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Frank, A. (1969). The Unrememberable and the Unforgettableā€”Passive Primal Repression. Psychoanal. St. Child, 24:48-77.

(1969). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24:48-77

The Unrememberable and the Unforgettable—Passive Primal Repression

Alvin Frank, M.D.


In line with Freud's development of the concept of primal repression, an attempt has been made here to categorize the unrememberable memories of childhood. This paper explores some aspects of memories which as such are not directly recoverable because of the immaturity of the mental apparatus at the time when the significant impressions occurred. The process has been characterized and described and its relationship to certain unconscious defenses defined.

Passive primal repression is one possible vicissitude of the period when primary processes dominate the behavior and thinking of the child. Up to eighteen months of age, primary processes are in the foreground; only intermittently is there evidence of higher ego functions strong enough to curb the child's free impulsive and instinctive expressions (A. Freud, 1951). As stressed by Freud, the importance of speech at this age in the transition from primary to secondary process mentation has been repeatedly confirmed. Even after this stage, however, physiological, environmental, and emotional trauma may overwhelm the higher ego functions, and create conditions suitable for passive primal repression.

In addition, another factor responsible for the amnesia of early childhood has been discussed—the transformation through reorganization

of many optimal infantile memories into ego qualities, strengths, and capacities. Because of this change of function, these experiences are no longer recoverable, usually not even in analysis.

Finally, cases illustrating the application of the concept of passive primal repression have been presented at the clinical level.

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