Investigating False Memories

Memory is unreliable and malleable
Photo by Kevin GradyPhoto by Kevin Grady
By Susan Seligson

Elizabeth Loftus can make people “remember” that eggs once made them sick or that as children they were briefly lost in a mall, though both “memories” are false.

A high-profile forensic psychologist and memory researcher, Loftus does this not as a parlor trick, although she’s witty and entertaining—and clearly savors toppling the assumptions of TED audiences and, once, 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl. For decades, Loftus has led one of the sides in what has been dubbed “the memory wars.”

“I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” says the Los Angeles native, now a distinguished professor of social ecology and a professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Her UC website playfully describes Loftus as “an expert on nothing.” That’s because her groundbreaking studies of false memories, involving thousands of subjects, drive home the point that human memory is unreliable at best, and malleable enough to wreck the lives of the unjustly accused.

Loftus visited the Radcliffe Institute at the end of April to speak about her 40 years of work in the memory field, which have won her the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. Loftus, who has a PhD from Stanford, has testified in more than 250 legal cases and consulted on many others, including those of Michael Jackson, Oliver North, O.J. Simpson, and Martha Stewart. Despite often unsparing attacks from the defense (“I often joke that I deserve combat pay,” she says), Loftus can shatter, with sound science, the record/playback notion of how we remember and how memories become narratives. “Memory actually works more like a Wikipedia page,” says Loftus. “You can go into your page and change things. But so can other people.”

Harvard undergraduates and graduate students attended a lunch with Elizabeth Loftus before her lecture. Photo by Kevin GradyHarvard undergraduates and graduate students attended a lunch with Elizabeth Loftus before her lecture. Photo by Kevin GradyLoftus is best known for debunking the widespread acceptance of repressed memory. In her book The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (with Katherine Ketcham, St. Martin’s Press, 1994), most of the chapter epigraphs come from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Indeed, to Loftus, the early ’90s surge of false memory–based accusations of child sexual abuse was nothing less than a latter-day witch-hunt. Though no one was burned at the stake, the rash of accusations, criminal trials, and civil suits tore apart families and consigned a string of men and women—some exonerated, some not—to long prison terms for crimes ranging from incest to unprovable ritualized child abuse involving bestiality and human sacrifice. Juries relied on victims’ and therapists’ testimonies of unearthed memories, even images in dreams.

In her ongoing investigations of false memories, Loftus and her colleagues are responding to what she sees not just as a grave injustice but also as a slippery slope of a movement in which a group of neo-Freudians appeared to have taken leave of their ethics.

The rewards of celebrity status aside (“Being an expert witness is like getting paid a lot of money to watch Lifetime movies,” she says), Loftus has been the target of hostile scrutiny, personal slander, and even death threats.

In a decade during which former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur and Roseanne Barr-Arnold were featured on national magazine covers sharing revelations of their recently unearthed child sexual abuse memories, Loftus was among the few to raise an alarm about the pressures on vulnerable patients to ascribe a cause to their pain.

While helpful to survivors who carry continuous memories of child sexual abuse since it occurred, best sellers such as Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (William Morrow, 1988; 20th anniversary edition, 2008) also spawned claims of recovered memories.

As many of these cases found their way to Loftus, a pattern emerged: therapists drawing conclusions from generally discredited “memory work”—such as guided regression, hypnosis, and dream work—compounded by group therapy sessions that functioned more as fiction workshops.

In fact, all therapists “rely on the malleability of memory to help their patients recreate their life histories,” Loftus writes in The Myth of Repressed Memory. But, she adds, quoting a colleague, the therapist is not meant to be a detective but a compassionate witness.

Loftus, whose own compassion far outweighs the weary cynicism one might expect from her, has a colleague who likes to point out that these accusations are often recanted once the alleged survivor’s health insurance runs out. But repressed-memory therapists’ insatiable appetite for victims saddens her. “There are plenty of actual abuse cases,” says Loftus. These men and women don’t repress their memories; they just try to banish them or keep them private out of fear or shame.

Of all the cases Loftus was involved in, one standout was the rape accusations against Gary Ramona, a wealthy California vintner who was the first in a recovered-memory case to sue the therapist of the accuser, his daughter Holly.

In 1994 Gary Ramona was awarded $500,000 in a suit against an Anaheim, California, therapist for implanting false memories in Holly. Then in her early 20s, she had accused her father of raping her repeatedly between the ages of five and eight.

Although “the whole concept is so under assault,” says Loftus, such therapy continues, with very few admissions of wrongdoing.

Years later Loftus got a frantic call from an accused mother, who wanted help with her predicament. Loftus asked who her daughter’s therapist was. The mother didn’t know but said she’d find out. A week later, she contacted Loftus with the answer: Holly Ramona.

Susan Seligson is a freelance writer and the senior editor of Bostonia, the alumni magazine of Boston University.

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