Spring has come and I see dandelions on every walk. A bright yellow trigger for two cherished texts: Freud’s classic essay on ‘screen memories’ (1899) and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957).

In Screen Memories, Freud analyses a vivid, recurring and unexplained memory set in a field of dandelions. The essay is a good place to enter a lineage that includes Proust’s madeleine, notions of involuntary memory, autobiographical memory and the constitution of the self. The latter topics continue to exercise memory research, while Freud and Proust act as (psychoanalytic and poetic, respectively) precursors to today’s neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists.

The trigger to Ray Bradbury’s novel, coming more like a flash, has the feel of involuntary memory itself. I cross a field of dandelions. In a flicker of vision that is rich in detail, I see the book’s worn cover.


This sets off a chain of slower, deliberate memory work in which I recall my first reading of the novel and how it came to rescue me during a difficult year in adolescence. My childish letter to Bradbury. His kind reply. By the time I have crossed the field of dandelions, I have also crossed from involuntary to voluntary memory.

As a university student, my first encounter with Freud forever changed the simple faith – to which we all cling – in the veracity of our memories. But in truth, Bradbury’s book had already made the veracity of memory somewhat less important than my attachment to it as emotive experience. If I was not destined to be a nostalgic sort of person before, prone to unconscious tampering with past scenes to give childhood memory its due glow, then Dandelion Wine settled that question. That my natural suspicion of that same glow would later turn me into a historian, well, that comes as no surprise either.

All this brings to mind a comment made by a close friend years ago, as she entered into therapy. She said, very stubbornly, “I am not going to be told I had a bad childhood!” Indeed, Martin Conway has noted “Freud’s realisation that some childhood ‘memories’ were more fantasy than memory, more like the vainglorious stories of the foundation of Rome rather than accurate memories of difficult and powerless times…” (“Memory and Desire – Reading Freud,” The Psychologist, 2006). In any event, I could not have known when I first encountered these disparate texts that one day the authors would come to converse in my mind.

Finally, Dandelion Wine altered the way I remember (and now think about) the seasons, the emotional impact of seasons upon me. Summer, most assuredly, as that is the setting of the novel: one summer in small-town America. After reading the book, summer burned brightly, and yet a darkness around it had been uncovered. Dandelion Wine altered the other seasons too, as though the force of Bradbury’s summer summoned countervailing forces of fall and winter. I remain to this day powerfully moved by all three seasons, each with its own devices that work on me. But not so, by spring. I never ‘warmed’ to spring.

Yet, it is the dandelions of spring that send me to these memories and ruminations.

Screen Memories

 “The scene appears to me fairly indifferent and I cannot understand why it should have become fixed in my memory. Let me describe it to you. I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown; in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers – evidently common dandelions… Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the two others are my boy cousin… and his sister.” (Freud, Screen Memories [S], 1899)

The essay is set out as a concise but probing discussion between analyst and analysand. However, this is Freud the storyteller, brilliant writer, and conversationalist – in this instance, with himself. Freud scholars largely agree that although some of the details may be disputed, the essay was nonetheless written in what we might term ‘thinly disguised’ mode. In other words, the ‘dandelion scene’ described in the memory is autobiographical; it is Freud’s own childhood memory.


Here is how Freud (doctor) introduces Freud (patient): “The subject of this observation is a man of university education, aged thirty-eight. Though his own profession lies in a very different field, he has taken an interest in psychological questions ever since I was able to relieve him of a slight phobia by means of psychoanalysis. Last year he drew my attention to his childhood memories, which had already played some part in his analysis.” [S]

The dialogue Freud has with his constructed patient is creative and searching, even if frustrating in one or two places – in the way that Freud has to be after feminism. Yet the ingenious device allows for a sophisticated discussion in which the psychoanalytic detective partnership (of Freud & Freud) ‘uncovers’ and delineates the meaning of the dandelion memory, the reasons for its persistence and heightened colour/detail, and most importantly, a preliminary definition of ‘screen memory’.

