Repressing Elizabeth Loftus

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The L.A. Weekly profiles Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist famous for her work in how supposed "memories" can be falsified. She has become a frequent expert witness in cases of supposed repressed memories of child sexual abuse, or any case pivoting on memory.

As the story details, she is currently facing a lawsuit from one repressed memory patient over a paper Loftus and a colleague published in the Skeptical Inquirer, casting doubts on a famous heretofore "Jane Doe" story about a woman who remembered, then forgot, then remembered again sexual abuse from her mother while a child.

Even though Loftus herself did not name the supposed victim, the woman sued for invasion of privacy, and in so doing did enter her name in the public record. Loftus' attorney notes in the story that the woman seemed to have no problem with having the doctor who first elicited these supposed memories writing about them publically–"Loftus? team believes that Jane Doe…was fine with her story being used as long as those using it uncritically accepted the reality of her memories."

One of the more interesting details in Loftus work on the malleability of memory:

In an extra-credit homework assignment…Loftus? students [at University of California-Irvine] went home and said to younger siblings things as simple as ?Hey, do you remember the time you got lost in the mall when you were 5 years old?? and then recorded the ways in which the ?memory? would take on a life of its own in the succeeding days, becoming more vivid, more detailed, with each conversation. At a more advanced level, using research subjects in a lab, students successfully created memories of mildly traumatic childhood experiences ? such as being temporarily separated from one?s parents ? that never actually occurred. One student even managed to generate a series of false memories in her research subjects about being licked on the ear by a Pluto character while visiting Disneyland decades earlier. In another experiment, to make sure they were dealing with false recollections rather than real ones, research assistants created memories about meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, who, in reality, couldn?t possibly have been in the theme park. The purpose of these mind games is to show that even the most vivid memory is not necessarily an accurate representation of past reality.

Loftus's area of expertise has made her much-reviled:

A quick Google search reveals hostile Internet correspondence, angry radio-show transcripts and high-octane commentary issuing against Loftus from around the world. And then, of course, there are the aforementioned death threats.

?Once I started being skeptical of those repressed-memory accusers and the therapists who helped them get this way,? Loftus says, her voice tinged with an emotion somewhere between resignation and bewilderment, ?the hate mail began flowing in.?

Loftus is in the unenviable position of trying to bring evidentiary standards to a witchhunt by proving that just because a therapist can get you to believe something happened years ago doesn't necessarily mean it happened. That she should elicit such anger is unsurprising–such supposed memories often serve powerful emotional needs for both therapist and patient.

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  1. Oh boy. Good to see Reason handling this extremely delicate subject with all the sensitivity and care we’ve come to expect.

    “just because a therapist can get you to believe something happened years ago doesn’t necessarily mean it happened.”

    And, conversely, just because a therapist can get you to beleive something happened years ago doesn’t necessarily mean memories can’t be lost and recovered.

  2. Just because those shrinks are quacks doesn’t mean I’m not out there abducting people.

  3. Loftus is right up there with folks like Norman Borlaug in my unsung-hero pantheon. She’s done a great deal to advance the cause of reason, of skepticism. Of examining phenomena exhaustively to determine their root causes. Of not jumping to conclusions.

    I sure hope she doesn’t get harmed by the suit.

  4. And, conversely, just because a therapist can get you to beleive something happened years ago doesn’t necessarily mean memories can’t be lost and recovered.

    A statement for which appropriate cites are almost certainly forthcoming.

    . . . waits patiently . . .

  5. People with psychiatric problems who receive appropriate treatement don’t generally go running to the media, Phil. There’s a bit of a self-selection problem with your post.

  6. And just because Kerry was/wasn’t in Cambodia on xmas/tet of ’68/’69 when Nixon was/wasn’t Prez doesn’t mean Col. Mustard doesn’t have a searing memory of doing it in the library with the candleholder.

  7. But it was Bugs Bunny, and the activities weren’t punny. They don’t call him Bugs fur nutin!

  8. This story underlines why the debate between the Swiftboat veterans and the Kerry campaign is ultimately pointless. Each side is emotionally invested in their version of events and I truly believe that, in their mind, their version of events truly happened.

