Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: I know my friend's dad, and doubt the flashbacks of child abuse she's now suffering

My friend went to a therapist for cystitis, now she's remembered all kinds of abuse

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My friend and I were in and out of each other’s houses as children and we’ve stayed in touch. Last year, she had very bad cystitis that wouldn’t go away and eventually her doctor suggested a therapist. Now she’s remembered all kinds of child abuse through flashbacks. I can’t believe it – she seemed such a happy child. Her dad was incapable of doing anything like this – he’s lovely and I was often alone with him. But she refuses to talk to him now. Her mother’s been on the phone to me crying, begging me to ask her if they can meet. What should I do? 

Yours sincerely, Amy

Virginia says...

This is such a tough one. You don’t believe your friend was abused. Her parents, presumably, know she wasn’t abused. However, your friend believes – and believes to such an extent that she thinks she knows – that she was abused. And she’s backed up by a therapist who I’m sure is the one who implanted the idea in the first place.

My suspicion is that your friend has been brainwashed – not by a cruel cult but by a therapist who is probably quite benign but who has herself been brainwashed by the belief that all diseases and infections around the genitals stem from child sexual abuse, that quite common so-called “dissociative” symptoms stem from child sexual abuse, and that if only you discover it and expose it, everything will be all right.

There are problems with this theory, which, naturally enough, started off with Freud but was then turned into a therapeutic model in the States. First, not everyone who suffers child sexual abuse becomes traumatised. Second, most people remember if they’ve been abused as a child unless the abuse was when they were tiny. And when the patients “recall” such abuse, or even if they discuss real sexual abuse, they still don’t necessarily recover. Also, when you’re low and depressed, and even when you’re not, you can be made to believe anything. Not only believe it, but actually have flashbacks. In research, people have been persuaded that, as children, they’d nearly drowned in yachting accidents or got lost in shopping malls, and even when it was proved that these suggestions had been all invention, they could still experience flashbacks of the incidents with complete clarity.

The daughter of a friend of mine was in the hands of one of these therapists, and  accused her loving, peaceful and gentle father of breaking her nose when she was young – she remembered it clearly. When X-rays showed her nose was intact, she began to escape from the therapist’s clutches and the family was healed. But many families are completely broken, not by child abuse, but by what is really abusive therapy.

If I were you I would do everything in your power to persuade your friend to see her mother. Continue to express your doubts that this ever happened (because I’m sure there are moments when your friend must wonder to herself whether it was really true). Even if it did happen, tell her that at least perhaps she should talk about it rather than never see her parents again.

Your friend’s parents would get a lot of help and sympathy from the British False Memory Society – Yes, this is such a common situation there’s even a society devoted to it. They’ll not only offer support but are involved in a fight to stop therapists with these very destructive beliefs being recommended and funded through the National Health Service.


Readers say...

She should sue her counsellor

It is sad that the regulation of counsellors and therapists has not proceeded more quickly to prevent this sort of tragedy happening. In 2012, Norman Lamb, Secretary of State for Health, said in Parliament, “The Department does not recommend the use of recovered memory therapy and it is not a National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended treatment.” Which makes it all the more surprising that a GP should recommend it as a treatment for cystitis.

I suggest that Amy advises her friend’s parents to contact the BFMS [see above], where they will find they are far from alone. And, if she can talk some sense into her friend, suggest she sues her therapist. She wont be the first victim of bad therapy to do so.

name and address supplied


The ‘flashbacks’ aren’t real

I am the author of a book on this subject, Abused by Therapy: How Searching for Childhood Trauma Can Damage Adult Lives (Matador). This is a horribly familliar story. Some therapists believe that a variety of common symptoms can be a consequence of forgotten experiences of childhood sexual abuse. They encourage clients to imagine disturbing childhood episodes, and that’s where the “flashbacks” come from. These are usually just fleeting images that have more to do with dreams than reality. However, they fit the therapist’s assumptions about what is causing the client’s present problems.

Amy should keep talking to her friend and to and encourage her to talk to her mother, to other family members and anyone who was around when the abuse was supposed to have taken place. Her friend is under the influence of her therapist. She needs to be open to other influences, so that she can get a clearer picture of what her childhood was really like. She also needs to be told that flashbacks can tell us more about our imaginations rather than about anything that really happened.

 Katharine Mair, Consultant clinical psychologist (retired)


You don’t know what happened

The truth is you can’t be certain. You suggest a therapist has planted false memories, which is not impossible. Nor is it impossible that your friend’s father opted to limit abuse to his own daughter. If her mother is not also implicated, suggest to your friend that you three meet together on neutral ground to walk and talk together. At least you will have tried.

Verity Walker, by email

Next week's dilemma

My son is a very bright 21-year-old. He’s living at home, having got a good degree at university – but he can’t get a job. And he’s becoming lethargic, lacking in hope and very depressed. I’ve suggested he contact some people I know who are working in the area he wants to work in, but he says “things aren’t like that any more, Dad”, and refuses offers of help. At the moment, he’s stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s. I’ve said I’ll drive him anywhere, fund him if he wants to be an unpaid intern, do anything to help, but he simply refuses. How can I get him to see sense?

Yours sincerely,


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