Controversy is a constant for memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus

War & remembrance
Controversy is a constant for memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, newly installed at UCI.
The Orange County Register, Nov. 3, 2002

Academics can debate anything. It’s healthy. It’s what, among other things, they are paid to do.

They can also go to war. Which is something different altogether.

War has casualties. It also produces gladiators.

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist whose research into how memory works is so deep and so wide and so highly regarded that the April issue of The Review of General Psychology ranked her 58th among the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century. She is the highest-ranking woman on the list. She is also one of the 25 psychologists most often cited in psychology textbooks. She is also controversial.

She is, and has been for three decades, very much in the debate business. Her belief that memory is highly malleable and susceptible to all kinds of contamination was debated for a while, until she proved in the laboratory in the 1970s and ’80s that she was right.

Then, just when she was getting bored, came a host of new cases, straight from therapy, that were claiming that memories of traumatic events – horrific and usually sexual – could be deeply submerged in childhood, then, like Jonah spit forth from the whale, plumbed and revived, wholly intact.

Loftus said, “I don’t think so.”

Thus, the Memory Wars – as they are called by Science News and Psychology Today – began. They pit one set of psychologists against another: one that says “recovered” memories, especially those of sexual abuse, are true and should always be believed, another that says these memories probably are implanted by therapists mucking around with something they don’t understand; the result is memories that cannot be believed, or should not be believed without corroboration.

Loftus is the leader and the unapologetic lightning rod for the latter bunch, which lost a lot of the early battles in the 1990s but has lately been winning a lot, especially in the courtroom.

It’s a war she is happy to fight, professionally and publicly. She has testified for the defense in more than 250 cases, saying that you can’t trust memory.

But in fall 1999, the war, which was always personal, turned against her, personally. It almost broke her.

Ultimately, it made her leave a house she’d lived in for 28 years and a university that she had given her life to. It made her leave her breakfast club. It made her watch all those wronged- women movies on Lifetime television.

It made her come to the University of California, Irvine. Which has made her deliriously happy.

And if you think she was determined before to win this war, you should see her now.

This, then, is a story about how the most influential female psychologist of the past century came to Orange County, and all the stuff she brought with her.

Less than a month into her new job in Irvine, an “NBC Nightly News” crew is in her office. Down the hall, waiting their turn, are folks from the Discovery Channel. CNN is calling at 2 p.m..

She is absolutely at ease, citing her own research, explaining in sound-bite fashion how memory, especially of a crime, gets distorted.

The phone rings.

“Why do people lie in such cases?” she repeats into the receiver. “I could guess, but I’m not an expert on lying. You’re going to need to find yourself another psychologist.”

The Baltimore Sun reporter rethinks his position and asks another question. She begins to explain what she is an expert in. That would the porousness of memory, how it can adapt itself to new information and make it its own; how it can be fooled; how it can invent; how it can be recounted with confidence, emotion and detail and still be wrong.

She proved in study after study that the mind is not some videotape device that we can count on for accuracy and clarity. She has shown that memory is highly susceptible to seduction by suggestion. That what we remember is colored by what we expect to see, what we’re told we’ve seen, what we want to see, what we are asked to see.

She has, literally, persuaded subjects in a laboratory they have seen barns in barren fields. She has convinced teenagers and older children that they were lost in a mall when they were small. After the convincing, they actually painted remembered details of a day that never happened.

The great thing about Elizabeth Loftus is that she will tell you pretty much anything you ask. A couple of days in, and you know that a guy left her once because she used the wrong ply toilet paper. Or how, after writing a book on repressed memory, she got some death threats and tried to learn to use a gun, but “that it’s not how I wanted to live,” even though a practice range target in her office says she was handy with a .44.

You know that she can’t remember much about her mother, though, God, she’d like to. You know, too, that she was fondled once by her baby sitter but it was no big deal, in retrospect, given that her mother drowned when she was 14.

You know that she’s quite amicably divorced but genuinely proud that she was married for 23 years in the first place. That she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, although she got a doctorate from Stanford in 1970, when a lot of feminists were just talking about what they were going to do with their lives.