    I have also had first-hand experience with people who remember an event differently than myself. If we were both there and we both witnessed it, how is it that we remember it differently? I think the mind can play tricks on us.

  9. And, conversely, just because a therapist can get you to beleive something happened years ago doesn’t necessarily mean memories can’t be lost and recovered.

    It may be the case that memories can be lost and then recovered. So maybe you should objectively demonstrate that they can be, come up with an objective means of distinguishing the real recovered memories from the phony ones, and *then* try introducing recovered memories as evidence. Because right now the “science” behind recovered memories compares unfavorably to ouija board reading.

  10. I think its important to remember that real abuse does occur, and occur quite often.

  11. Dan,

    Loftus doesn’t claim – at least in the above blurb – that repressed memory doesn’t exist.

  12. I’m a member of a family where recovered memories of ritualistic satanic child abuse caused a lot of grief. This happened during the height of the repressed memory syndrome’s popularity in the mid-1980’s. My sister had a breakdown after recurring nightmares of having sex with my father. The culmination was when in the throes of passion with her husband his face would dissolve into my father’s. She was hospitalized and three weeks later, Voila!

    As a result, my father and youngest sister haven’t spoken in nearly twenty years. My other sister insists all the incest, etc. happened but is willing to continue a relationship with my father.

    I have been accused of having sex with my sister when she was three and then being hypnotized to forget about it. Her casual dismissal of my denial is “I’m sorry you can’t remember that you were as much a victim as I am”.

    Looking back, there is some circumstantial evidence that my father was an odd bird and it is possible that he may have done some things he shouldn’t have.

    OTOH, it is doubtful that the local police chief, two city council members, and a whole host of others were able to systematically practice satanic rituals complete with dead cats, candles, & drugs, while also sexually abusing numerous children in the community and running a child porno ring (no internet in those days) without arousing the slightest suspicion.

    Needless to say there is something really wrong with both my sisters, each of whom has had significant mental illness requiring short term hospitalization and ongoing therapy (shrinking and pills) that doesn’t seem to be helping.

    I also had my share of psychological problems years back as well (now I’m just crazy), which I’m certain stemmed from the pyschotic environment in which the three of us were raised.

    But I somehow managed to stagger through the early years and long ago moved on to a happy and productive life. That tends to make it difficult for me to work up a ton of sympathy for others, like my sisters, who carry it with them for decades. I like Don Henley’s method: “Get Over It” Not easy, but it definitely works once you get past the “oh woes me” part.

    But finally, and this goes to memories, repressed and otherwise, I clearly remember every awful, shameful, and rotten thing I have ever done in my entire life. Some of that stuff I’d love to forget. But despite that clarity, somehow I just can’t remember being 12 and having sex with my 3 year old sister while my father and his sick friends took pictures.

    Guess I’ve just repressed that memory.

  13. Everyone knows that abuse occurs all the time. But relatively few people know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people in prison based on a phenomenon that has little, if any, evidence to suggest it actually exists: recovered memory of traumatic events.

    If only psychiatric/psychological organizations had the courage to admit that Satanic cults never existed, despite the many members who convinced their patients in the 80’s and early 90’s that they were the victims of these cults. Families were destroyed, lives were utterly ruined. Even children who have grown up and tried to convince authorities that they were just saying what they were told to say have had little luck in righting these horrible injustices.

    Recognizing these inarguable facts, these travesties of justice, should in no way keep us from recognizing and dealing with the REAL abuse that does occur regularly. Sadly, these recovered memory cases have probably diverted valuable resources from the real cases of abuse.

  14. Ray D.

    You’re memory is right. Those other guys were drunk.

  15. “In an extra-credit homework assignment…Loftus? students [at University of California-Irvine] went home and said to younger siblings things as simple as ?Hey, do you remember the time you got lost in the mall when you were 5 years old?? and then recorded the ways in which the ?memory? would take on a life of its own in the succeeding days, becoming more vivid, more detailed, with each conversation.”

    Doesn’t this raise some ethical issues with human test subjects? It doesn’t seem quite right for a professor to encourage her students to mess with their younger siblings’ heads like that.

