How our mistakes give us away (1921)

How our mistakes give us away (1921)

Our mistakes give us away

by Mary Alden Hopkins

Why we forget, why we lose things, and why our tongue slips are curiously explained by the new psychology. Ask any psychologist of the psychoanalytical school the cause of these three varieties of disaster, and he will reply, “We forget what we do not want to remember. We lose articles which have painful associations in our minds. Slips of the tongue are the jumbled utterances of thoughts we did not intend to speak.”

Most of us who nose around in up-to-date psychoanalytical theory find the best way to tackle it is to say right off and emphatically that it is absolute, utter and entire tommyrot. That any idiot would know better. That we don’t see how any sensible, and so forth and so forth.

Then, after we have spit out our indignation, we find ourselves admitting that maybe there is a little bit of truth in it somewhere, though most of it is nonsense. Then later on — well, you know how Alice found that by believing a little bit of what she couldn’t believe every morning before breakfast, she was finally able to believe anything. Or was it the White Queen? Anyway, psychologists and near-psychologists divide into two classes — those who will not listen to anything which springs from the theories of Sigmund Freud, and those who have learned to play the game of life “according to Freud.”

According to Freud, everything starts in the unconscious mind. Folks who accept Freud’s ideas but will not give him the credit for them prefer to say “subconscious,” but a good Freudian says “unconscious” as conscientiously as a Socialist calls another “comrade.”

Of two minds

Every individual has two minds, according to F – – – -.

One is the conscious mind. You know everything that goes on in it. You keep it fairly tidy and properly furnished, although there may be some corners you would prefer not to have inspected.

The unconscious mind is its twin. But different. Oh, my, oh, my! It is made up of the thoughts we will not think, thwarted hopes, disappointments, shocks, unrealized aspirations, jealousies, envies and all the other qualities we like to pretend we have never met. It is busier than the bee, hoards emotion as thriftily as an ant, is as greedy as a pig and as selfish as a new-born babe.

The thoughts one is using every day stay in the conscious mind. Those one doesn’t need or doesn’t like are pushed back into the unconscious. Some of this material slips back and forth at need. Briefly and crudely stated — according to Freud — we keep the thoughts that do us credit pretty generally near the front, while the thoughts we hate, despise and resent we smash as far back as we can push them. But they keep right on living. The unconscious thoughts influence our conscious actions.

The unconscious mind asserts itself

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember to do what you don’t want to do? How easy it is to lose, well, say unpaid bills? And have you never been horrified to hear slipping off your lips the words you never intended to say? That was the unconscious mind butting in and spoiling your conscious intention.

This matter of forgetting now. How apologetic you are when you forget to keep an engagement. Actually guilty. Why? You didn’t mean to forget, but you are sheepish when you try to explain it to the forgotten one. That is because you are conscious that you didn’t wholly want to go. Forgetting has let you out of it. If you are a man, did you ever try to tell your wife how you happened to forget your wedding anniversary? Or if you are a woman, have you ever successfully explained why you can’t remember to keep his stocking darned or his buttons sewed on? The aggrieved one agrees with Freud, without knowing it, that “you didn’t want to.”

When the rents went up — I mean the first time — tenants’ memories became strangely treacherous. Ask any landlord. One of my friends had been paying $30. The rent doubled itself. She had to move. For $39 she secured an unattractive little apartment; costing $9 more than she had paid for the good one. We heard a great deal about that extra $9, but when she came to write the check for the first month’s rent she forgot that extra nine and wrote $30.

My rent had also gone up. I laughed heartily at her and was very careful to write my increased check correctly. But the next month I forgot to pay at all. When the landlord called, I invited him in, inquired cordially about his children and waited with a friendly smile to learn what be wanted. I wouldn’t believe until I looked in my checkbook that I hadn’t paid.

Other people I found had the same difficulty in remembering the increases. And in a newspaper article on the H C of L [high cost of living], I found the sentence: “The matter of rent is serious to the man who loves in New York.” The printer’s unconsciousness had altered one word.

The deeds of the Unco

If you are now able to believe that the unconscious mind — familiarly known as the “Unco” by good Freudians — makes us forget by engulfing what we do not want to remember, you are now able to go on to the next point. Namely, the Unco throws away objects it doesn’t like. The conscious mind just loves — well, say a pearl pin. The unconscious mind hates that pin because one’s husband gave it to one to patch up a quarrel.