You find out that she was swatted with a newspaper by a woman who sat down next to her on a plane and that Gloria Steinem took pen to paper once to explain how Loftus was wrong about everything.

You find out she once asked a lone man at Los Angeles’ Fern Bar to join her large group of friends for dinner. He turned out to be an ex-con who was wearing an ankle cuff monitor. She was disappointed that he wasn’t more interesting because of that.

Then she’ll explain to you, in real words because you don’t have a Ph.D. and a 46- page resume and four honorary degrees and 19 books to your credit, how memory works and how it doesn’t. She’ll laugh when she adds that her first memory is from when she was 8, which is ridiculously late for a first memory.

She’ll tell you how she’s helped a lot of people you don’t like. Like Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, the Hillside Stranglers, the McMartin Preschool workers and almost every parent accused of incest suddenly remembered in a therapist’s office.

She’ll tell you that she makes $400 an hour just to explain her science to 12 people at a time.

And how that kind of makes her feel like Robin Hood.

Loftus started out wanting to explore how information was organized in long-term memory.

“It was pretty theoretical stuff, and me and five other people cared about it. I just decided one day that I wanted something with more practical application than that. I asked myself, ‘What do I talk about at parties, when there is no reward attached, except that I am interested in it?’ My answer: legal stuff.”

She realized she needed a grant to study such a thing, so she called someone she knew at the U.S. Department of Transportation and was told, “There’s money if you want to study traffic accidents.”

She began by asking how we remember traffic accidents. In 1974, she went public with her findings in Psychology Today, and pretty soon there wasn’t a defense attorney in the land who didn’t know her name.

This was OK with Loftus. She found, much to her own surprise, that helping to serve justice made her happier than anything she had ever done.

Prosecutors didn’t like her much. One called her a whore.

In 1976, she was asked to testify for Ted Bundy, accused of a string of murders. She was just this young scientist who believed “that science was there for everyone. Memories aren’t this smoking gun. There has to be more evidence than that.”

She took the assignment. Bundy was convicted anyway.

She continued to testify, making a serious dent in eyewitness reliance. She gave countless speeches to every manner of law enforcement agency. She guested at law schools and answered endless media inquiries.

In 1988, she was asked to come to the aid of John Demjanjuk, a former Ohio auto worker who’d been accused by concentration camp survivors of being the Nazis’ “Butcher of Treblinka,” a vicious, sadistic man they knew as Ivan the Terrible.

Born the daughter of Jewish parents of Eastern European descent, Loftus struggled with what to do about Demjanjuk. She read the evidence against him and asked her family what to do.

She believed in what her research told her. “I felt I was supposed to do it to be consistent. Then Emerson saved me when he wrote: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ “

Loftus then struck upon the perfect solution: She would tell them no but find them an expert who would testify in like fashion. She even flew to Israel to watch.

Demjanjuk was found guilty anyway.

Does Loftus believe he was Ivan the Terrible?

“Of course not.”

“Up until (1990), I was just the Eyewitness Lady,” Loftus says, “and a few prosecutors didn’t like me very much. Then came the repressed- memory stuff and I got kind of energized and then I was hated by a whole lot of new people who’d never heard of me before.”

They had not heard of her but they had heard of Freud.

It’s his word, repression – the idea that we can hide things from ourselves in our subconscious – that got latched onto when the public was served up a dazzling array of past parental deviation, starting around the time that Roseanne Barr told People magazine in 1991 that she was, probably, an incest survivor.

It had begun for Elizabeth Loftus the summer before, when the defense attorney for a California man named George Franklin called. Frank lin stood accused by his adult daughter of murdering her best friend when the girls were 6. The only evidence the prosecution had was Eileen Franklin’s newly discovered flashbacks of the crime, remembered during her own therapy. (She would later accuse her father of more murders, remembered.)

If other people were calling up Freud, well, so could she. Loftus went back and scoured Freud and everything ever written about what we bury and how we bury it. Wanting to know more, she was still baffled. How do you study something the subject doesn’t know is there?