  16. Joe’s problem is that he dared to suggest that *Reason*’s treatment of the complicated issue of repressed/recovered memory is rather one-sidedly pro-Loftus. Well, *of course it is*! This is *Reason*, dammit. It’s a libertarian publication, and part of the libertarian party line (by which I don’t necessarly mean the “Libertarian Party” line) is that “junk science” in the service of plaintiffs is running rampant, that charges of child sexual abuse are usually as invalid as witchcraft charges, that it’s all the fault of a bunch of feminazis, etc. (Curiously, unproven scientific theories in the service of defendants are never “junk science,” and the obvious differences between persuading people that they were lost in malls and that they were sexually molested are ignored.)

    To expect *Reason* to be even-handed on such subjects is like expecting *The Nation* to present “The Case Against Chavez” or *National Review* “The Case Against the Swift Boat Allegations.” A leftist theoretically could be against Chavez. A rightist theoretically could scoff at the charges against Kerry. A libertarian theoretically could take into account the arguments of Loftus’s scholarly critics. But in practice it’s Just Not Done.

  17. Joe’s problem is that he dared to suggest that *Reason*’s treatment of the complicated issue of repressed/recovered memory is rather one-sidedly pro-Loftus. Well, *of course it is*! This is *Reason*, dammit. It’s a libertarian publication, and part of the libertarian party line (by which I don’t necessarly mean the “Libertarian Party” line) is that “junk science” in the service of plaintiffs is running rampant, that charges of child sexual abuse are usually as invalid as witchcraft charges, that it’s all the fault of a bunch of feminazis, etc. (Curiously, unproven scientific theories in the service of defendants are never “junk science,” and the obvious differences between persuading people that they were lost in malls and that they were sexually molested are ignored.)

    To expect *Reason* to be even-handed on such subjects is like expecting *The Nation* to present “The Case Against Chavez” or *National Review* “The Case Against the Swift Boat Allegations.” A leftist theoretically could be against Chavez. A rightist theoretically could scoff at the charges against Kerry. A libertarian theoretically could take into account the arguments of Loftus’s scholarly critics. But in practice it’s Just Not Done.

  18. Gary,

    As far as I know (and I’m often wrong, mind you) the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association are the largest organizations of their kind. Members of both these organizations were instrumental in fueling the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of the eighties and early nineties. At the time, neither organization objected to the obviously ridiculous and baseless charges made by their members in regards to Satanic Ritual Abuse.

    I did a search on their websites for the term “Satanic Ritual Abuse” and nothing came back. Considering the damage done to the families of the patients who were convinced that they’d been victimized by Satanic cults, you’d think either APA would have made a statement saying that it was a mistake to support those making such destructive claims, when there was never a shred of evidence to support those claims. Then again, I suppose since more and more of the psychiatrists and psychologists who took advantage of their patients’ depression and vulnerability are being successfully sued, it might just be a way of protecting themselves.

  19. Two planes just went down in near Rostov, Russia, after apparently being hijacked.

  20. Actually, the jounalists who’ve spent the most time debunking recovered memory syndrome and its abuse by prosecutors (not civil plaintiffs’ attorneys) are not libertarians, but the conservative Dorothy Rabinowtiz and the liberal Debbie Nathan whose work on the subject has been published in, respectively, the Wall Street Journal and The Nation.

  21. Actually, the jounalists who’ve spent the most time debunking recovered memory syndrome and its abuse by prosecutors (not civil plaintiffs’ attorneys) are not libertarians, but the conservative Dorothy Rabinowtiz and the liberal Debbie Nathan whose work on the subject has been published in, respectively, the Wall Street Journal and The Nation.

  22. Steve,

    Her work has generated substantial resistance from many psychologists who stand to gain a lot of money from providing therapy. Further, many of these therapists believe with almost religious zeal in their ‘therapy’.

    That kind of blew it for me right there. Couldn’t we equally say that Dr. Loftus stands to gain a lot of money from the sales of her book(s)? Or that she has a “religious zeal” about her work?