The Unco never looks at the lovely trifle without muttering way back where it cannot be heard but only vaguely felt: “Twenty pieces of silver. Judas!” at the very same moment when the conscious mind is remarking: “Darling, how sweet of you to give me this lovely pin.”

When the clasp comes loose, the conscious mind says five times a day that one must take it in to the jeweler’s to have it tightened. But one does not take it. The unconscious mind does not allow it. One day, the pin gets lost. The conscious mind cries: “Oh, my goodness gracious! I was going to have that clasp mended,” and puts an ad in the paper. The unconscious mind just hugs itself. It doesn’t need to say a word. It has lost the pin it hated.

Two charming young flappers, dressed in chiffon loveliness, low-voiced and well-bred, take off their rings to wash their hands in a hotel lavatory. One holds her engagement ring firmly between her lips with fine disregard of the germ theory. She does not lose it. Or maybe she lays it down and never takes her eyes off it till it is back on her finger. She doesn’t take any chances with that beloved symbol.

The other girl lays her platinum and diamond circlet on the marble slab, washes her pretty hands and goes gayly off without her ring. Fifteen minutes later she is back — but the ring isn’t. Her wails beat upon the ceiling. Worst of all, she has got to tell him that she has lost hia ring. Will he be satisfied with the explanation that it “just happened.” I think not. He will feel, perhaps vaguely, that something is wrong. He will be right.

Gifts between lovers, friends and relatives are symbols of the emotional ties existing between them. If a part of the nature is in rebellion against that tie, while another part clings to it, fluctuating emotions are associated with the gift. It is, you know, very possible to love and hate the same person at the same time. One loves with the conscious mind and crowds the hate back into the unconscious, where it grins and thumbs its nose.

Lost and found

If you read the “lost and found” columns with this in mind, you find that some of the ads seem to bear out this idea. One morning, I found five lost love tokens advertised in a quarter of a column. A blue satin handbag containing a watch, “highly valued for remembrance only,” had been lost in a hotel. A gold-headed umbrella, “valued sentimentally,” had been left in a shop. A pearl necklace had been dropped in a dancing club; “sentiment” was the brief comment. A diamond and platinum engagement ring was wanted by one who was “much distressed and will be deeply grateful for return.” Finally, thousands of dollars were offered for a necklace “of great sentimental value.”

If it is true that we allow our treasures to lose themselves when our feelings are mixed love and resentment, then those hysterical lamentations and the wild accusations of theft which appear be exaggerated to onlookers may easily be not so much sorrow for the trinket as denial of unconscious faithlessness to the giver.

Have you ever noticed how much of a stenographer’s personality comes through in the mistakes she makes? When the phrase “the uncharted swamps of a Southern wilderness” comes off the typewriter in the form of “the undaunted courage of a Southern gentleman,” one feels quite sure that the young thing who typed it admires Southern gallantry. Sometimes her unconscious save? labor by typing “Dear Dr Sincerely,” thus futilely attempting to telescope a long letter into three words. A great little labor saver is the unconscious, dropping out words and skipping whole phrases.

What do you think of the young lady — at any rate she signed her name with a “Miss” conscientiously attached — who wrote a long hymn, published in a religious magazine, on the theme: “Thou hast stripped me, safe in thy arms,” etc. Was she in any way related to the press agent who advertised his musical show in New York with the capitalized sentence: “The chorus outstrips them all.”

It wants to be heard

The tongue is even more treacherous than the pen. A deaf mute probably finds his repressed thoughts wriggling his talking fingers as they should not go. The guest of honor at a tea which I attended was a dreamy, pensive young lady. While talking to me, she turned to a chap in a velveteen jacket and asked abstractedly: “Will you pass the cake, dear?”

I asked my hostess later, when leaving: “Who is the young man your guest is engaged to?”

“How do you know they are engaged?” demanded the hostess in consternation. “It is a great secret.”

Unconscious minds love to let cats out of bags.

How much of this explanation can you believe? I can believe it all. And more. For when I forget or lose, or tongue-slip, I can almost always discover — if I am honest with myself — a mental turmoil circling about that particular point. By following along the ideas associated with the occurrence, one can often again remember, or find or understand.

Top photo: Scene from the play, “A Woman of Mystery” (1921)

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