She testified about post- event suggestion and the damage that years do to memory. But that testimony was not effective in keeping George Franklin from being convicted of murder.

The ball was just getting rolling. Fed in part by more open discussion and acknowledgment of child abuse, therapists were beginning to report a lot of remembered incest.

Loftus, of course, believes that child sexual abuse occurs. But she also is adamant that, as a memory, “it is stored normally and can decay with time.” It can be a memory not often returned to, she says, and can be painful to remember, but it is not something new that the subject is surprised to find and explore.

She believed that abuse, rather than being suppressed, is largely an event children do not forget. Loftus noted that the cases she was hearing about were, additionally, products of encouraged invention that led her to be highly critical of therapists.

Families were being shredded and they needed help.

Elizabeth Loftus, particularly sensitive to family shredding, was their woman.

“No one says memory’s infallible anymore,” says Robyn Fivush, professor of psychology at Emory University. “Loftus has done a tremendous amount of incredibly good work to demonstrate that you could introduce error into memory.”

But “the controversy in the psychological community is whether, as Beth suggests, repressed memory is simply a continuation and elaboration of that error � or, as many other people believe, if it’s a fundamentally different event.”

Loftus draws fire because hers is a very strong, unequivocal stand.

“She took the stand early, before a lot of research was done,” Fivush said. “And while there’s a lot more research now – done by her and others – there’s a question about how prevalent (invention) is. She says it’s super easy to get people to remember things that never happened. Others argue it can be done but only under certain conditions with certain people in certain ways. In the Lost in the Mall study, she could induce only something like 25 percent of subjects to believe they’d been lost when they were 5. She doesn’t want to consider that there could be another process at work in recovering memories.

“How can we tell the difference between the invented and the real? That’s where the money should be spent.”

Jonathan Schooler, a former graduate student of Loftus’ and now a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, works on what he calls “discovered memories.” Though the colleagues now differ markedly about the genesis of certain memories, Schooler calls his mentor “spectacular, a wonderful role model who has had a tremendous impact on how the scientific approach can be applied to real life issues. She, like Chomsky, Freud and Skinner, is defined by her willingness to take a provocative position.”

That said, most of the psychological community believes, as does Dan Schacter, chairman of the psychology department at Harvard University, that Loftus is “a pioneer motivated by principle.”

Then there are those who vehemently disagree with her and resent her interference.

Loftus can’t even tell you how much of our memories is verifiably true. She smiles at the naivete of the question.

“But most of the time,” she says, “it doesn’t matter if they’re true. It’s when you start putting people in jail on the strength of their accuracy that it does matter.”

In fall 1989, Holly Ramona, a troubled Napa Valley girl, came to UC Irvine to study. She was bulimic and depressed. She sought therapy. On the first day with Irvine therapist Marche Isabella, Ramona and her mother, Stephanie, were told that 70 percent to 80 percent of bulimics had been sexually abused as children.

During Holly’s therapy, under Isabella’s encouragement, Holly began to remember repeated sexual abuse by her father. Holly was unsure if the memories were true and agreed to be given sodium amytal, a drug she had been told was “truth serum.” In that interview, which was overseen by psychiatrist Richard Rose at Western Medical Center-Anaheim, Holly retold her stories of abuse that she said began when she was 5 and continued until she was 16.

While at the hospital, Holly confronted her father, Gary, who was then a $500,000-a- year executive with the Robert Mondavi wineries. He denied everything, explaining that he could not apologize or seek therapy for something he had not done. His wife divorced him. The stories of the incest led to his expulsion from Mondavi. He lost everything.

“It is somehow so preposterous, the process by which people can be led to believe such things,” Loftus says, “and then are led to act upon them.” It is, she adds, as if they need an explanation that is large enough to encompass the depth of their unhappiness.

“And they search until they find one that fits that description.”

With the help of Loftus and others, Gary won the unprecedented right to sue his daughter’s therapist, the psychiatrist involved in the confessions and the Anaheim hospital in which they took place. Then Loftus was among those who convinced a Napa jury in 1994 that Holly’s Orange County caregivers had created Holly’s memories for her, assured her they were true, then forced a confrontation that split the family irreparably, harming everyone in their path.

