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Dilemmas: Sexual Abuse

Dear Virginia, My 60-year-old sister is an intelligent woman with a long history of depression and breakdowns.

Recently, she said the root of her problems is childhood sexual abuse by our late mother, an idea planted by her latest therapist.

She has no memory of this; it just fits with her symptoms. She gets angry because my brothers and I feel it’s highly unlikely. How should we handle this? Yours sincerely, Jamie?

Virginia says

WHAT you are dealing with here is, frankly, a deranged woman. Every time you see your sister, imagine a label around her neck that reads: “Please be kind to me. I hold an unswerving and irrational belief ”, and react accordingly. Be kind, be affectionate and acknowledge her unhappiness, but never forget that her ideas are fantasies.

The idea of “recovered memory” has been discovered in recent years to be highly suspect. The truth is that it's extremely unlikely that we forget traumatic events. True, we might suppress the feelings accompanying the events, but we don't forget the events themselves.

As for memory, there's been a lot of research that shows how easy it is to plant false memories in the minds of the most rational and intelligent human beings.

If she bangs on about the abuse, say: “Look, we're sad to hear you're sad, but from now on, why not try to live in the present and the future, and if you want to rehash your past, do it with medically qualified professionals or friends, but not with us.

We're too close to the whole situation and feel so emotional about it that discussion will lead to nowhere except estrangement, which is the last thing any of us wants.”

Don't feel responsible or guilty. There is nothing else you can do.

Readers say

It's not your problem

We all have quagmires in our brains, but moaning about them to others is the surest route to yet more depression.

If your sister is feeling victimised, and she obviously is, she should seek out help from a charity and not poison the ears and memories of other people.

Danny, Baldoyle

Memory plays tricks

Your sister is not necessarily making the story up, but her unhappiness is making it very easy for her to accept the suggestions of her therapist as actual memories.

More brutally, a scapegoat has been conveniently tied down and her memory is happy to cast off any self-critical scruples.

Your comment about “the latest therapist” suggests that the theory of overlaid memory is far more likely than the reality your sister claims to have uncovered. You are still left with the dilemma of who, if anybody, she ought to be seeing.

Cara, by email

Be on her side

By criticising your sister, you and your siblings can only make things worse for her, since she already perceives you, collectively, as having had all the luck while she copped the misfortune.

Scepticism about her “latest therapist” won't help, either.

So keep a low profile, but when you do communicate, show support for her endeavours to put herself right — and that means implying respect for her therapist, and sympathy for her plight, which sounds genuine enough, whether based on a misconception or not.

You may be surprised at her response once you come out on her side.

Alison, by email