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Erreich, A. (1998). The Recovery of Unconscious Memories: Hypermnesia and Reminiscence.: By Matthew Hugh Erdelyi. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996, 263 pp., 28.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 46:320-322.

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(1998). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(1):320-322

The Recovery of Unconscious Memories: Hypermnesia and Reminiscence.: By Matthew Hugh Erdelyi. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996, 263 pp., 28.95.

Review by:
Anne Erreich

Psychoanalysts coming to the end of this book might well feel that they've been taken advantage of, in the old-fashioned sense—that is, they've been seduced and left dangling, as if certain commitments have been made but not kept. The title of this volume, The Recovery of Unconscious Memories, evokes such rich promises: the nature of repression, the narrative/historical truth debate, the role of affect and trauma in the registration, repression, and retrieval of events, motivated versus unmotivated “forgetting,” false memories, and a host of related topics dear to the working psychoanalyst's heart. But despite the evocative title, this book does not deliver on these promises, except in the most schematic, unelaborated manner, and then not until the final six pages. This is particularly annoying because Erdelyi's preface refers explicitly to many of these issues, as if he intends to focus on them. From this perspective, the most serious criticism of this book is that it is a book about “memory,” i.e., the workings of that ubiquitous higher mental function, not a book about “memories,” the mental representations of particular, often affectively charged events that constitute our unique histories. Thus, with the exception of the very last few pages, this volume is likely to be of greater interest to cognitive psychologists than to psychoanalysts.

For anyone interested in the workings of the memory function in a structured, relatively neutral laboratory setting, Erdelyi provides an excellent chronological review of the experimental psychology literature on memory. His prose often reads like a detective novel, where seemingly contradictory clues from diverse research findings finally coalesce into a meaningful picture.

However, when his attention turns to clinical phenomena, Erdelyi too frequently offers an interesting observation or speculation without providing adequate supporting data or argumentation. For example, he clarifies a distinction whose conflation has led to much confusion in the memory literature: “hypermnesia” refers to net improvement in recall from an earlier to a later trial, whereas “reminiscence” refers to the recovery of stimulus items in later trials of initially inaccessible items, regardless of improvement or decline in overall recall. Because hypermnesia turns out to be stronger for visual than for verbal material,

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