Gary was awarded $475,000. Isabella and Rose left the state. Holly, who did not respond to the Register’s request for an interview, went on to study psychology at Pepperdine University.

A subsequent lawsuit that Holly brought against her father was summarily dismissed as groundless.

The net result: “The trial took the teeth out of the witch hunt,” says Moira Johnston, who chronicled the family’s story in “Spectral Evidence: The Ramona Case, Incest, Memory, and Truth on Trial in Napa Valley” (Houghton- Mifflin, 1997).

Prosecutors filing charges began asking for more evidence than a single recovered memory, and medical malpractice insurers were less willing to go to bat for therapists. George Franklin, who had been imprisoned for murder based on the sole evidence of his daughter’s recovered memory of the killing, was emboldened to appeal his case in 1995. It was dismissed in 1996, and Franklin is now free.

The Ramona trial was also, Johnston adds, “a war between two women” (the other was San Francisco psychiatrist Lenore Terr) “who represented different points of view. Beth won. (The other side) still hates her because she discredited and humiliated them.”

Terr declined to be interviewed for this story.

The tide is continuing to turn. At a meeting this year of the American Psychiatric Association, a team of panelists determined that Recovered Memory Treatment controversy was dead. But, the statement from the APA reads, “Psychiatry still needs to help the main victims of RMT: those falsely accused of heinous crimes which never happened.”

Elizabeth Loftus’ mother drowned when Elizabeth was 14. Elizabeth kept a diary before that terrible day and after. The diary reveals a child who is desperately hurt but believes that one day she will get past missing her mother. She has not.

It is, she believes, what fuels her own workaholism and her desire, sometimes, to see shattered families made whole. To this day, she cannot mention her mother without tears. Loftus, the memory whiz, says she is hard-pressed to remember much about the woman she still misses.

A few years ago, Loftus was told that she was the one who had found her dead mother in the pool.

For 35 years, Loftus believed it was her Aunt Pearl who first saw her mother’s lifeless body in the water. For several days, Loftus searched her own memory for proof to support the new information. It came. She reinterpreted everything that happened that day in a new way, building up the memory. The scene was re-created in her mind with her in it.

Then her uncle called to say he was mistaken. She never saw her mother dead.

Five years ago, Loftus read an article by psychiatrist David Corwin about a woman named Jane Doe. A lot of people knew about Jane Doe and were citing her case repeatedly in research literature, calling it up as proof that memories can be repressed, then reliably recovered.

Loftus knew that psychological case histories such as this were so compelling that the stories lived long after the theories they engendered were put to rest: Bruno Bettelheim’s refrigerator mothers thesis about autism, created from a limited sample. The whole world of multiple personality disorder developed around Sybil, a case that was more a product of book publishers than therapy. Freud’s entire psychological construct based on a few female patients.

Jane Doe was just such a case, Loftus believed, and the conclusions were just as wide.

Corwin’s case history of Jane Doe explained how, in 1984, a 6-year-old girl was videotaped recounting the specifics of her mother’s abuse. The mother lost custody and contact with her daughter. Corwin returned when Jane was 17. For legal reasons, Corwin, who had been using the tapes for a decade in talks and seminars, needed her permission to continue to use them. Jane replied that she had never seen the tapes.

And so Corwin videotaped Jane again, at 17, as she viewed the tapes of herself 11 years earlier.

While being shown the tapes, Jane says, she doesn’t remember any of it. Then, somewhat startlingly, she does. Proof, said Corwin and others, of repression.

Loftus thought it sounded “fishy.” Still, if this was a true story of remembered abuse, Loftus wanted to find proof of the abuse, beyond Jane’s words. If it was not true, Loftus wanted Doe out of the legal and scientific literature.

First she found Jane Doe by searching public records and newspaper clips. She then found Jane Doe’s mother, who had lived for 13 years without her daughter. She found Jane’s stepmother in a grocery store. The stepmother explained to Loftus about the fight for Jane’s custody.