“Recollection of this kind, whose value lies in the fact that it represents in the memory impressions and thoughts of a later date whose content is connected with its own by symbolic or similar links, may appropriately be called a screen memory.” It “owes its value as a memory not to its own content but to the relation existing between that content and some other, that has been suppressed.” [S]

More simply put, a screen memory is a vivid and persistent recollection, yet seemingly insignificant in its content, that ‘screens’ or ‘conceals’ more significant memories. The memories concealed may have to do with experiences that are disturbing in nature. Or they may have to do with repressed phantasies, lost desires. The screen memory acts as a cover; it overlays other memories or life events, thereby shielding us from more challenging psychic material. Therefore, and just as Freud (analysand) presents his dandelion scene, a screen memory is often apparently unimportant, which makes its persistence something of a mystery to the rememberer. S/he may wonder why such an outwardly insignificant memory is so vivid and enduring/recurring.

But as Freud would later write (underscoring his interest in screen memories): “Not only some but all of what is essential in childhood has been retained in these [screen] memories… They represent the forgotten years of childhood as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts.” (Freud, Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through [RRW] 1914.)


Of course, at the same time they represent a “failure of remembering; what should be correctly reproduced by the memory fails to appear, and instead something else comes as a substitute.” (Freud, “Childhood and Concealing Memories” [CCM] in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901).

In the dandelion memory, the details concerning the wild flowers, the colour yellow, and the act of throwing away the flowers for a piece of bread are key components of the remembered scene. But, and as Freud (analyst) points out, it was equally important to ascertain whether the memory had occurred throughout childhood or at some later time. In answer to this question, his patient replies that he is certain the memory never occurred to him in his earlier years. He proceeds to identify two intertwined ‘moments’, the first when he was seventeen, the second three years later. The moments relate to late adolescent sexual phantasies concerning a girl in a yellow dress in the first case, and in the second, to a period during which he felt pressure from his father to abandon his impoverished student life for marriage and a reliable career that would ‘put bread on the table.’

Importantly, Freud determines that the memory, despite acting as a cover for these two moments, is (at least to some extent or in some form) genuine, telling his patient: “you selected it from innumerable others of a similar or another kind because, on account of its content (which in itself was indifferent) it was well adapted to represent two phantasies which were important enough to you… In any case you will cease to feel any surprise that this scene should so often recur to your mind. It can no longer be regarded as an innocent one since, as we have discovered, it is calculated to illustrate the most momentous turning-points in your life, the influence of the two most powerful motive forces – hunger and love.” [S]

To leave the field of dandelions, it is, as ever, Freud’s larger conclusions that prove most compelling. For example, in his later return to screen memories (Childhood and Concealing Memories), Freud suggests that the “childhood reminiscences of individuals altogether advance to the signification of concealing [screen] memories…the so-called earliest childhood recollections are not true memory traces but later elaborations of the same, elaborations which might have been subjected to the influences of many later psychic forces.” (CCM, 1901).

We have all played the game of ‘what is your earliest memory’. It’s fascinating to see how each of us responds to that question and a source of repeated frustration to bump up against an ‘amnesia’ that is written into the human condition. Here, Freud is taking note of what he called “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory for the first years of our lives,” a failure he would relate to repression occurring during the child’s psychosexual development. But the concept has been much researched and re-worked since Freud so that now, under the term “childhood amnesia,” it is viewed as a cognitive phenomenon best understood as having to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories.

But the point is that (especially) after Freud, our broader understanding of the workings of memory was forever destabilized, and we cannot maintain a naïve faith in its accuracy, as understandable as such faith is to the human condition. If memory is always at least in part, a search for self, then its unreliability can leave us feeling unmoored, all at sea. The only way to proceed is to grab hold of that problem as a lifeboat, find beauty and wonder in our constant re-writing of ourselves, and in the constancy of the mystery that we are. Surely it is our capacity to do so that has made Freud’s closing passage in Screen Memories the one that is now most widely cited:

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” [S]

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Dandelion Wine

If we consider memory as a representation of our past, a reconstruction, then we understand Freud’s passing remark to his ‘patient’ that our memories often take shape “almost like works of fiction.” [S] And Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957) can hardly be considered anything but the author’s own extended memory work in relation to his childhood.

It would be many years before I learned that Bradbury had been moved from his hometown at roughly the same age I was moved from mine. When I was fifteen, my family moved from a small, brick bungalow in one Detroit suburb to a much larger, faux Cape Cod in another. In the new home, I immediately began honing the sullen misery of a teenager into a critique of our displacement. Even this half-century later, I can recall the feel of the wound. It was political and emotional. Not only did I see the move to the wealthier suburb as some sort of class betrayal, but I missed my friends terribly. Although I now realize that I had experienced a prior malaise relating to the first suburb, one that would later develop into a scholarly critique, I could not see that at the time. I longed for the old suburb with the ferocity of Dorothy’s desire for Kansas after her landing in Oz. At fifteen, despite all the comforts of our new dream home, I succumbed to a serious bout of home-sickness.

