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Frank, A. Muslin, H. (1967). The Development of Freud's Concept of Primal Repression. Psychoanal. St. Child, 22:55-76.

(1967). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 22:55-76

Contributions to Psychoanalytic Theory

The Development of Freud's Concept of Primal Repression

Alvin Frank, M.D. and Hyman Muslin, M.D.


In reviewing the development of the concept of primal repression in Freud's writings we observed three distinct phases.

The first, from about 1895 to 1898, could be regarded as prototypical. Trauma could affect later mental life through deferred, unconscious activity. The trauma was overt (e.g., sexual seduction), and the results were specific (e.g., hysteria). This schema was limited to specific neuroses.

The second phase, from 1900 to 1915, could be aptly titled a theory of passive primal repression. As the result of a ubiquitous process in psychic development, the deferred development of the secondary processes, certain early impressions and forces are left lagging behind. While these forces continue to exert an indirect effect on mental life, the ideational representatives, because of their lack of preconscious representations, are inaccessible to consciousness. In addition, the fulfillment of these wishful impulses would at a later date result in unpleasure (as well as the pleasure of discharge) because of the discrepancies between secondary and primary processes and certain standards and prohibitions acquired in the interim. Later associatively connected impulses would be subjected to the same repressive forces; hence primal repression is a necessary precondition for later adult repression (repression proper, secondary repression).

The primal repression in this formulation is maintained by system Pcs. anticathexes. It is clear in the context of concurrent psychoanalytic psychology that the development of the system preconscious and of the secondary process is considered intimately associated with verbal mnemic symbols. Hence, the onset of the processes which leave the primally repressed in their wake is initiated by the acquisition of the mnemic residues of speech.

Repression is here explicitly defined as an exclusion of ideational content from consciousness. In contrast to the (first) prototypical phase in the development of the theory, Freud now describes a universal defense and its role in "normal" development. This formulation has a high degree of internal consistency, with the shortcomings mentioned previously. It is also highly consistent with the psychoanalytic clinical practice of its period; i.e., a technique primarily directed toward the overcoming of resistances in order to recover infantile repressed memories.

The third phase in the development of the concept of primal repression, from 1926 on, involves a total change in perspective as the result of other theoretical advances. At first glance it would seem that Freud has discarded his earlier theory of the primally repressed as occurring passively. Only a close examination of his later writings demonstrates that he now presupposes the existence of this phenomenon and that the newer theory represents an addition. In line with the new anxiety theory he focuses on what he now terms primal

repression as, from the first, an active defensive process. Previously he had proposed no motive for primal repression; only after the establishment of the secondary processes and the primally repressed could once pleasurable fulfillment lead to unpleasure. Now a motive, a specific stimulus for the production of unpleasure responsible for the primal repression, is explicitly defined. Active defensive primal repression occurs as the result of unpleasure associated with overstimulation of the immature mental apparatus analogous to the birth trauma. Thus, the first active primal repressions are from the beginning no less the consequences of unpleasure than later secondary repressions. But the unpleasure of these earliest defensive repressions is the result of an economic factor.

While Freud repeatedly associates the earliest outbreaks of anxiety (i.e., associated with overstimulation of the mental apparatus rather than signal anxiety) with the earliest repressions, we cannot infer that active defensive primal repression is a defense present in the first days or weeks of life. He also repeatedly associates this defense with a certain degree of ego organization, specifically with the preconscious state. Our interpretation of Freud's later formulation is accordingly that active primal repression cannot begin until the preconscious state exists. As noted, the connection between the preconscious state and verbal mnemic symbols is no longer considered as crucial in this regard. Furthermore, in contrast to the 1900-1915 concept, the ideational representatives which are primally repressed may once have possessed and subsequently lost, for all practical purposes, preconscious representation.

In the absence of further comment by Freud we believe we are justified in considering two dividing lines between primal repression and repression proper in normal development. The first is associated with the stable establishment of the danger-situation signal-anxiety sequence for any given situation of instinctual overstimulation. The second involves the end of the usual developmental series of such situations which is in turn associated with the formation of the superego.

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