top of page

Accused, Assumed Guilty: The Zealots and the Blind, by Eleanore Armstrong-Perlman

"The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80% of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim." NSPCC.



This paper was initially written years ago in the context of the controversy and passion aroused by allegations of incestuous child abuse in Cleveland (1987). Children were removed from their parents to be examined on a ward in a hospital setting. Due to overzealous medical speculation, 121 cases of suspected child sexual abuse were diagnosed by Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, paediatricians at a Middlesbrough hospital. After a number of court trials, 26 cases involving children from twelve families were found by judges to have been incorrectly diagnosed, and cases involving 96 of the 121 children alleged to be victims of sexual abuse were dismissed by the courts. In terms of representing the best interests of the child, this investigation could be seen as doing more harm than good. Families can be devastated by a rush to action in the wake of false allegations, and when the parent is accused, the child can be left with longstanding attachment ruptures.


This passion and debate has been aroused again in the form of the exposure of Jimmy Savile as part of Operation Yewtree. The revelations seemed to send the BBC into a confusional state; the editor of Newsnight was exposed as blocking a programme on the exposure of Jimmy Savile based on the allegations by victims of historic abuse, a move that ultimately cost the new Director General his job. It was assumed that the BBC had pulled the programme so as not to disturb their Christmas programmes of praise for Jimmy Savile, the benefactor of sick and vulnerable children. The alleged perpetrator was protected and not the child victims.


Professionals had been reluctant to express their concerns while Jimmy Savile was alive; the police failed to thoroughly investigate, which in retrospect could be speculated on as wilful neglect or even collusion. “Blowing the whistle” apart from upsetting the status quo could be dangerous. Jimmy Savile, apart from being an idealised public figure could have brought the full weight of law against any such individual. Victims have been portrayed as story-tellers or motivated by financial greed or celebrity, as Savile himself claimed in a recently released interview with the police.

David Leigh in the Guardian on 13th November, 20012 quoted a Newsnight investigator who chose not to be named, “There is a common thread running through the failure of Newsnight to run the investigation into real sex abuse by Jimmy Savile, and its insistence on running the false investigation into the non-existent sex-abuse by McAlpine . In each case the executives did not look at the actual evidence”.


False allegations of child sexual abuse have also been made, recently against the actor Michael Le Vell, which add weight to the false defences of the guilty but also validate the need for evidence-based justice to be used in these matters. 

The crux of the paper


The “common thread” is how we can think clearly when facing allegations that would lead to the disillusionment of benign figures, the loss of the good object. Allegations against an idealised object can become overwhelming and lead some to an attempt at annihilating the problem , returning the world to its state of goodness or others to a defensive denial that the badness ever existed; what I am terming here the zealots and the blind. The loss of faith in a good object can be threatening to the self, creating a world of paranoia and persecution where no one can be trusted and badness appears to take on a contagious life of its own.


The second question is how society is to evaluate allegations of sexual abuse without taking either of these extreme positions. How do the professionals delegated to deal with these issues cope with the unacceptable sexual and aggressive features of parents and other figures in loco parentis?  How do they avoid the tendency to dismiss the stories as fantasy?  If they do dismiss the allegations, and the facts of the case accumulate to constitute overwhelming empirical evidence, they lay themselves open to a charge of being blind to external reality.


Everyone has malign internal objects from their past which can be reactive in the present but these polarised attitudes of attack and defence can often lose sight of the victim leaving them feeling doubly betrayed. Internalisation as a function of frustration we have all experiences, but a matter of degree. We will vary in our capacities to look at external reality without being threatened by malign but exciting persecutors from our past. The testimony of the child can threaten the professional. The professional after all was once a child and some have had to develop defensive strategies to cope with childhood trauma. 