“This is how we finally got her,” Loftus reports the stepmother said. “The sexual angle.”

Loftus had compiled a lot of other evidence – medical and in depositions taken at the time – that she believed threw doubt on Jane’s story. The stepmother’s comment had clinched it for her.

She wanted to tell the story big but she wondered, “Who am I to be the one to tell her that the story she’d heard all her life wasn’t true?”

She consulted ethicists who told her the woman was old enough to vote. She could talk to her.

She even consulted a staff member at the Human Subjects committee at the University of Washington. She was given suggestions how the questions to Jane Doe might be asked.

The interview never took place. But, through Loftus’ efforts, the mother and daughter were temporarily reunited.

In September 1999, somewhat bewilderingly to Loftus, who believes it was prompted by others, Jane Doe complained to the university about Loftus’ invasion of her privacy. With 15 minutes notice, the university seized Loftus’ files on the case and denied her the right to talk about it or publish anything she’d discovered.

For a year and nine months, Loftus stood accused of doing research on a human subject without her permission. Loftus had never thought of it as research, she said. It was, if anything, journalism.

The university’s action hit her hard.

“They were my family,” she says. “It was like I was betrayed by my kids. My work is what I’m devoted to. But I was going to give up my job if I couldn’t publish my Jane Doe story.”

In July 2001, Loftus was officially exonerated by the University of Washington. The university never did say it was sorry.

She’d racked up $30,000 in legal fees and enough vitriol to last a lifetime. She published the story in The Skeptical Inquirer, and Loftus got the satisfaction of knowing that “people will be embarrassed to use Jane Doe’s case in court or in papers again.”

She regrets nothing.

The tide of recovered- memory cases has been stemmed in the past six to eight years. Loftus testifies six to seven times a year, mostly now in cases that have interesting twists. One she took recently involved a 60-year- old woman accusing her 90- year-old father of abuse that supposedly occurred a half century earlier.

Loftus and others on her side are privately braced for the next surge, the recovered- memory cases accusing priests of abuse.

With Distinguished Professor titles in psychology and criminology and a $155,000- a-year salary and a lab being built to her specifications, complete with sofa, Loftus hadn’t been in Irvine for a week when she got an e-mail from a local couple.

The Cowderys of Laguna Hills wrote to tell her that their daughter, Gail, had been estranged from the family for three years after accusing her parents, her uncle and her grandmother of sexual abuse.

The depression their adopted daughter suffered was not new, but her accusations, Kathy Cowdery explained, were vague – and the result of freshly remembered events, memories recovered after working with a new therapist.

Loftus wrote Cowdery back, asking for the name of the therapist.

Cowdery explained that her daughter had been seeing a woman who had come highly recommended by the Orange County therapeutic community, a therapist working out of Irvine and Mission Viejo.

Loftus opened up the e-mail and shuddered.

The therapist’s name was Holly Ramona.

For more information on Elizabeth Loftus’ life and work:

Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial” by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham (St. Martin’s Press, 1991).

<a href="javascript:void(0);" onmouseover="return overlib('Click these links for more information:

‘, CAPTION, ‘Buy This Book…’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘yellow’, TIMEOUT, ‘9000’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>

“<A HREF=" Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial
/ref=nosim/christianministr”>The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial” by Paul Eberle and Paul and Shirely Eberle (Prometheus Books, 1993).

The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegation of Sexual Abuse” by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketchum (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

To find the complete text of articles written by Loftus and to read “Who Abused Jane Doe,” her Skeptical Inquirer piece, go here .

To learn more about the history of repressed memories:

Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria” by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (New York: Scribner’s, 1994).

Return of the Furies – An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy” by Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager. (Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1994).

Therapy’s Delusions : The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today’s Walking Worried” by Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe (Simon and Schuster, 1999).

To read about an alternate view of recovered memories:

Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found” by Lenore Terr, M.D., (Basic Books, 1994).

To learn about how memory works:

The Seven Sins of Memory : How the Mind Forgets and Remembers” by Daniel L. Schachter (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001).

Find out more about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation here.

To find out an alternate view, go here.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday November 8, 2002.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at