Dear Virginia, My 60-year-old sister is an intelligent woman with a long history of depression and breakdowns. She feels her life has been wasted and often airs grievances that occurred up to 50 years ago. Recently, she said the root of her problems is childhood sexual abuse by our late mother, an idea planted by the 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?
What you are dealing with here is, frankly, a deranged woman. And of course it's extremely difficult to advise you on how to handle her. We've all come across people like her. They seem perfectly normal to their acquaintances, and can often hold down a job, but catch them on their own and they'll reveal they believe they were abducted by flying saucers and examined with stethoscopes made of glass, and there's little you can do except smile weakly and slowly back out of the door.
In your situation, being her brother, you can't back out of the door, but you can try not to let it get to you. Every time you see your sister, imagine a label hanging 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 complete fantasies. You and your brothers know they are – and anyway, child sexual abuse on daughters by mothers is fantastically rare.
You could, of course, simply dismiss the whole idea openly. But that's not going to get you – or her – anywhere. Remember that she believes it implicitly, and has her dangerous therapist to back her up – even if you know it's rubbish. But it would help you to know that the whole 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 because, simply, they're so traumatic. True, we might suppress the dreadful 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 malleable it can be, and how easy it is to plant false memories in the minds of the most rational and intelligent human beings. You'd get comfort and advice, too, from the marvellous British False Memory Society at www.bfms.org.uk, where you'll find dozens of other people in exactly your situation.
As far as your sister goes, you can, of course, help her simply by being nice to her. But if she bangs on about the abuse, there's a moment when even the most loving brother can say: "Look, we've talked about all your problems with unhappiness enough in the past and it hasn't got you anywhere. 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.
It's not your problem
We all have quagmires in our brains, but moaning about them to others is the surest route to a quiet telephone and thus 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.
Memory plays tricks
For a while, the term "recovered memory syndrome" became popular. As with various therapeutic fads, this idea has been retained by some practitioners. Generally, such "repressed memories" tend to be a case of suggestion, sometimes specifically referred to as "overlaid memory". This is not a medical condition, but the tendency in ordinary human beings to merely think that they remember things. These pseudo-memories have usually been implanted accidentally by parents and other relatives when they describe genuine experiences from the remembering person's past. Similar, but often more problematic, is the experimental evidence that suggestions after an incident can easily affect the testimony even of eyewitnesses.
This being the case, 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.
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, so to speak, come out on her side.
Next week's dilemma
Last year my girlfriend and I split up, much to my dismay, as I still loved her. We'd been together only three months, but even now I can't get her out of my mind. I've written to her asking her to contact me so we can discuss it, but she won't reply. Having kept out of her hair for six months, I feel I must now get closure. I want to write her one last letter, to make sure that there is no hope of us ever getting together again. My friends say I should let things be. What do you think?
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