My sister says Dad abused her as a child. Should I believe her?

Dilemmas

Judith thought she had a happy childhood, but her sister has suddenly revealed that their father abused her every night, creeping into her bedroom. Her father is very upset - as is her mother - and denies it completely.

Judith's sister now refuses to see her parents. How can Judith be loyal to everyone?

One only has to look at the daughters of Enid Blyton or Antonia White, whose views of their mothers varied hugely between mum-in-a-million and monster, to realise that we each have a different experience of our parents, even sisters close in age. For one, their father is a dominating bully with a cat-o'-nine-tails always close to hand; for the sibling he's a strong but kindly character who is all bark and no bite.

I am always astonished when talking about my father to my half-sisters; sometimes we are discussing exactly the same person, and then we suddenly diverge, as if we were each talking about a completely different person. There is "Christopher", as he was to me, and "Daddy", as he was to them. For example, I'll say, "Christopher was so insecure," and they'll say: "Insecure? Daddy?", completely flummoxed by such an idea.

Parents similarly treat children differently. They may make huge gender preferences - the boys get all the second helpings and the white meat, and the girls have to clear the table. With children of the same sex, some are favoured, some are scapegoated. It's a rare but known syndrome that a child in a family can be so hated that he or she is made to eat in a different room, wear second-hand clothes, and generally be turned into a Cinderella-type slave by a mother who, to her other children, is perfectly normal, warm and affectionate. Up to a point there are always slight favourites in families, and though they've never talked about it, everyone knows who's the chosen one.

This would account for the difference in behaviour of Judith's father towards the two girls. But are her sister's accusations true? Is she correctly remembering what happened? Might it have been no more than a case of her father coming in at night to check she was properly tucked up, and give her a kiss before he went to bed himself? Might this have got translated into abuse by some convinced therapist, or indeed even by the sister herself, who may be displacing her own early feelings of sexual desire for her father on to the man himself so as not to take responsibility for them? Or maybe yes, her father did find her attractive, but never laid a finger on her. We respond intuitively to feelings, even if they are never acted out. If this was the case, was it abuse?

It certainly feels odd to me that Judith, even when she was told by her sister, had no "Aha! So that explains everything" bells going off in her head, no feeling that suddenly all the pieces had come together and that that would account for the funny looks her father had given her, or the vague feelings of tension around. No; she had a perfectly happy childhood without a glimmer of sexual abuse. Her sister now refuses to see either her father or mother, which is odd, because her mother never did her any harm, unless she felt that by her inaction she was condoning what was going on, and there's no evidence of this.

Will the sister cut Judith out of her life, too, unless she backs her up in her recently discovered memories?

My advice to Judith is to keep well out of it all, and hang on to the memories of the happy childhood she clearly had. Her parents have never done her any harm, and second-hand hatred or revenge is always unkind. If, as a result, her sister wishes to cut her out of her life as well, this, as they say, is the sister's problem.

what readers say

Whether true or not, your sister needs help

Child abuse has a huge profile at present. I was abused myself, so I dare to say that the current hype about it has worked up a frenzy which can do more harm than good to many victims. And it has certainly alerted persons seeking attention to a perfect way of dramatising themselves.

What is important in genuine cases is for the victim to come to terms with what happened, and then move on. Whether her claims are fabricated or genuine, your sister needs professional help. I almost hope her claim is genuine, as if these are lies she must be in a bad way indeed.

JMC, Caernarvon

Trust your own gut feeling about what happened

Children are very sensitive to the emotional atmosphere at home. If you are genuinely astounded to hear this allegation, then it is possible that it is not true.

I say this because in my family it was I who uncovered "memories" of sexual abuse, when I was clinically depressed in my mid-twenties, and accused my father. Later, through therapy, I admitted to myself that I was angry with him for a host of unexpected reasons, but he had never sexually abused me. It was a terrible time for the whole family. My brother sided with me and effectively lost Mum and Dad for two years. So keep an open mind and heart; your parents and sister are still the people you have loved all your life. Keep saying to them that you don't know whether it happened or not, but that you hope whoever is telling the truth will stick to their guns - so that if this rift stems from something other than sexual abuse, your sister may find it easier eventually to admit the truth.

Kate Bishop, London SW10

Give your father the chance to say sorry

Unfortunately your sister probably has been abused by your father - what would she stand to gain from making this allegation if it were not true? She must be every bit as upset as your parents; I bet she has been building up to this for years. She will have considered the possible outcome of keeping the events of the past to herself - bearing the secret burden with increasing anger, fearing that any children you and she may have would have the same treatment from their grandfather.

Now she is giving him the opportunity to be the good father she has always longed for, by apologising for the abuse. You could support everyone by encouraging them to talk about what happened. Your sister should state what she felt at the time about your father's behaviour - unbelievable as it seems, he may have thought she liked what he did; after all, he liked it, and she was his girl!

Your father may take the olive branch on offer at a family discussion and admit something he will have tried to forget - that what he did was wrong, and he knew it at the time and is sorry now. If he can summon up the courage to admit this, it could be the making of him.

Isabel Brooks, Totnes, Devon

Keep on good terms with all the family

I am a counsellor who has had clients with memories of childhood sexual abuse.I would say to Judith: If your sister convinces you that she has always remembered the abuse, but has not spoken of it before, then the memory is likely to be true.

If she has only recently remembered it, whether spontaneously or while in counselling or therapy, then there is no way for either you or your sister to know whether it is true. Sometimes such recovered memories are true; sometimes they are based on real events, but distorted; sometimes they are a symbolic indication of some other kind of distress.

Can you keep on good terms with both your parents and your sister, while making it clear that you simply can't know who to believe? It is a difficult thing to do, but if you succeed you could be the means by which some sort of reconciliation (yes, they do happen) can be negotiated.

Name and address withheld

Next week's dilemma

My grandchildren are coming to stay for a few days while my daughter- in-law is away.

She has given me a list of rules, such as no sweets, no television except half an hour on Friday, bath twice a day, only half-an-hour on the computer every day, and a bit of a left-over punishment from a few days ago which means that my grandson, aged eight, has to go to bed at 7.30pm for the rest of the week and be shut alone in his room with a book.

I want their time with me to be happy - do you think I can insist that these rules be relaxed?

Sandra.

Letters are welcome, and every contributor who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send your comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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