  23. Steve,

    In other words, they are the sort of stupid, throwaway criticisms that one can neither prove nor disprove and are almost always best left out of discussions altogether.

  24. Pedro,

    Terrorism in Russia? You don’t say. 🙂

  25. Joe,

    Where in Brian’s post does he suggest that memories can’t be lost and recovered? You’re contradicting a claim that wasn’t made. His point is that a “lost and recovered” memory can be fabricated (an empirically proven claim). Consequently, based on what we know right now, a “lost and recovered” memory (which may or may not be accurate – again, empirically proven) can’t be treated as evidence with the same credibility as, say, and eye witness account or continuously held memory. I don’t know enough to make a claim about whether anyone yet discussed is pursuing this, but certainly a rigorous study of this phenomenon could yield an indicator of which recovered memories are legit and which are fabricated. Such a thing would serve the cause of justice enormously, and it certainly is not going to be achieved by folks who respond to tough, honest questions about the reliability of recovered memories with kneejerk condemnation and death threats.

  26. You’re all wrong.

    joe did not get “owned”, or “served”, he got pwned. p-w-n-e-d.

    buncha n00bs.

  27. Joe,

    Okay, so you began your post with a criticism, and I mistook what followed for an attempted substantiation of that crticism. Please, then, substantiate your criticism – what about this post is careless or insensitive?

  28. Dan, Loftus doesn’t claim – at least in the above blurb – that repressed memory doesn’t exist

    You just love non sequiteurs, don’t you?

    I didn’t say Loftus claimed that. Nor did I claim that. What I said was that the science behind “recovered memories” was bunk, which (a) it is and (b) Loftus has, in fact, claimed, although not in the linked article.

    I’m not going to make the claim that recovered memories don’t exist, for the same reason that I’m not going to make the claim that aliens have never visted Earth. Maybe recovered memories are real, and maybe aliens have visted Earth. All I know is that there isn’t a lick of solid evidence for either proposition.

  29. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, spent his life with vivid memories of the time he was a little boy in his stroller and nearly kidnapped, but fortunately his heroic nanny fought off the would-be kidnappers. All through his childhood and adulthood he remembered this with the same surety that I remember where I graduated from high school.

    But then, on her deathbed, his nanny admitted that she’d made the whole thing up–she was late taking the boy back from a walk because she’d been dawdling and window-shopping, and invented the story to save her job. Yet to Gilbert the memory was entirely real.

    If you read about the various cases where day-care workers were arrested over child abuse cases discovered via false memory, interesting things come to light:

    -the only kids who ever recover these memories are the ones who see therapists convinced that such abuse did occur. Therapists without preconceived notions never discovered this in their patients.

    –why do these memories only seem wrapped around sexual matters? People who suffered even more traumatic childhoods–say, spent in a concentration camp or a Commie gulag–never suppressed those memories. Saying that the alleged victims suppress the memories out of shame doesn’t make sense, since the supposed events occurred when the kids were too young to have learned that sex is ‘dirty.’

    Michael Shermer wrote about this at length in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things.”

    Kudos to Elizabeth Loftus. I hope she wins this case.

  30. I believe Pen and Teller did an episode somewhat about this on BullShit, season one.

    -Justin

  31. The idea that one “represses” traumatic events, and that the greater the frequency of the trauma the more likely the repression seems to defy common sense in application.

    For example, a close friend of mine did a tour of duty in Vietnam in the Marines and was a P.O.W. He experienced severe trauma, repeatedly over an extended period of time. His problem is not that he cannot remember, but rather, that he cannot forget.

    I have been a practicing psychologist for almost 20 years. In that time I have seen plenty of people who were abused. And who like my friend in Vietnam their problem is not that they cannot remember the abuse but that they cannot forget it.

    I have also known and met therapists that engage in highly questionable practices such as using hypnosis and auto hypnotic suggestion which cause, in my opinion, patients to confabulate events of repressed memory.

