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Mary K. Armstrong has written a memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, about her own discovery that she suffered from sex abuse as a child. She is photographed in her office on August 31, 2010. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)
Mary K. Armstrong has written a memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, about her own discovery that she suffered from sex abuse as a child. She is photographed in her office on August 31, 2010. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)

Therapist helped victims of sexual abuse, then she realized she also suffered Add to ...

It was a tide of memories, that holiday. They swept in over Christmas, 1984, depositing things she had long submerged. None were good. It would be a Christmas that changed her life - with cruel irony.

Mary Armstrong, a noted Toronto psychotherapist, and her husband Harvey Armstrong, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, had both worked extensively with adults who had suffered sexual abuse as children, but neither had seen all the signs in her. That Christmas, though, they had decided to spend two weeks quietly at home so they could relax.

"Thus it is for other survivors," Ms. Armstrong writes in her recently published, brutally candid book Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, A Memoir of Healing and Transformation. "When life is good, when our mates are there for us at last, the horrid memories of the past are free to surface. It is as if the memories say, 'Ah, you are ready for us now.' "

Ms. Armstrong is now 72. "It was horrifying and very painful," she explains in the comfortable book-lined sitting room of her home office, where she still sees patients. Through a focusing technique learned in yoga that helps the mind connect with the body, she realized that both her paternal grandfather and her father had sexually abused her as a young girl.

A period of disbelief and intense self-examination followed. "Can this really be true?" she recalls asking herself. "Can I be making this up? Can I just be making excuses for my own failures in life, my own fallibilities?"

She spoke with therapists, her husband and other mentors. "I really wanted to come from a nice family," she says with a rueful grimace. "And they looked good."

She had grown up in Stratford, Ont., a FOOF, or member of a Fine Old Ontario Family, as the saying goes. Her grandfather was a lawyer, her father an engineer. It was a strong, patriarchal upbringing with a maid, a gardener, the use of Dad's convertible, private school and the expectation that she would grow up to be a good wife, married to a powerful man.

Looking back on her life, she now recognizes the signs of underlying trauma. She was a dreamy child, always looking out the window. As a young wife, she was repelled by the sexual act. Anxiety, unfounded fear and depression plagued her as she matured.

"I didn't know I was dealing with sex abuse when I began the focusing [technique]" she says. "You develop a relationship with yourself. You let the bodily-felt senses lead you into your subconscious. It might be a lump in your throat or tightness in your neck or back, and we teach people to pay attention to that and stay with that and respect that and follow it so it takes them into a deeper knowing."

Ms. Armstrong, who founded The Centre for Focusing in Toronto before closing it in 2000 after 13 years to concentrate on her psychotherapy practice, radiates a quiet dignity. The genteel manners are still at work. Her movements are small, self-contained. The expressions on her pretty face don't speak of the trauma she experienced. Repression is her public face. But there's nothing demure or diminished about her willingness to reveal the truth.

In her book, she writes about having an illegal abortion when she and her future husband, who arranged for the procedure, decided that the timing of the pregnancy (in pre-Pill days) would upset his plans to complete medical school. (Years later they had a son, now in his early 40s.)

She also writes that the sexual encounters that happened when she was a child were often "a little girl experiencing eroticism," describing, in graphic detail, how her grandfather would fondle her as she sat on his lap.

"It's important for parents to know that children enjoy sex," she explains in a straightforward manner when asked about the taboo subject of children's sexuality. "They don't have a framework to put it in, but they do. ... Many of the patients I talk to speak about how it was pleasurable, unless it was sadistic, but usually it isn't. There is a lot of wooing and game-playing."

That pleasure is partly what provokes guilt, she adds.

The book had its genesis eight years ago, when Ms. Armstrong reread her journals and attempted to make sense of her life. When she told her mother about her recollection of the abuse when it first surfaced, her mother believed her - but only the part about her grandfather. When she told her about what her father (who had died in 1968) had done, her mother refused to listen.

"My mother handled my disclosure by saying, 'Poor Mary. She's unbalanced.'" Her mother, who was in her 80s at the time, has since died.

Ironically, Ms. Armstrong's only sibling, an older sister, could understand the revelations about their father - her sister didn't recall sexual abuse toward her, but said he often acted inappropriately, Ms. Armstrong explains - but she was horrified to hear about their grandfather. Soon, she withdrew her support for any of the allegations. "She started to step backwards, saying: 'I think you've been thinking too much about it because of your work."

Her sister's withdrawal of support for any of the allegations made Ms. Armstrong hesitate about publishing the book, but in the end she felt it was time to speak the truth. "I was so compelled to write the story because, generally, our society is willing to accept that sexual abuse happens to girls who are uneducated and poor, but there's still denial about it happening in affluent, professional families. But it does.

"We know there are two ways to attack the endemic situation of child sexual abuse," she continues.

Her husband, who has "the same mission," goes to court as an expert witness; he testified in the sexual abuse trial involving the prestigious Toronto boys' school Upper Canada College.

The other way, she says, is by telling. "And for someone like me to tell, who is obviously successful and fine and has a good life and came through it, that's important for others to hear and to know."

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