Bradbury was thirteen when his family moved from Waukegan, Illinois to Los Angeles. “I left at just the right moment,” he later remarked, “so that nostalgia set in almost immediately.” (see Henry Stewart, “Childhood’s End: Death and Growing Up in the Books of Ray Bradbury,” Electric Literature, 2015.) Knowing this now, it seems fortuitous that I first read Bradbury soon after moving, and that the book I chose was Dandelion Wine, his great semi-autobiographical novel of Midwestern boyhood.

Set in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, the novel recounts the adventures and perceptions of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding over the summer of 1928. It opens with an epiphany – “I’m alive” – that occurs while foraging in the forest with his father and brother. Douglas insists that he carry the pails that are heavy with gathered fruit:

“He stood swaying slightly, the forest collected, full-weighted and heavy with syrup, clenched hard in his down-slung hands. I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn’t forget, I’m alive, I know I’m alive, I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.”


Something yellow this way comes too. In a “yellow nickel tablet” and using a yellow Ticonderoga pencil, Douglas undertakes to record the summer. The town and its people. Summer rituals – new pair of tennis shoes, running through the ravine with friends, harvesting the dandelions for wine, the penny arcade. The surprises, losses and dangers – a cross-generational love affair, the death of old people, the ravine made frightening by night, and most menacing of all – a serial killer. Douglas determines to write down his observations concerning all of these.

Soon, the intense realization of ‘being alive’ is followed by its correlative. Douglas tells his brother, “Tom, a couple of weeks ago, I found out I was alive. Boy, did I hop around.  And then, just last week at the movies I found out I’d have to die someday. I never thought of that, really…it was like… all the peach trees outside town shrivelling up and the ravine being filled in and no place to play ever again and me sick in bed for as long as I could think and everything dark…”

Death stalks Bradbury’s characters as much here as in his science fiction work, and in ways not unlike its stalking of Freud. “The goal of all life is death,” Freud wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Bradbury learned the lesson early. He was five when a grandfather died. An older brother, Sam, died during the 1918 flu pandemic, two years before Ray’s birth. A baby sister died from pneumonia in 1927.

Finally, Bradbury’s 1943 short story, “The Lake”, the piece he considered to be his first work of literary merit, draws on “a disturbing incident from his childhood, when he built sand castles with a little girl on the shore of a lake. She went for a swim and never returned.” (See Steven L. Aggelis, Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 2004).

In an interpretation reminiscent of popular readings of Freud, Aggelis notes that the story helped Bradbury “to purge from his system a demon that had long haunted him, the memory of her death.” Bradbury echoes this account, recalling the story’s creation as follows: “When I finished it my hair was standing on end and I was cold all over. I almost wept with joy. For I knew I had trusted my subconscious and allowed my emotions to write the story for me.” (Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 2004)


In Bradbury’s life and fiction then, death strikes the old, as we may expect, but it strikes the young too. More importantly, it comes to the young as a fact. A realization. His fictional children ruminate on death. A father in one of the The Illustrated Man stories says of his ten-year-old children, “They were awfully young…for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really.”


Late in Dandelion Wine (and late at night, writing by the glow of fireflies in a Mason jar) and with a child’s love of capital letters for important things, Douglas records the following in his notebook:


they go away.

…strangers die.

…people you know fairly well die.

…friends die.

…people murder people, like in books.

…your own folks can die.


 IF ALL THIS IS TRUE…THEN…I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOMEDAY… But the fireflies, as if extinguished by his sombre thoughts, had softly turned themselves off.”

With its lyrical prose and love of place, its hometown familiar and disturbing by turns, its sombre mélange of childhood adventure and fears, and finally its explorations of aging and death, Dandelion Wine reached a long, bony hand into my heart and twisted it until I wept for my own lost places and times. I loved the book obsessively, vehemently, reading it over and over during the hours of loneliness in the new suburb. Then, slowly, over many months, I relented. I began to adjust to the outer circumstances of the move, a new school and the need to seek new friends there. But I am not sure I would have managed it without Dandelion Wine.


