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Modell, A.H. (1995). Commentaries. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 43:365-368.

(1995). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43:365-368


Arnold H. Modell

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll

Psychoanalytic concepts, unlike dictionary definitions, are not fixed, in that they change through time yet retain a certain continuity. This is especially true of a clinical term such as working through. The term was introduced by Freud (1914) in “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through.” He had noted that in certain patients interpretations are ineffectual, in that they do not result in the lifting of repression; instead, memories are involuntarily expressed as repetitive actions. Indeed, Freud noted, the greater the resistance the more extensively will acting out replace remembering. The implication is that the action is a memory equivalent. Freud's expectation of the effectiveness of interpretation was based on an earlier paradigm, that of the traumatic neuroses, in which interpretation would lead to the recovery of conscious memories the patient could then narrate.

Greenacre (1956) noted that the term working through has been used both to denote the overcoming of resistances and to refer to a process that in fact was a working to the nuclear core of the neurosis. In this latter context, Greenacre observed that the process of working through may entail the presence of a neurotic constellation that engulfs the patient like quicksand. This adhesiveness, Greenacre felt, pointed to an organizing experience in childhood in which reality may have confirmed a pathogenic fantasy. This organized memory, reinforced by a salient fantasy, is present as an undigested bolus in the mind.

Freud's distinction between memories that are narrated and those that are unconsciously and compulsively converted into action can also be thought of as a measure of the extent to which such memories are within the purview or agency of the self. We know that in cases of trauma memories undergo a variety of different processes.

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