient over the meaning of her sexual experiences, with the patient storming out before the conclusion of treatment. This was a generative moment for Freud, as he made use of the heat of the interchange to think through theoretical issues. One can only imagine how sterile a project psychoanalysis would have been without such rebellious women.

Jeffrey Prager’s thoughtful book, Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering, is an engaging illustration of the rocky history of psychoanalytic encounters between male analysts and their female patients. A sociologist and psychoanalyst, Prager begins with a case study of an “attractive, well-dressed, and well-spoken young woman” who, midway through her analysis, self-diagnoses as an incest survivor. Cultural forces are always present in the narrative structuring of clinical material, but Prager becomes acutely aware of them as the heat of the sexual abuse survivor movement overtakes the contemplative coolness of the analytic setting. Empowered by the incest recovery literature and sensing “resistance” on the part of her analyst, the patient insists on the correctiveness of her new-found memories.

The subtitle of the book,“The Sociology of Misremembering,” forecloses on uncertainty from the outset. We know Prager is more aligned with the “false memory” than with the “true memory” side of the debate, which limits the exploratory possibilities of the rich material presented. For example, what contributed to the shift in the patient’s convictions. What would lead us to believe that “false” memories are more ephemeral than true ones? Does the patient’s relinquishment of her convictions emerge as a way out of the therapeutic crisis? Much like Freud, Prager enters into the intimate world of women only to turn away, leaving the specificity of her complaints behind.

Prager makes use of the struggle with his patient over the validity of her memories to advance a more abstract theoretical project. His interest is in arguing for a fluid, intersubjective model of memory, an approach that “brings into focus both the individual’s world of inner experience and its embeddedness with other such world in a continual flow of reciprocal mutual influence.” (p. 97) Within this matrix of social interactions, memory loses its status as an autonomous agency of mind. Rather than equating social influence with the “weakening” or “contaminating” of memory, social influence is taken as a given and as constitutive of all aspects of mind, including personal recollections. Drawing on intersubjective concepts bridging sociology and psychoanalysis, Prager shows how historical motifs and current preoccupations shape the schematics of remembering. In the contemporary period, child sexual abuse is a potent script for making sense of myriad forms of distress, and for locating that distress within a causal framework. Yet this same search for a causal explanation for one’s suffering underlies countless human forms of inquiry, from religion to science.

Cultural scripts are not merely an arbitrary conduit of intrapsychic conflicts. If we are to create a real conversation between sociology and psychoanalysis, both sides of this disciplinary divide must be understood to be constitutive of consciousness. Prager advances an approach to psychoanalysis seemingly more amenable to sociological insights than the classical psychoanalytic models because it enlarges the psyche to include social context. Yet in arguing for the importance of a theory of subjectivity within sociology, the potential value of sociological theory to clinical inquiry remains undeveloped. Presenting the Past is suggestive of the rich possibilities of a psychoanalytic sociology, but less persuasive in arguing for a sociological psychoanalysis.

Left unexplained, as well, is the mystifying question of how recovered memories of sexual abuse came to serve as such a powerful reminder–and emissary–of the role of culture in psychotherapy. Certainly countless other cultural scripts–for example, the valuing of autonomy, punctuality, competitiveness, upward advancement, or the idea that poor mothering is the primary source of one’s misery--shape the stories that get told in psychotherapy. Yet these cultural scripts do not register as readily as examples of cultural influence on clinical work.

The issue is not simply–or perhaps even primarily–one of whether sexual abuse in childhood actually occurred. The more central issue in the recovered memory debate concerns competing authoritative claims in the culture. Women emerged in the 1980s–as patients and as therapists–with a historically emergent sense of their authority, and with available means of exposing the sins–some imagined, some real--of the powerful fathers.

Presenting the Past is a compassionate and insightful book. But just as Freud “repressed” the role of the mother in development in a way that limited his clinical insights, Prager represses the role of feminism–the collective rebellions and assertions of women–in his analysis of the incest recovery movement. It was a movement about consciousness of child abuse, about finding a “script” for suffering, and about hysterical elaboration of everyday anxieties. But it was also a collective rebellion against the everyday seductions and intrusions in female development, and it was about anger and defiance, as well as love for men. A feminist-informed psychoanalysis–or a feminist psychoanalytic sociology–would have widened the interpretive lens on this clinical material, and on the cultural fabric weaving through women’s efforts to work through conflicting desires, incestuous wishes, and abusive experiences. Nonetheless, Presenting the Past is well-worth the read.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.