I kept the book by my bedside until I left home for college. Before leaving, I wrote and posted a letter to Ray Bradbury’s publisher. My words are lost. But I know that I thanked him for helping me through a difficult time, for showing me a language for these changes, for being unafraid to speak of dark things to young people. Death, remembering, forgetting, being forgotten, the instability of memory. For making those dark things beautiful because they are how we live. Many weeks later, I received a reply. I keep it on my desk, a card (now framed) with a front cover featuring one of his paintings titled The Pumpkin Tree. A different season. Bradbury, like me, was also a lover of October. As for his generous message inside the card, that remains for me alone. Those were the days of private letter writing.

But surely, this is why every spring, the arrival of dandelions transports me back to that lonely time, when my only friend in the new place was a boy in a novel. It’s a painful memory, but it is also a memory of overcoming pain.





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I Cannot Go


The Night Is Darkening Around Me

(by Emily Bronte)
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.


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Photography days



Northampton, Massachusetts


Must be a lockdown effect, but it’s been years since I had the urge to read about photography or look at the black and white prints. I miss my Leica, sold in L.A. during lean times, and the freedom of wandering with it. The people and places, the old me, of those photographs.  It’s all of a fraying bundle.




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Flash two: flashbulb memory


Harold Edgerton, Death of a bulb, 1936

The photographic flash lends itself most evocatively to the notion of flashbulb memory, the phenomenon in which an intersection of personal memory with the occurrence/reporting of a public (often traumatic) event causes that memory to be so vivid as to be of ‘photographic quality’. It is why, many years later, people report detailed descriptions of the circumstances in which they learned of the event: where they were, what they were doing and with whom, what they were wearing, what song was playing on the radio, and more.

In a helpful recent account of flashbulb memories, William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps start by reminding us of the differences between flashbulb, ‘first-hand’ and ‘event’ memories; and by further reminding us that flashbulb can include positive memories and that the size of the group sharing a flashbulb memory can vary too:

“We should be clear about our terminology, which builds on Brown and Kulik (1977). The term flashbulb memories refers only to those autobiographical memories that involve the circumstances in which one learned of a public event. They differ from first-hand memories, that is, memories one might form if one actually experienced the event itself, rather than simply learned about it from someone else. They also differ from memories of the facts concerning the FBM-eliciting event, e.g., with respect to the attack of 9/11, that four planes were involved. Although the term may be misleading, inasmuch as all three types of memories involve events, memories for the relevant facts are often referred to as event memories.

“The events eliciting a FBM are, by definition, public, inasmuch as for people to form a memory of the circumstances of learning of an event, an external source must have communicated the news to them. FBM-eliciting events studied to date include assassinations and other politically charged proceedings, major public occasions, such as the World Cup, and national disasters, such as earthquakes. Although most studies investigate negative events, positive events can also elicit FBMs, e.g., the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public does not need to be as large as a nation. People can have FBMs of an event experienced within a family setting, such as learning of the death of a parent.” (Hirst and Phelps, 2017)

Although the phenomenon had been observed at least as early as the decades following the Lincoln assassination, it was not until 1977 that psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik proposed the term flashbulb memory, a photographic metaphor, to emphasize the enduring perceptual sharpness that attends such memories. They cited the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963 as the “prototype case” and it is certainly true that those of us who remember that day tend to view it as our personal instance of flashbulb memory.


At first glance, and given that ‘trauma’ tends to run through both phenomena, there seems to be a contradiction between the perceived accuracy of flashbulb memories and the loss of ‘contextual’ memory associated with flashbacks. While the main difference resides in where the trauma is ‘located,’ there is a further consideration that may bring flashback and flashbulb into fascinating contrast. The accuracy that we believe attaches to a flashbulb memory has – in the decades following Brown and Kulik’s work – been shown to be doubtful.

A number of studies have shown that flashbulb memories tend to undergo changes between one and three years after the event, while at least one psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, made a direct comparison between flashbulb and flashback. Kolk found that flashbulb memories, although experienced as sharp and detailed, are subject to “distortion and disintegration over time.” Kolk noted, for example, that people’s recollections of the Challenger disaster were found to have undergone considerable revisions after a number of years, this in contrast to the flashback memories of PTSD sufferers:

“Clinical observations of people who suffer from PTSD suggest that there are significant differences between flashbulb memories and the posttraumatic perceptions characteristic of PTSD. As of early 1995, I could find no published accounts in the scientific literature of intrusive traumatic recollections of traumatic events in patients suffering from PTSD that had become distorted over time, naturally or by manipulation, either in an experimental or in a clinical setting.” (see Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma and Memory,” Wiley online library: 2002)

In a paper using 9/11 as its case study (also headed by Hirst and Phelps), researchers found that taken together, previous studies were at variance as to whether the rate of ‘forgetting’ for flashbulb memories “slows or accelerates after the first year.” But Hirst et al. note the following key difference between flashbulb and ordinary memory:

“…flashbulb memories and ordinary autobiographical memories differ not in their rate of forgetting, but in the confidence with which they are held, with confidence in flashbulb memories remaining high, even as the memories are forgotten. Confidence in ordinary autobiographical memories declines as the memories are forgotten.”