    For example, if you take emotional fragile people, and tell them in that wonderfully practiced emotional supportive tone that, “in my experience, when people exhibit these kinds of symptoms and feelings, they often have been depressed”. Then, when they express a reaction to not having abuse, you tell them ” strong reactions like yours are often indications of denial”. Then you send them home with a homework assignment like “now during the week, whenever you feel lonely and depressed like you have been, try to imagine or put a face to that feeling and see what happens”. And now, using this auto-htpnotic suggestion, they begin to confabulate a repressed memory of someone abusing them.

    No magic here and it is easy to see how it happens. My only lingering question is how unethical practices like this continue.

  32. Jennifer,
    “Satanic Panic” by Jeffrey Victor is another interesting book along those lines.

    Right before I moved from a suburb of Charlotte, NC a few years ago, I read an account in the paper of a 65 year old woman being arrested for an episode of child abuse that supposedly had happened two years earlier. The woman had for years operated a daycare in her home. At the time of the accusation, the accuser was five years old. He claimed that as punishment at the daycare, he was tied naked to a chair and had a pencil inserted into his anus as the other kids made fun of him. What are the chances that no child present would have said a word about such a bizarre act for two years??? What are the chances this kid had an accurate recollection of something that supposedly happened when he was three years old? Yet, the local police arrested the woman, shut down her daycare, and her picture was plastered on the front page of the local paper. I don’t know the outcome of the case, but feel certain the woman’s life was and never will be the same.

  33. Careers were built on recovered memory abuse cases in the 80’s…Janet Reno got her “defender of children” laurels by pursuing these cases in the 80’s.

    Also I’m suprised no one has invoked the Amirault case in MA, i.e., one of the most egregious examples in the 20th century of the state unjustly wielding unchecked power against an individual.

    The guy who ran the prosecutorial circus, Scott Harshbarger, is now the director of “Common Cause.” Please remember this the next time you see him quoted as an “expert” by the mainstream media.

  34. fundie christians + fundie feminists = FUCKNUTTERY

    all that sexual repression and revenge fantasies floating around, and then they throw a pile of fucking psychiatrists on top?

  35. Where in Brian’s post does he suggest that memories can’t be lost and recovered?

    Are you questioning joe’s memory of what he read? Or what he wanted to believe he read?

  36. Looks like joe got owned.

  37. i believe the term is “served.”

    many in the “anti-cult movement” assholes got their start in the SRA panics of the 80s, and moved on to bigger and better things, like Waco. i wish i could start a kidnapping for hire business and get paid to browbeat people from one religion to over to another.

    “help! our son belives in the wrong invisible sky monster!”

  38. To add another suggestion to the list of books trying to explain why recovered memory is so persistant and, to many people, convincing, try _Hysteria_ by Elaine Showalter. It covers alot of ground, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Recovered Memory, Satanic Ritual Abuse, etc. It’s very interesting and well documented.

  39. “And, conversely, just because a therapist can get you to beleive something happened years ago doesn’t necessarily mean memories can’t be lost and recovered.”

    LMAO!!

  40. Xavier,

    Indeed, you are quite correct. That came to my mind upon first this reading this as well. Indeed, I’m sure her discpline has a set of rules and procedures for just such occassions, and I’m curious how these actions look in light of those rules and procedures.

    Repressed,

    You’re going to have to accept that some people are just “weaker” than you and can’t “get over it.”

    Les,

    What psychiatric organizations are you talking about?

  41. Xavier,

    if you consider that unethical, then I am responsible for horrible crimes against my children. I told my children a tale (I was also told as a kid): the reason the refrigerator door closes all by itself is because there’s a refrigerator ghost who likes to keep it cold in there. My god, what have I done?

  42. Hey joe–

    Prove I don’t remember you sexually abusing me as a child.

    It’s not up to me to disprove recovered memory, it’s up to the person who claims that recovered memories occur to prove they do.

    On the other hand, Loftus and many others have shown repeatedly that memories can be manufactured by suggestion. So the contention that memory is not reliable is fairly well established. All I’ve seen from the recovered memory people is a bunch of contentions that “if they say it, it must be true” with a string of convictions for extremely implausible Satanic rituals involving whole towns.

    It may indeed exist, but it seems a rather poor basis for jailing people–unless you can prove you never abused me.

