Sometimes my path leads me into areas where I feel exposed, uncomfortable, and without a lot of obvious support.

I depend in the end on the feel of the path beneath my feet and the knowledge that I am not the first to come this way, and likely not the last.

Outside the Square:

Therapeutic Reality and the Legal System

9 November, 1991 / last revised 26 January 2006

Ten or fifteen years down the track, I believe the present vogue for sexual abuse therapy will be recognisable as another variation on McCarthyism, in which just as many lives and careers will have been disrupted and destroyed, for no better cause than his.

Many people are being wrongly identified in therapy and in court as sexual abusers on the basis of "recovered" information that relates to other abuses of power, and may even then incorrectly identify other parties.

Material "recovered" from "blocked off" areas of consciousness is not reliable enough to justify sending people to jail.

In most cases, it is not even reliable enough to shape my client's subsequent relationships with any persons so "identified". It is a different order of information, as dreams are a different order.

To encourage a client to behave as if "recovered" information is "accurate" outside of a strictly therapeutic context, is grossly irresponsible.

I believe that most people are subjected during infancy and childhood to abuses of power of one sort or another. Any metaphor containing this structure - and the sexual abuse metaphor is one of them - will trigger much the same reaction of outrage.

It is probably impossible for any relationship between a child and an adult to be an equal one, and immune from abuse. (It's probably impossible for any adult relationship to be an equal one either, for that matter.)

Whenever a child has been on the receiving end of a power play, s/he will experience this feeling of outrage, of being powerless to act on his/her own behalf, in his/her own interest. In my own therapy I call this feeling like being pulled along behind a truck. Whenever a child has been compelled, unheard, unacknowledged, and unconsulted, to do something s/he didn't want to do, the seeds of this kind of abuse are present.

Tough, isn't it kid. That's just the way life is. It's a tough old world out there, kid. Now do as you're told.

It's much easier to create a bogey man class of sexual abusers than it is to pay attention to the way we ourselves treat children on a day to day basis.

And when that child becomes autonomous, s/he begins to construct for him/herself a territory in which s/he remains powerful at all costs and in which those old hurts from his/her childhood will not be triggered. And s/he will visit power plays of one sort or another on everyone who threatens this territory, and sow the seeds of abuse for another generation.

But this behaviour does not in general draw on itself the possibility of seven years in jail. As a result of the redrafting of the sexual abuse legislation in the late 80's there is, however, one small part of this territory for which draconian retribution is now available, and I believe it is being worked for all it is worth by a growth industry based around sexual abuse counselling.

I don't believe this is necessarily conscious or deliberate, though I fear that a degree of cynicism or political and economic opportunism cannot be ruled out. I believe sexual abuse to be a small part of a much wider "abuse of power" syndrome, but at present it is the only part of this area that has effective redress in law, or government funding for trauma counselling.

Consequently, therapeutic metaphors constructed around sexual abuse nearly always find some "confirmation", as well as qualifying for funding. And this is where I believe the current vogue for sexual abuse counselling is dangerous.

I don't believe for a minute that "recovered" information is useful outside of the relationship between therapist and client. I think it is totally unreliable in a court of law.

Most people tend to structure their lives, not around an objective, verifiable, "legal" reality, but around an emotionally charged and highly irrational, subjective, personal reality. Most people are quite capable of believing and acting on six mutually contradictory pieces of information before breakfast.

It is this subjective reality which I believe is the stuff of the therapeutic relationship. If it is to be useful in therapy it cannot and should not be exposed to the requirements of the courtroom. As a therapist I am concerned with what is actually going on in my client's head, not with what should be going on if the requirements of the legal system are to be complied with. I don't want a client always self-conscious, censoring and tailoring his output to meet some set of external therapeurically imposed criteria.

(And I don't want to encourage the notion at any stage that what my client presents me with is actual, externally verifiable, unchangeable reality. If he does believe this to be the case, it is much more difficult for him to alter his perceptions about himself or his situation.)

I have personally performed valuable therapy where I have "recovered" information relating to pre-birth events. I have even "recovered" information regarding events that happened prior to conception. Past-life therapy does produce useful results, however sceptical the client or the therapist. I know. I have used the techniques with clients whose scepticism was fully as developed as my own.

I have recovered information from "future lives" using exactly the same techniques. Go figure. I have even used a form of therapy based on "exorcism", where we "recover" information regarding the exact form of spirit or energy that is affecting particular areas of the client's experience. Because these metaphors map onto a client's experience in useful ways.

But never even start to believe we are reporting on reality.

It works

And there is no doubt whatever in my mind that this approach "works". A client one day arrived for a session, and one of the problems she sought help with was her lack of physical stamina. She could only just swim fifty metres - two lengths of the pool - and she was then obliged to hang onto the edge of the pool for several minutes to get her breath back.

After an "exorcism" session she left my counselling room, went down to the pool and swam thirty lengths. Three days later she was able to swim forty five lengths, and play tennis afterwards. Why exorcism? She had heard that I was using some radical techniques and was curious to see what it was all about. Why not?

As a technique, "recovering" this information about the "spirits/energies/forms" that were "attaching" themselves to her, and then dealing to those same spirits, had a dramatically successful outcome in terms of therapy.

It is my contention that the information "recovered" in the presently fashionable school of sexual abuse counselling is of the same order as I have described above. Potentially useful as therapeutic metaphor but not to be mistaken for the kind of evidence that is required to send someone to jail.

I have very little problem with situations where events are clear in memory, and where there is no doubt that what occurred was damaging. The law does exist to protect people from situations such as this. It is seldom necessary in these cases to depend on "recovered" information. (Even so, the notion of "permanent damage" in this context is a political construct rather than a therapeutic one.)

It does seem that some events are blocked out of consciousness - clearly remembered by some involved, but not necessarily by others. And it may be possible that this information can be recovered by regression techniques.

But in my experience it is also far too simple and common to "recover" all sorts of highly improbable information from clients. In the absence of strong confirmatory witness, there's no way of sorting them.

So, keep it in the therapy room. It's not legal evidence, it's not a basis for a negative - or positive - relationship with anyone.