And intriguingly, that confidence extends to the inconsistencies that begin to appear in a flashbulb memory:

“once an inconsistency emerges, usually within the first year, it tends to be repeated thereafter. These memory errors often involve time slice confusions, that is, the tendency to confuse the second or third time one heard news about the FBM-eliciting event with the first time. Time slice confusions apparently become incorporated into the memory and emerge with each memory report.” (Hirst & Phelps, 2017)

These are fascinating results. One further (and admittedly, lay) explanation for the tenacity with which we cling to flashbulb memories, not ‘seeing’ the inconsistencies, must reside in the nature of flashbulb itself. In other words, what is really at play (and more so in flashbulb than other memory phenomena), is our desire for its accuracy, rather than its actual accuracy.

But our confidence in what is surely imperfect recollection cannot be explained solely by the emotional content or power of these memories. In fact (and perhaps in contrast to the suggestion of van der Kolk), Hirst et al. found that, over time, emotional memory (what we felt when we heard the news) fared more poorly than the ‘facts’ of our hearing of the event – where we were, what we were doing, etc.


High school students watching news of Kennedy assassination in gym (photo by Ken Steinhoff)

If it is not about the emotional content of the memory itself, perhaps it is partly about our longer-term emotional attachment to it. In other words, the way such memories are constitutive of our individual and collective identities. For surely, the confidence we feel in flashbulb memories derives from two key factors relating to the types of events that create them: 1) the fact that they are shared; 2) the fact that we are constantly told that we remember them. Through what Hirst et al. term the “memory practices” of a culture (news media, public ceremonies, film, novels, etc.) we are, at various cultural moments, reminded to remember.

In November 2013, the fifty-year anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I was in London. I heard from numerous school friends on Facebook and elsewhere. We, the aging baby boomers, exchanged our lightbulb memories without concern for matters of accuracy. The anniversaries of particular events – one year, ten years, twenty years, fifty years later, often extensively covered by the media, prompt bouts of public remembrance, often for ideological purposes that we may not even support. We, in return for our participation, are given fragile reassurance that our own pasts, our memories, matter. And yes, we are granted another comforting round of sharing. We commune with others, remember people we may not have seen in years, and that sense of shared commemoration makes all humans feel less lonely.


In retrospect (to November, 2013), I believe I was vaguely aware that my memory had degraded over the years. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was I had a story to tell myself, my friends, my son who of course was not born when the event occurred. If we leave the neuroscientists for a moment, and return to the historians, we may recall Foucault’s remark about his historical writings: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent.”

To borrow loosely from Foucault, in that grey November 2013 I was not recovering a demonstrable ‘truth’ about the event or my memory of it. I was creating a truth from scraps of truths and fictions. I was celebrating memory for what it really is: a representation. A collection of stories. That I, like many others, should feel so confident in my recollection fifty years after the event, was perhaps nothing more than proof of Joan Didion’s famous dictum: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

So, without realizing it at the time, I was engaged in something far from the events of November 1963 or any other well-known flashbulb memory. I was simply showing that memory, for all its imperfections, is how we constitute ourselves in the world. I was remembering that I remember. Keeping faith with memory. Convincing myself that I have always remembered. Hoping that I might always remember. Trying to stay alive.






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Flash one: eye/photo/flashback/cinema

Flash title - Copy 3



It started on Easter Sunday. During the daylight hours, I noticed an increase in floaters in my left eye – large spidery ones but also dozens of tiny specks. To stare at the sky during my walk that day was to seek its promise of cloudless blue through a worsening liquid of shadows.


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After sunset, I began to notice the flashes. Tiny, arc-shaped lightning strikes in the periphery of my vision in the same eye.