Freud/ Seduction Theory


The “facts” in cases of sexual abuse vary greatly in their capacity for empirical corroboration.  Much of the evidence is based on interpretations of signs, gesture, and innuendoes recalled from the past.  There is first the interpretation of the purported victim and then the interpretation made by the investigator. These attitudes led to accusations that psychoanalysis had been blind to the influence of parental abuse on the developing consciousness and sexuality of the child; that psychoanalysis by attacking the idealisation of childhood innocence led to an idealisation of the parent.


Both Alice Miller and Jeffrey Masson claim that psychoanalytic theory has been blind to the actual prevalence and aetiological significance of seduction by an adult.  Their claim is that psychoanalytic theorists and clinicians have, like Oedipus, put out their eyes; and blinded themselves to the reality of the abusive adult who betrays the trust of the child. Freud famously wrote to Fleiss in September 1897 “surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable” and yet Freud must also have been aware of the large numbers of child prostitutes operating in Vienna at the time. The working class child after an early seduction was seen as the seductress; a common feature of paedophiliac literature.  The seducer becomes the victim. “Joshephine Mutzenbacher, or the History of a Viennese Whore as told by Herself” was published in Vienna in 1906. The same year Freud’s father died and he abandoned his seduction theory and began his own analysis. 


Though Freud’s theory prevailed, shifting the erotic onto the child, there were other psychoanalytic views on the aetiology of blindness and denial.  Ferenczi (1932) emphasised the child’s need for sensual affection and tenderness and the adult’s need for sexual gratification.  Actual seduction was seen as the expression of hostility in the seducer.  The child cannot afford to either see or register either the event or the hostility.  The hold on reality is therefore loosened.  The child, a helpless victim paralysed by fear, resorts to the pathological defence mechanism of identification with the aggressor. Ferenczi wrote, “the dissociated part, however, lives on hidden, ceaselessly endeavouring to make itself felt, without finding any outlet except in neurotic symptoms”. (1929). Fantasy can then be construed as distorted representations of actual trauma that cannot be consciously entertained and integrated into the main body of consciousness.  Ferenczi in effect resurrected Freud’s early arguments of “The Aetiology of Hysteria”. (1896). However, this theory of dissociation and repression further complicates the distinction between fantasy and reality.  The denial of intolerable reality leads to fantasy just as fantasy distorts reality.




Given Fairbairn’s theory of splitting, there are alluring exciting and satanic parental representations lurking in the unconscious that have never been integrated.  The integration may jeopardise the need and hope for a benign object.  It may also jeopardise the repression of the over-excited, ambivalent parts of the self.  The acknowledgement of one’s own sexualised ambivalence and one’s own badness may be more tolerable than acknowledging the reality of the abusive parent who is outside of one’s control.


The pathological defence of identification with the aggressor cannot be fully analysed if it is based only on the acceptance of the unacceptable parts of the self but preserves a sanitised image of a benevolent other.  This only maintains the repression of the unacceptable sexual and aggressive features of the other.  Persecutory, satanised images with malign, aggressive and sexual features which may exacerbate hostile and erotic fantasies are kept at bay.  Their connecting links with any evidence of parental abuse or failure are denied or given little emotional status.  Unintegrated demonic, polymorphously perverse monster parents may still lurk in the unconscious.


Like all defence systems, the equilibrium achieved can be fragile.  The more successful the repression and splitting, the more difficult it is for the child, and the later adult, to perceive the actual reality of the badness of the parent. Actual sexual abuse can be “forgotten”.  On the other hand if the defence is too fragile, if the “burden of the badness” becomes too intolerable to maintain and accept, the badness real or imaginary is transferred back to the object from which it came.  To do so can provide relief from the depressive burden of being bad but this realisation may destroy all hope of a loving relationship with a loving parent.  This may be traumatic as hope is lost.  If this is so, the child is not necessarily helped by the exposure or exaggeration of the malignity of the parental figure.  Demonising the parent can retraumatise the child.  The child is redeemed from the burden of the badness, but with a shattered defence system and the additional reality of a real accusation made against the parents.


