BACK STORY — THE ENGINE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, By Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

Remember how tasty and comforting it was to be breast fed? How you fought and yelled when you had to stop pooping in your diaper and had to use the potty?

You don’t remember?

No worries.

99.99 percent of us have no clue as to what happened before age 5. What’s left of that distant past are only shadows and vague innuendoes (psychiatrists call them screen memories), but because we’re walking the streets in our big boy pants, we can assume that toilet training was a rousing success. Also, as a well deserved aside, the male obsession with breasts is also connected with those early not-remembered experiences.

What if, like Joe Belmont, in Chasing Backwards, you had to spend a year in a pediatric hospital, or like Tom Wingo, in Prince of Tides, your father’s brutal behavior haunted you on a daily basis or like Henry Skrimshander, in The Art of Fielding, your father’s critical perfectionism almost ruined you? And what if all those traumatic experiences were only vaguely remembered or not remembered at all?

Most of us weren’t extraordinarily traumatized, but just average kids trying to survive a strange and unfamiliar world. But since all parents are imperfect, every one of us has been to some degree wounded.

Our forgotten past, the Back Story that occurred before we could think clearly, is often the real story. It is the engine that gives us passion or takes our passion away. It is the engine that drives writers to write, physicians to heal, teachers to teach, mechanics to fix and on and on and on.

Art Smukler MD is the author of Skin Dance, a mystery, Chasing Backwards, a psychological murder mystery, The Man with a Microphone in his Ear, and the blog, Inside the Mind of a Psychiatrist.


The mind is beyond sophisticated, but a little misguided. When events are too upsetting, it deposits the painful memory or feeling in a place that won’t disturb daily functioning, the “dreaded” unconscious.

Sounds great, right? If you don’t know it’s there, how can it bother you?

Wrong! The hidden memory can still send out subliminal signals that can cause nightmares, panic attacks, depression, anxiety etc. The symptoms are often so disturbing that you finally call your doctor who prescribes sleeping pills, tranquilizers or antidepressants so you’ll feel better. For a while, you do! Then it all creeps back.

“I’d like to refer you to a psychiatrist,” your doctor says.

“A shrink!” you say, more than a little insulted. I’m not crazy!

One tough, Italian guy, Joe Belmont, a 1st year medical student, who just happens to be the hero in my novel, Chasing Backwards, is in an even worse predicament. Whoever killed his mother and uncle are now trying to kill him, and the only way he can save himself and his girlfriend is to find a way into his own unconscious. The key to the whole mystery lies in his past, and Joe has no idea what lies buried in his own mind.

So unlike Joe, who has only days and himself to solve the problem, you can schedule a consultation with a psychiatrist or a therapist like a normal person. By now you recognize that it’s not just some intellectual or philosophical need. You’re sick and tired of feeling miserable and are ready to do what it takes. Figuring out what’s hidden in your unconscious is not psychobabble, as Joe in is his pre-psychological-minded days called the whole process. Psychotherapy is a treatment that can help make the unconscious problem conscious. Once you know what’s really going on, because now it’s out there for you to examine, you get the opportunity to deal with the issue and really feel better.

Please feel free to leave any comments and observations. If you were able to figure out what happened in your past, how did you do it? Did Joe Belmont’s experience mirror any of your own? Did understanding your own unconscious help you to have a better life?

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