I went out for a night stroll as I like to do after dinner, but on the dark street, I realized the flashes were coming fast and I became alarmed. I turned back to home and rang NHS 111. They sent me to A&E. In the middle of a pandemic. I tried to talk them out of it, but they insisted that my eye be checked for retinal detachment.

It was a glimpse of the front lines. Doctors and nurses in masks and visors. No other patients in the emergency waiting room, this no doubt due to a combination of more aggressive phone triage and patient fear of venturing anywhere near a hospital right now. I suppose I felt what any urgent visit should make you feel. Slightly scared, grateful to the NHS, anxious for it to be over. I sat hugging myself, trying not to touch anything, including my face. I silently implored the waiting room – its air, the empty seats opposite and either side of me – for nothing serious to be found. When you are not a believer, you tend to reach for the nearest simulation or memory of faith. Usually I compose an inner chant of the please-don’t-let-me-get-any-bad-news-today variety, or failing that, a distant picture of my childhood church-going years, but on this occasion, I struggled to pull my thoughts inward. Instead, they skipped across the physical surfaces of my immediate surroundings. Please let there be no virus on the plastic seats. Please windows, let my eye be okay.

It occurred to me that faith must be a handy thing during a pandemic. I thought about Mark, my father-in-law, and a little joke he used to play when our son was little. Each day, we drove down a particularly narrow and winding Devon lane bordered by tall hedgerows, Mark would say, “Okay Isaac, let’s pray we don’t crash into another car around these bends! I do believe in God. I do believe in God. I do believe,” Mark repeated until we exited the lane, then he would heave a dramatic sigh of relief and say, “Okay fine. We made it. I don’t believe in God anymore.” Mark delighted in making his grandson laugh. I laughed too, though it occurred to me that this was a tiny sample of the lifelong gallows humour of a Holocaust refugee. I smiled as I sat in the waiting room, thinking of Mark, now long gone. Devon, where we used to spend every Easter, seemed long gone too. It had taken a few life turns for me to end this particular Easter Sunday in a northern emergency room.

My retina was not detached. I was told I have a common/passing condition called Posterior Vitreous Detachment in which the jelly-like substance (vitreous) between the eye’s lens and retina, peels away from the retina in a process that can last many weeks or months. Its principal symptoms are floaters and flashers. They sent me home, warning me that the flashes might continue for some time. The floaters would never go, but the brain adjusts and so we come to believe they have gone. Tricks of faith again.

Finally, the doctor told me that if the flashes worsened, or if a dark shadow, rather like a curtain, fell across my vision, I must contact them as a matter of urgency, as these were signs of retinal detachment, a sight-threatening development. So, I am home. Entertaining my floaters and flashes, hoping that the latter recede. And hoping it won’t be ‘curtains’ for me.

The flashes are gradually diminishing in number and size. I try not to ‘see’ them. I change what they are. Now they are shaped like mini-silver sparklers, fourth of July in the eye, but they have the speed and burst of a flash when we take a photograph in low light. We’ve all seen the red eyes and startled expressions of subjects not anticipating an automatic flash. I must be wearing that expression each evening as the bursts are now only noticeable when daylight goes.

I tell myself they are nothing but a pack of little flash bulbs that got lost, then settled temporarily in my eye. I can defuse them, coax them back out into the world.


Flash and the Photograph


The early photographers worked with available light, so the advent of flash would cause some debate about the aesthetic integrity of artificial illumination. But once it became a thought/invention, rather like photography itself, flash could not be stopped. It began as an ornate and often dangerous attempt to take photography, which means ‘writing with light’, to places where light could not be found. Interiors. Caves. Tunnels. Corners. Night.

The earliest known flash photography dates from 1839 and was produced by limelight. In a process borrowed from theatres and music halls, a ball of calcium carbonate would be heated in an oxygen flame until it became incandescent. By the 1860s, magnesium served as the principal source of illumination, but as Kate Flint (a historian of flash photography) notes, flash retained an “explosive unpredictability.” Even after 1887, when Johannes Gaedicke and Adolf Miethe invented a more reliable compound – Blitzlichtpulver (lightning flash powder) photographers suffered frequent burns and injuries, while studio explosions and fires continued to be a hazard of the profession.

Simultaneous to these practical obstacles, flash prompted moral and aesthetic debate. On the latter point, was it a perversion of photography itself? A violation of truths that might only be reached in natural or available light? Was truth compromised by such contraptions? Or – and here we cross to the moral and political concerns – was flash both the means and metaphor for shedding light on truth, showing us our dark corners? Certainly, this was the intention of Jacob Riis, who deployed flash in his Lower East Side tenement photos taken in the 1880s and 1890s.


