Gaby Breitenbach has seen and heard some awful things. The German psychotherapist is telling me about how sometimes, from a very young age, women are systematically tortured by people seeking to split their minds into multiple identities.
Illustration by Craig "Questions" Scott
Gaby Breitenbach has seen and heard some awful things. The German psychotherapist is telling me about how sometimes, from a very young age, women are systematically tortured by people seeking to split their minds into multiple identities. The desire is to control the victims, of course, but also to leave them with an identity that seems perfectly normal to strangers. While the victim's everyday identity will have no "memory" of the trauma they've experienced, Breitenbach says the abusers are able to "summon" the other identities with various triggers. This can be something as simple as a ringtone, for example.
This method of mind control is known as "ritual abuse." Most of the time the abuse is sexual in nature. Sometimes the abusers crave power; sometimes they're just being cruel. Sometimes they're pseudo-religious nutjobs, sometimes they're fascists, and oftentimes they are organized crime networks. Sometimes the abusers use their victims to gain membership to a secret society; sometimes they flick a switch in their minds to make them commit suicide. The world can be an incredibly shitty place.
Last month, Breitenbach opened a safehouse to treat victims of ritual abuse in Germany. Vielseits, which translates to versatility, is the first of its kind in Europe and offers trauma therapy to anyone who walks through its doors. I gave Gaby a call to find out more.
A drawing by the child identity of an adult ritual abuse victim
VICE: Hi, Gaby. First off, why are projects like Vielseits necessary?
Gaby Breitenbach: Because without a project like Vielseits there is no way for victims to leave the cycle of abuse. The people abusing them are connected, but the victims are not. Vielseits connects, protects, and offers space to heal.
Can you tell me about the kind of women who seek help at Vielseits?
All the women who end up with us are victims of organized, sadistic, and sexual violence, who have been subjected to mind control. There are also organizations practicing ritual abuse with a kind of spiritual superstructure where certain ideologies come into play, such as neo-fascist mindsets or different pseudo-religious groups, like Scientology or satanic cults.
From an outsider's perspective, these are women who appear to have led seemingly normal lives—their everyday persona wouldn't have been aware of the abuse they were subjected to at night, weekends, or on school holidays. These traumatic experiences are contained in different parts of the identity, so they're kept away from the conscious, and the person has no knowledge of the trauma they've experienced.
How are these personas created?
The victims are subjected to near-death situations—with the help of electric shocks, waterboarding, or other forms of torture—from an early age, and then they're "rescued" by their tormentors. At some point the victim’s psyche will develop an automated response—it will split, in a bid to survive. As a consequence of the systematic torture, the victims can develop a range of different identities throughout their lifetimes. Offenders perpetrating the abuse hold the key to this system of split identities and have the power to evoke a specific set of behaviors using triggers—which can be hand signs or certain smells or sounds, like a ringtone.
And why would people want to instill these triggers in their victims?
In general, there are two different reasons. There are perpetrators practicing ritual abuse for personal satisfaction. They place their victims in near-death situations by extreme violence just for the sake of it. Others enjoy the power aspect to it, have enormous salaries, and also secure themselves entry and membership into exclusive circles this way. A side effect of this is that the victim has no other option than to run away on the inside, emotionally and mentally, and create separate identities.
On the other hand, there are groups of abusers with elaborate plans to create split personalities and summon one at the flick of a switch. They want to sell the "programs" they use to control their victims to customers and to show off that they were able to create separate identities in one person.
What types of identities might they create with these programs?
Young ritual-abuse victims are most often used as child prostitutes and trained to take part in sadistic child-abuse imagery and films. These women will be prostituted for most of their lives, used for sadistic violence and sometimes for espionage. Many of the identities put through this abuse can't feel pain.
So how do clients spend their days at Vielseits?
They have strict daily routines in small supervised groups. The content of their days depends on current issues and opportunities: sport, self-defense, different kinds of creative activities, skill training, risk assessment, cooking, management of day-to-day life, dealing with authorities, etc. In addition to that, the women also need one-on-one contact with therapists and a lot of support.
Vielseits founder and psychotherapist Gaby Breitenbach
What do you know about the abusers?
Clients report that people from all different walks of life and from all occupation groups are part of the networks. They range from the police to the judiciary, people in public administration, university lecturers, medical workers, psychologists, hypnotists, politicians.... Certain names come up repeatedly. In exchange with other clients and colleagues across Germany, we are able to cross-validate these names. Some are renowned, award-winning people.
Can you tell me one of those names?
Well, I'd be on shaky legal ground if I did.
Yeah, I guess you would. Have you and your team come into contact with any abusers?
Offenders do put pressure on our team at Vielseits, the institute, and the practitioner's office. The pressure ranges from verbal threats to incidents that have almost led to car accidents. Abusers also put pressure on the clients—for example, sometimes they will convince one of their identities that they've murdered a member of our staff who is actually away on vacation. This is only one example of the many techniques abusers use to regain control over their victims. More than half of our clients still voluntarily get driven off in their abusers' cars at the end of the day, presumably to endure further abuse.
How close do you come to the victims' experiences?
We see fresh wounds and scars on the bodies of victims daily. We have an abundance of abuser names, crime scenes, and documented experiences. A few women here have photos and other things documenting the abuse.
Why don’t they go to the police?
These women are under severe pressure and know they will pay with their lives if they do that. There are automated programs [in their minds] that can be triggered to make them commit suicide. Over the years, experience with the police has proved only mildly successful. Dealing with women with split personalities, whose thought processes are still in the control of the abusers, can be frustrating for the police.
Do you have any examples?
Often an identity that is still loyal to the network will purposefully mislead officers so that police investigate, only to find that none of the claims are true. Victims with dissociative identity disorder also have limited credibility in court, just like children under five years old and disabled people. It’s a process we don’t usually advise our patients to go through, as the chances of success are slim. Our patients are most interested in leaving the circle of abuse and surviving.
How does the staff deal with those identities that are still loyal to the abuse networks?
Mostly by understanding why they are loyal. By explaining to them that the circle of abuse can be stopped, and by building up their self-worth. We also work out the triggers and bait that are used to get them to come back. Are there children left in the group? Are there others in the group who will supposedly be harmed if that particular person does not return? Are the clients being told that the therapist at Vielseits will only be protected from death if they return?
In general, it's a matter of examining the tricks and methods of deceit used by the abusers. To shut down the programs that have been installed in their brains, clients need to work through the trauma with therapists. This inevitably means living it again, which is also physically draining and very painful for the women.
Finally, is it conceivable that Vielseits could be infiltrated by an active member of an organized crime network?
Certainly. This is why there's a lot of networking within the team, at least one hour of supervision daily, and crisis interventions with clients when needed. In general, our work requires a lot of information examining, testing, and checking as a team.