Clinical material


One young man I worked with sought therapy on account of the non-consummation of his marriage.  He was of non-European origin.  On exploration of his history, there was evidence of early abandonment.   He had been an incubator baby, an unexpected and unwanted twin. His memories were of continuous maternal deprivation interspersed with beatings and intrusive control.  His father had been passive and had failed to protect him although domestic servants had sometimes intervened.  There was evidence of maternal abuse but no evidence to suggest that the abuse was sexual.


Previous to his original therapy with a born-again Christian therapist, he had been troubled by perverse devouring sexualised fantasies concerning women.  He had never had a girlfriend.  I had the impression that the therapy had saved him from potential psychosis.


He had no recollections of any sexual abuse.  The idea had come from his therapist.  Initially he had been totally shocked but then three days later, he decided it must be true; it gave seeming coherence to his extreme ambivalence towards his mother in particular and women in general.  His fantasy of sexual abuse was that his mother had licked him all over.


He accused his mother.  This led to counter accusations that he had been brainwashed by his therapist.  He broke with his family and married his therapist, a born-again Christian, twenty years older than him and came to England.


Symptomatology can be taken as evidence of infantile sexuality and therefore pertaining to the world of fantasy, ignoring the fact that there may or may not have been abuse.  By the power of the transference, either construction can be “accepted” by the patient.  In this therapy, I took the position of therapeutic neutrality.  I respected his construction as a construction that gave him coherence.  His memories and reality-based evidence offered no corroboration.  Attention was paid to emergent memories and affects related to actual physical abuse when he attempted to individuate from his mother.  He was highly conscious of the fact that he related to his wife as a surrogate mother.  For this he was grateful, but he needed to individuate yet again.  He returned to his country of origin without his therapist/wife.


Difficulty in clinical work


Any psychoanalytic theory based on such a framework must tread carefully around the relationship between fantasy and distorted representations derived from unassimilated trauma.  We know that deprivation in the Fairbairnian model can lead eroticised fantasy of a parent, (see Armstrong-Perlman). We accept both eroticised fantasy and believe in real abuse.


A young adolescent I knew from a strict religious background had shared sexualised imagery of herself online with an older man. Somehow this was discovered by a member of her family. Her mother saw this act as a link to the young woman’s total rejection by her father. Sadly, she lost her father’s approval further and the young woman spoke of suicide to her teachers.


The question remains, how do we stay open to both possibilities of fantasy and abuse? Given that the experience of a hostile abusive parent is beyond the child’s capacity to tolerate, denial of that hostile reality and the consequent repression of the reactive fear and need - is essential. Any theory which takes on board the effect of inter-personal factors on the structure of the child’s psyche must confront the problem of the elaborate interplay between external and internal reality.  Such an enterprise is, however, fraught with hazard for the clinician when we consider the additional complexities of transference. All these issues are confronted by a therapist in a session.


We all know the power of transference.  It is part of our therapeutic method and part of psychoanalytic theory since Freud.  Current awareness of “false memory syndrome” highlights the power of suggestion and over-enthusiastic psychotherapists wedded to their belief structure.  This combination can make it difficult to separate the patient’s fantasy from reality. The patient may come to believe that his symptomatology constitutes conclusive signs of an inferred actual seduction.  Given the power of suggestion, the patient may then come to mirror the realities of the therapeutic zealot. Sexual abuse is taken by the therapist to be the pathogenic agent when the only evidence is the pathological phenomena. The therapist must be patient and suspend judgement.

Fairbairn’s Oedipus


For Fairbairn, it is not actual memories that are necessarily repressed, but intolerably persecutory and exciting relationships with bad objects.  The danger is not just the recognition of sexual abuse per se, but rather that the sexual abuse is taken as a concrete example of parental malignity. The malign parental imago threatens the imago of the benign parental figure necessary for the equilibrium of the self.  The testimony of the abused child can resonate with and threaten the repressed ambivalence of the adult.  The breakdown of repression risks the release of intolerably bad relationships with intolerably bad objects.  If repression fails, the need for splitting re-emerges.  Otherwise desolation threatens. There is a risk of intolerable confusion or intolerable despair.  Defensive strategies are necessary.  There is a need for a demon to safely persecute with righteous indignation.  Thus the self can protect an idealised relationship with an idealised object.