Jacob Riis, c1910

In the decades after Riis, the question of flash as productive intervention versus flash-as-violation would divide the documentarians, including the Depression-era, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. Dorothea Lange, who disliked the intrusiveness of flash, took her best photographs outdoors. Ben Shahn declared flash immoral, noting that it destroyed the real darkness of the sharecropper’s cabin: “I wanted very much to hold onto this [darkness] you see. Now, that’s a matter of personal judgment… whether you divulge everything or whether things are kept mysterious as they are viewed.” (Flint, Flash!: Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination, Oxford UP, 2017.

Yet other FSA photographers – most notably Russell Lee and Marion Post Wolcott openly incorporated their use of flash, while Flint notes that Walker Evans was more circumspect, reported by James Agee to have reversed a tiny mirror so that the flash might not be reflected back in one of his interiors. (See Flint, Flash!)

The FSA photographers had access to flash bulbs, which replaced the old powder solutions and were generally available after 1930. The “ease and portability” (Flint) of the bulbs would have an impact not only on documentarians, but on police and news photographers, and those later termed the paparazzi (after the photographer-character named Paparazzo in Fellini’s 1959 film, La Dolce Vita).


Weegee’s crime photographs (1930s and ’40s) would find their counterparts in the pulp fiction novels and films of the period. George Harmon Coxe’s character, Flashgun Casey, was a crime photographer who first appeared in a 1934 edition of Black Mask, the influential pulp magazine, before featuring in novels, radio, television and film.


Cinema has featured numerous memorable photographers from the very beginning, but none used flash so deliberately as Hitchcock in Rear Window (1954), when Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer uses his flash gun to disorient the killer. We are shown each flash as the photographer covers his own eyes before setting it off, but then we switch to the reverse angle, seeing the flash through the eyes of the killer, as his retina is overwhelmed and his vision floods with red.


Flash/killer’s p.o.v., Rear Window, 1954

But what Flint calls the “drama of flash” – it’s high contrast, “intense darkness” against bright light – is perhaps best considered in relation to forties film noir. Noir replicated that high contrast imagery, but in fact, its visual effects typically derived from low-budget (and therefore low-light) B-movie cinematography. In addition, film noir emerged in the decade suffused with darkness, post-war malaise and pessimism. It was a cinema marked by altered gender relations, the arrival of German exiles in Hollywood, and the legacy of German Expressionism. These were the cultural shadows embraced by noir and which ran counter to flash photography’s metaphors of clarity, (E)nlightenment, and revelation. So if noir draws at all from metaphors of revelation, this is to be found in its narrative structures, particularly its regular use of flashback, rather than its cinematography. 


To make sense of cinema’s fascination with flashback, a brief detour to its real-world (and treatment room) effects is needed. A flashback is a sudden involuntary memory that typically causes a psychological disturbance. We are transported back to the emotional effects of the past, but we experience them as happening in the present.

A flashback may be brief, as in a ‘flash of memory’ or extended, as in a longer recall, a kind of ‘waking dream.’ Although a flashback can be nostalgic, a form of longing for the past (“positive involuntary autobiographical memory”), it is more often treated as a memory that arrives unbidden (and often recurrently), the intrusion of a repressed or traumatic memory into our subjective present. As such, it functions as an implicit memory, a memory produced “without awareness that memory is involved,” or what we might call unconscious memory. It may relate to early childhood before we reached the age of explicit memory formation, or to trauma, where an extreme situation blocked or hindered that formation.

To take a simple example of flashbacks in relation to early childhood: a friend or partner says something which causes a sense of hurt or anger in you that is disproportionate to the remark. You may be experiencing a flashback to early childhood experience, small or large, in which that hurt or anger were first felt. But you are unaware of that trigger event or experience. You have no ‘explicit’ memory of it. You relive the emotions produced by the original situation, but not the situation itself. You believe yourself to be fully in the present.