  43. I believe one can only get “served” in a dance off.

  44. then wouldn’t owning be involved in a sports contest? or it’s online cousin, p0wned?

    i shall stick with served in this usage.

  45. “Owned?” “Served?” Cripes, I went to bed!

    Tim, I didn’t contradict anything. I agreed with his statement which drew a line around the issue, and made another statement that drew another line around the issue – neither of which contradicts the other.

    Serves me right for trying to make a fine point; you all seem a lot more comfortable when I get in line with one rank or pikemen or another (see debatge about progressive taxation, below). Well, sorry, my brain doesn’t work like that.

  46. Phil, you want cites? You want corroborated cases of recovered memory?

    Try

    http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem/archive.html

    and for responses to the critics of the site
    http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem/critics.html

  47. I am a criminal defense attorney and as such have 1) heard Dr. Loftus speak on several occasions; 2) read many of her works, including journal articles (and her great book, The Myth of Repressed Memoryh); and 3) consulted with her about a case – wound up not using her for reasons not particularly related to the case.

    To answer some of the points raised above, Dr. Loftus conferred with the ethical committees of the psychological departments of the university where she was teaching before engaging in these studies. She recognized the ethical problems inherent in these studies, and worked with the committees to fashion a ‘harmless’ test. The studies were deemed ethical after consideration. Quite frankly, the studies are fascinating and depressing. Fascinating because one begins to realize just how malleable memory is. Depressing because you begin to wonder whether your greatest memories actually happened or if you just re-created them through the years in order to fulfill your own needs.

    Dr. Loftus, while not explicitly denying repressed memory, argues that repressed memories function so differently than other actual memories and are so frequently, demonstrably wrong that it is doubtful that they are actual memories. Her work has generated substantial resistance from many psychologists who stand to gain a lot of money from providing therapy. Further, many of these therapists believe with almost religious zeal in their ‘therapy’.

    Dr. Loftus’s attacks focus on the school of though that “If you think you were abused, you probably were, even if you cannot remember it”. In this school of thought, any sort of psychological response is viewed as ‘proof’ of abuse. Can’t remember it – you’ve suppressed it. Remember it in great detail – obviously it happened. Overweight – eating to avoid remembering. Anorexic (sp?)? – the abuse caused psychological hatred of your own body.

    Scientifically speaking, experiments are frequently conducted through the process of elimination: After experiementation, we see that disease X does not have Y symptoms, but instead Z symptoms. When any symptom is given as proof of a syndrome, it becomes doubtful that the syndrome actually exists.

    Quite frankly, Dr. Loftus is one of the most gentle people I have ever met. There are some persons in this field, such as Dr. Richard Ofshe (whose fame derives primarily from his work on false confessions, but he has written on false memory as well) are much more aggressive and forceful, claiming that repressed memory is “bullshit” (to use Ofshe’s term). In reading her books and in listening to her speak, it is obvious that she is very concerned about the well-being of actual abuse victims and those who have been bullied into believing that they are abuse victims.

    I hope that Dr. Loftus prevails in this lawsuit. There are many people in jail and many people that have been incredibly damaged by the hokum she has exposed. And I would encourage anybody looking for more info to read her book The Myth of Repressed Memory. For a book about what happens when this type of crap runs unchecked through the judicial system, read ‘Mean Justice’, by Edward Hume (I think that’s the author’s name. I know the title is correct. It’s on Amazon, but I am having a hard time putting links to the books in the posting). Both are truly frightening books for those who believe in reason, skepticism, and individual rights.

  48. Once, back in my martial arts days, I created memories in a friend by telling him a story of one of my experiences. Even though he wasn’t there, after hearing me tell of my exploit several times he became convinced he was there and witnissed it himself.

  49. ” . . . the complicated issue of repressed/recovered memory . . .”

    Given what we know about memory, it is clear that it is easy to plant memories, and consequently ruining someone’s life or reputation based upon “recovered” memories is simply unjustified.

    In that sense, this isn’t a complicated issue at all. Certainly our scientific knowledge of memories is still weak, and the subject is a complicated one.

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