For the zealot, the badness is externalised.  The abusive parent can become “evil” through want of any other explanation.  The zealot becomes their persecutor.  An internal reality can take precedence over external reality as normal conditions of evidence-seeking are dropped.  Culpability is an incontrovertible given and protestations of innocence are taken as resistance to the truth.  True confessions and acknowledgement of responsibility for the offence are the only acceptable response.  The “abusive” parent’s only route to redemption is confession and acceptance of the “burden of the badness”.  They become pariahs stripped of their civil rights.  Witch-hunts with dawn raids may commence, or vigilante groups may attack them, all in the name of rescuing the child.  Monstrous behaviour can become justified in the cause of saving the child from the monster parent. 


By disregarding considerations of evidence or even of mitigating circumstances, the zealous behaviour becomes ego-syntonic.  Through destruction of thinking, confusion is obliterated.  While in the name of rescue, the awareness that the over-zealous investigation of sexual abuse can also be an abusive intrusion on the child or patient, can also be denied.  Their image of themselves is shorn of all its unacceptable hostile and sexual aspects. The accuser avoids the problem of Oedipus who can cope with eroticism and murder until he is faced with the reality that they, Jocasta and Laius, are his parents.  Oedipus puts out his eyes when exposed to the incestuous nature of his eroticism and the parricidal nature of this murderousness. The zealot can be in danger of using the child to aid him in the victimisation of the parents or as part of a rescue fantasy taken from their own internal object world.


The ‘rescuer’ perhaps enacts a gratifying split of enacting his own persecutory fantasies, unconstrained by his own need; the parents he attacks are safely not his own.  It gives safe vent to the infantile sadism.  There is a danger of a “Messianic --- omnipotence in which both [the] repressed sadistic wishes and the demands of [the] ego-ideal --- attain simultaneous satisfaction”. (Fairbairn (1931), p.215).  The persecuted grandiosity and martyrdom constitutes the hallmark of the zealot.  In all this the emotional dilemma of the child with his ambivalent relationship to his parents is denied and bypassed.

Relating back to clinical work


To disentangle fantasy from reality, the professional needs to be aware not only of their own counter-transference but their own defensive strategies.  Even if you can maintain your capacity to think and to act, you need to be aware that you run the risk of being the target of the defensive strategies of members of the public at large.


The testimony of the professional, who bears witness to the emotional predicament of the child can threaten members of society at large.  The persecutors run the risk of persecution.  The whistle blower who alleges that the Emperor has malign features courts danger.  They run the risk of being the target of the “badness”.  They have threatened the maintenance of the necessary illusion of the benevolent parental figure. The professional or the society at large can preserve the necessary idealised acceptable object representations either by denial or by splitting.  If authority figures are to remain benign, the badness has to be put somewhere. 



As Van de Kolk states; “Careful attention needs to be paid to preventing false accusations of abuse.  […] being accused of such a heinous crime itself constitutes a traumatic experience with immeasurable consequences.”  


I believe that psychoanalytic theory does have some insights to offer to the understanding of the passions that affect the current controversies surrounding child sexual abuse.  Moreover, these insights are not confined only to the understanding of the trauma of the abused child but can be extended to an understanding of the over-heating responses to this phenomenon.  But the Freudian tradition with its understanding of the role of fantasy and projection needs to be supplemented by an object relations theory, such as that of Fairbairn, which takes on board the absolute emotional need of the child to preserve the imago of a “good” parent.  Actual trauma at the hands of a parent does affect the structure of the inner world, but fantasy also exists and distorts. The flurry of accusation and counter-accusation unfortunately distracts attention from the predicament of the child.

bottom of page