In trauma flashbacks, it is a disruption to explicit memory formation that causes the problem. As a result of the traumatic event, the “normal processes that store our experiences into memory can go wrong…. a distressing experience has opposite effects in two different parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala, a region of the brain involved in emotion, seemed to strongly encode the negative content of an experience while the hippocampus, which is involved in storing new memories, is only weakly activated.” (James Bisby, UCL, “The Possible Cause of Flashbacks Discovered,” The Conversation, 2016)

This is why flashbacks figure so prominently in Post-traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). Sufferers recall the negative effects of a trauma but not its “context – that is, the location where the event occurred or the time it occurred. This may result in the person involuntarily retrieving the traumatic event ‘out of context’ and experiencing it as though it was in the present.” (Bisby, 2016)

No matter what its provenance, a flashback is destabilising, but it may assist the sufferer to piece together missing context in order to heal psychic wounds. Beyond the treatment rooms, we are all a mystery to ourselves, and any memory work, including that related to flashbacks, may help to retrieve lost information, even if like memory itself, that information remains fragmentary or unreliable. In other words, flashbacks are a source of explanatory power.

Flashback and Cinema

As an artistic device, flashback has been used most effectively by cinema. Film historian Susan Hayward notes that post-war film noir and the psychological melodrama are the two genres that made the most extensive use of flashback. Flashback works to structure a narrative, solve an enigma, usually a crime (film noir) or a state of mental disorder (melodrama). But whether the problem is crime or mental disorder, the real investigation is into the character at the heart of the narrative. In other words, flashbacks are always about subjectivity, precisely because they are given through that character. (See Susan Hayward, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, 1996; see also Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, 1989)

Typically, there is a fade or dissolve on the face of the person about to deliver a flashback memory, and this visual effect is often accompanied by a voiceover. But as in flashback itself, the device may be partial, rapid, and incomprehensible as, for example, in Hitchcock’s later film, Marnie (1964), where the main character’s trigger reactions to thunderstorms and the color red are only explained by an extended flashback/reveal at the end of the film. Or it may be lengthy, to the point of an entire narrative being relayed by flashback. Max Ophuls’s brilliant 1948 adaptation of the Stefan Zweig story, Letter From an Unknown Woman, is almost entirely revealed in flashback, as the deceased Lisa’s letter is read (in the present) by Stefan, the musician who failed to remember her.



Marnie (1964)



It is perhaps no accident that the use of flashback, particularly in noir and melodrama, flourished in the post-war period when gender relations were destabilised and the popularisation of Freud was at its height. Noir tends to feature drifters or men weakened by involvement in crime (having been ensnared by a ‘dangerous’ woman) together with the detectives and insurance investigators tasked with solving the crime. The flashback, frequently accompanied by voice-over, serves to tell the story and solve (or confess to) the crime, or more to the point, solve the problem of the noir hero’s compromised masculinity.



In the post-war melodrama (or women’s weepie) a transgressive female protagonist is analysed, typically by a doctor, therapist, husband, or detective versed in pop Freudianism. She may be under the control of an oppressive mother (Bette Davis in Now Voyager, 1942), over-ambitious (Lana Turner in Imitation of Life, 1959), over-possessive of men (Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, 1945), betraying middle class privilege for love (Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows, 1955), or even pathologically addicted to perfection (Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig, 1950). A study of Hollywood film for the year 1955 found that one movie in ten contained either a psychiatrist or psychiatric problem. Hollywood was crawling with ‘sick’ women in need of ‘repair’ for the post-war settlement of patriarchy. (Janet Walker, “Hollywood, Freud and the Representation of Women,” 1987)

It is these genres that prompted Hayward to describe flashback as a heavily ‘gendered’ device in Hollywood cinema. And in at least one example, we find flashback negotiating the gendered borders of genre itself. Mildred Pierce (1945) includes a classically shot noir story set in the present (Monty’s murder), but draws on the visual style and discourses of melodrama/the ‘women’s picture’ in extended flashback sequences in which Mildred narrates the back story of her marriage, divorce, motherhood, and career. (See Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce,” 1978). It’s curious, if not entirely surprising, that the trailer for Mildred Pierce presents it almost entirely as noir, including a line-up of the male characters as talking heads, each testifying to the ‘threat’ of Mildred. Yet this runs entirely counter to the film’s extended and far more empathic (melodrama) flashbacks in which we follow Mildred’s disappointments in marriage, financial problems, and finally her dangerous (to herself) devotion to motherhood.



(to be continued…flashbulb memories)

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Above the town


Bride Stones, West Yorkshire (April 2020)

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“A gesture waves us on”


Walk on Lismore, last day of 2019 (photo by Mark Gibson)

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far beyond the road I have begun,
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has an inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

by Rilke







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