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Kestenberg, J.S. (1988). Memories from Early Childhood. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(4):561-571.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(4):561-571

Memories from Early Childhood

Judith S. Kestenberg

The past comes in many shapes and is forever eluding us. We remember it unevenly. To bring one event into focus obscures another. There is no neat chronology in it and sometimes not even a logical order to it…. There is … a psychohistorical process of remembering, forgetting and recreating that is vital for life itself. A binding connectedness with the past secures our hold in the present. To lose it is to lose everything. To gain it takes work.

C. B. Strozier (1986)

Child survivors of the Holocaust seem to know very well what Strozier has formulated here in the abstract. The younger they are the more intent they are on remembering. At times they act as if their very life depends on their memories being complete. They deplore memories that cannot be recovered and may be forever lost. They seek help in remembering. No doubt, powerful forces of denial and repression are at work here, but there is also the fact that young children do not have the ability to retain memories the way older children and adults can.

In my efforts to help those who want to remember, I concentrate on means to communicate very early memories that differ from those of adults. They come in flashes and in isolated recollections and are often devoid of meaning that the older child and adult may assign to them. Yet, they can convey the atmosphere and the feeling tones accompanying a longer life span or a particular event.

Based on the understanding that the young child does not clearly distinguish between reality and fantasy, I began to ask interviewees to imagine certain crucial events from their infancy. I encountered a variety of responses, ranging from total cooperation and a recreation of early memories into a complete refusal to imagine (“How can I imagine when I don't know” or “But I don't remember”). The latter, a rigid adherence to reality, was highly defensive.

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