The Phenomenon of False Memories in Memento by Christopher Nolan

False Memories in Memento

Memory is the main guarantee of an individual’s social and personal behavioral integrity because it preserves all the previous actions of a person and, in this way, serves as the guideline in everyone’s life. Memories are the only way for people to have some chronological orientation in their lives. It is clear that mostly the existence of some memories means that the remembered facts took place. However, in some cases, individuals may have false memories, which presupposes that a person memorizes fictive goals and actions that never took place. The popular culture provides a possibility to examine the illustrations of such cases on the examples of literary fiction and play movies based on the application of the existing psychological theories to the plot. Thus, Memento by Christopher Nolan may serve as a good example of an attempt of the filmmaker to adapt both dominant scientific position and his personal point of view concerning the issue of false memories. Through the film, it becomes clear that false memories appear as a defendant subconscious response of an individual’s psyche to some traumatic experience.

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Sigmund Freud made one of the most significant contributions to the research studies of memory. In particular, his psychoanalytic approach allowed to identify separate sections of human psychics and, consequently, localize different types of memory. Thus, according to Freud, the individual possesses three aspects of the personality: the so-called Id, Ego, and Super-Ego. Id means the subconscious aspect of personality that includes all the subliminal desires and tendencies, as well as all the elements that being directly perceived could cause some harm to the person. The memories that can be traumatic or dangerous also belong to this sphere and, in such a way, Id includes all the elements of the individual’s experience replaced from consciousness. Ego is consciousness itself and it allows individuals to act in the way they prefer through the prism of the reality’s perception in a form of conscious experience. Ego includes all the memories that are always accessible for a person. According to Allan Megill (1998), this conscious memory “serves as a stabilizer of and justification for the self-designations that people claim.” At last, Super-Ego is the social aspect of the personality that includes all the norms, values, and other details of social interrelation. In this way, Ego is the field of opposition between Super-Ego with its clear guidelines and Id with its subliminal desires. As for the memory, this opposition may be represented by the social memory or history that constitutes Super-Ego, and the subliminal memory replaced from Ego to Id.

The opposition between history and memory is a widely discussed issue. For example, the historian Pierre Nora (1989) claims, “history is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it.” This statement means that history is the social construction that usually serves some collective aims and in some aspects opposes the truth to keep individuals from committing some actions. In this way, the opposition between the instincts that fill Id and the norms that constitute Super-Ego appears in the aspect of memory as the opposition between the socially and psychically constructed interpretations of the individual’s past. Both forces tend to possess Ego, which is the main goal of their struggle. It is clear that personality has a dynamic structure, and it is possible to operate with it and change it, which is the main fundamental of psychoanalysis. As Roger Kennedy (2010) states, during the process of psychoanalysis, “the analyst is dealing with a live object, not a destroyed one,” and it is possible to restore memory through such practice, which means the restoration of the replaced memories in Ego. The same dynamic specifics of the human psyche makes possible the mentioned struggle between different interpretations of the past. At this point, it is important that the phenomenon of false memories is the result of this opposition. The history or the social interpretation of the past appears as the social construction. Therefore, the human psyche produces the memories that should substitute some traumatic replaced memories and, in this way, they are as false as the social construction. It is obvious that both interpretations are based on the reality, but they propose an incorrect interpretation to the individual. The history’s intention is to govern the person when the memory’s intention is to save the individual from stress through fictive memories. This fundamental presupposes the psychoanalytic understanding of the phenomenon of false memory.

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The film Memento by Christopher Nolan tells the story of a person called Lenny who has a specific form of amnesia. Every day he wakes up without any memories of the days since his wife has been killed. Lenny tries to find her killer and, for this purpose, he creates the full scope of different hints and notes, including tattoos on his body to preserve the information about what has happened to continue his investigation in the future. Another person, Teddy, helps Lenny with these investigations. However, once Lenny sees the drawing on the photo of Teddy that states that this man is the murderer of his wife. After that, Lenny kills him. The problem is that the audience realizes through the film that Teddy was a police officer who exploited Lenny as a killer. In particular, every day he proposed Lenny some new victims, claiming that these people murdered his wife. This situation lasts until the moment Lenny kills the true murderer, but cannot remember this event the next day. When Lenny realizes that Teddy used him, he creates the false history by drawing on Teddy’s photograph “He is the one; kill him,” with the help of which he kills Teddy the next morning (Memento, 2000). The tragedy is that on the next day after the death of Teddy, Lenny still possesses no memories of what has happened.

The parallelism between the psychoanalytic theory of false memories and the film is clear. Teddy makes the social constructions of Lenny’s memory; in other words, he personifies history, which makes his association with Super-Ego clear. In contrast, Lenny, whose memories are on the subliminal level of Id, possesses no memories and he creates the false version of them to ensure that he avenges his wife. It is important that Lenny possesses all the true memories about the events that preceded the death of his wife, after which he became an amnesia victim. Thus, Lenny operates with the image of himself based on the memories that are not actual. Teddy says to him, “That’s who you were. You do not know who you are!” (Memento, 2000). Both Lenny and Teddy provide their interpretations of Lenny’s past that should presuppose and define Lenny’s current intentions and obligations. In this way, the movie operates with the symbolic representation of separate psychoanalytical aspects of personality, thus making their interrelation clear for the audience.

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It is important to underline that the collaboration between Lenny and Teddy is also the result of the false memories construction due to Lenny’s amnesia. In other words, Lenny is helpless without memory and he accepts any available information, even false one, to have some goal in everyday life. Besides, when the construction made by Teddy contradicts the construction created by Lenny, Lenny chooses his own construction and becomes free from the exploitation. The parallelism between false memories created by Lenny and false memories created by Id to protect psyche is obvious. Moreover, as the drawing on the photograph of Teddy was made by Lenny himself (his Id), it is possible to interpret this false memory as a screen one. According to Smith (2000), Freud used this term to “denote any memory which functions to hide (and to derivatively express) another, typically unconscious, mental content.” In the case of the film where different characters represent various aspects of personality, it is clear that the memory constructed by Lenny to protect himself should be regarded as the screen memory provided by the unconsciousness.

In this way, Memento brilliantly illustrates the psychoanalytical interpretation of the phenomenon of false memories. The situation provided through the plot demonstrates the issue with the concrete example, hence making it understandable for the audience. The cause of Lenny’s amnesia is the traumatic experience connected with the death of his wife, but there are different sources of the false memories in the film: those provided by Lenny himself and those constructed by Teddy. There is an opposition between main characters who collaborate because Lenny does not understand that Teddy uses him for his personal profit. This opposition is the symbolical representation of the opposition between the individual psyche and the external influence of the civilization. In such a way, Memento demonstrates the difference between two kinds of false memory: the one constructed by the civilization as a device to control people and the one provided by the traumatized psyche to preserve an individual.

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