- Open to Suggestion: Hypnosis and History in Pat Barker’s Regeneration
“We could try hypnosis now, if you liked.”
“Yes, why not? It’s the time we’re least likely to be interrupted.”
Prior’s eyes flickered round the room. He licked his lips. “It’s odd, isn’t it? When you said most people were frightened, I didn’t believe you.”
“What frightens them,” Rivers said carefully, “is the belief that they’re putting themselves completely in the therapist’s power. That he can make them do anything, even things they’d normally consider ridiculous or even immoral. But that isn’t true, you remain yourself throughout.”—Pat Barker, Regeneration
In 1915, Dr. Charles S. Myers, a physician serving at casualty clearing stations behind the front line in France, wrote an article in which he observed the lack of correlation between the symptoms exhibited by the soldiers whom he treated and the explosion of nearby shells, which was (supposedly) their cause. Although the shells burst [End Page 674] with considerable noise, the hearing of his patients was almost entirely unaffected, while the memory and the senses of sight, smell, and taste were invariably at the heart of the complex of symptoms which was displayed. 1 This discrepancy led Myers to conclude his 1915 article, “A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock”: “The close relation of these cases to those of ‘hysteria’ appears fairly certain” (320). Once the correlation between the symptomatology of warfare and the condition of hysteria had been recognized by some physicians, modes of treatment were revised in order to reflect the new diagnosis. In particular, the use of hypnosis entered the scene of therapy for the war neuroses, although the technique had been more or less abandoned since the turn of the century. 2
The revival of the practice of hypnosis was attended by considerable debate. Not least among the concerns for practitioners was an anxiety about how the method of hypnosis achieved its cathartic effect. Writing in 1921, Myers argued in his paper “The Revival of Emotional Memories” that a sudden emotional shock effected a change in the personality of the soldier, so that he was “no longer ‘himself’” (22). With the return of the “normal” personality after the shock had subsided, the affective and cognitive experiences undergone by the “traumatized” self were repressed and were no longer available to the conscious awareness of the patient. For Myers the hypnotic cure thus involved the recovery in consciousness of the disturbing event and the consequent revival of the affective and cognitive experience with which it was associated. By recovering his memory of the traumatic event, the patient was able to integrate in his consciousness the traumatized self with the normal personality and so overcome his fractured state. The emphasis for Myers was thus on the dissociated memory; hypnosis effected a cure in the patient by reinstating the event and allowing the patient to have access to a new knowledge of, or relation to, himself. In 1916 Myers noted that, after the use of hypnosis, the patient reacted to the recovered memory with such delight that it frequently marked a “distinct change in . . . attitude” (“Contribution” 68); in many cases, this transformation was so noticable that it “appear[ed] like an alteration of personality” (68).
Myers argued further that the timing of the hypnotic treatment was crucial. When the soldier was first admitted he was frequently still in a state of shock; Myers terms this condition as one of “stupor.” In [End Page 675] cases of “severe stupor” the normal personality of the patient is unavailable; he reacts as if he is still involved in the disturbing event which has precipitated his neurosis. Myers observes that the next stage in recovery is an alternation of states: the patient realizes that he is in the hospital but he still reacts involuntarily to the conditions of shelling. At this stage the patient also alternates between an intensely animated mode of miming the traumatic event and an ability to narrate to the physician an account of what has occurred. In other words, the patient is caught between a present involvement in the event and the...