Dispatch From the Memory War

As we were going to press, Contributing Editor Jill Neimark sent this important note: I've been covering the subject of memory for this magazine since 1994, when I profiled John Mack, M. D., the Harvard psychiatrist who has "helped" hundreds of individuals recover buried memories of alien abduction. You'd think that memory would be the stuff of dry academia but it turns out to be one of the most illuminating and terrifying stories of our time.

The most recent burst of gunfire was sent in my direction, though its real target was Elizabeth Loftus, the eminent University of Washington psychologist whom I profiled in the January/February 1996 issue. Her work is dedicated to demonstrating the inherent malleability of memory, its distortions, its suggestibility. She has testified on just that point as an expert witness in some infamous trials of the 80s and 90s. It turns out that's a dangerous line of work, for it flies in the face of the recovered memory movement, which has allied itself with feminism and child abuse.

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If anyone should be revered by feminists and therapists, it is Loftus, a brilliant woman who has put herself on the firing line with decades of ingenious and sound research. But instead she is violently hated by some women and psychotherapists.

Lately they've began trying to destroy her reputation, actually filing ethics complaints alleging scientific misconduct, threatening to sue an organization that is bringing her to speak, and using a few sentences from my article to try and censure her publicly. An astounding recent posting on the Internet gives a feel for the vitriol behind this. It came from a self-proclaimed "insider" at the University of Maryland who claimed he had copies of 11 confidential letters within the American Psychological Association, alerted readers to two current ethics complaints against Loftus, and blasted a rallying call. "If you or anyone you know has been on the wrong end of Loftus' testimony, you or your friend should pin their courage to the sticking place and file an ethics complaint against Loftus. . . . This window of opportunity won't last forever. . . . Let's go gang!"

Here's what happened: On January 16, Loftus resigned from the APA, noting that it had moved "disturbingly far from scientific thinking." Her resignation came after completing a report for a special task force on recovered memory. Its six psychologists had become so polarized--along exactly the same fault lines as the culture at large--that they produced two separate reports.

By a most bizarre coincidence, two women at opposite ends of the country filed formal complaints against Loftus within weeks of each other, just before she resigned. Both had won civil suits after recovering long-buried memories of sexual abuse. Jennifer Hoult, a harpist in New York, said she sent a 30-page complaint with 100 pages of backup to the APA on November 20. Lynn Crook, of Washington state, filed on December 8. Both claimed Loftus had publicly misrepresented their cases. Rumors flew that the two Women had been in cahoots, and were egged on by a network of incest survivors and pyschotherapists. Meanwhile, rumors flew that Loftus had been tipped off and resigned before the APA could investigate the complaints, leaving them moot. An article in the Toronto Star suggested just that.

But the complaints, when studied, are baseless. Nobody would resign over them. What they seem to poignantly reveal is the sound and fury of women so enmeshed in pain and anger that, though both claim to have wonderful lives, they cannot turn swords into plowshares and walk away from a battle that gave their lives tremendous, if tormented, meaning.

Lynn Crook filed her complaint about three sentences in my January/ February 1995 article on memory. She actually referred to my stated opinion as Loftus' "claim". She also cited a brief summary Loftus made of an anonymous case. Crook recognized herself in one detail: In her testimony, she stated that her father "made me put my fist into the horse." Loftus' "misrepresentation" reads "Daddy made me stick my fist up the anus of a horse."

Why, nearly a year later, would Crook take a few dozen words about an anonymous case in a long article on memory and draw attention to it? Especially since that case was dissected in a 1994 book, Making Monsters, by Pulitzer prizewinner Richard Ofshe, Ph.D., and Ethan Watters. The book states: "The defense even called in a veterinarian to tell the court what a horse's reaction might be if one were to stand directly behind the animal and force an arm into its large intestines."

I asked Crook why she never complained about Ofshe. "Because he's not a member of the APA." (He is.) And "Because he's a tenured professor." (So is Loftus). Crook, along with Hoult, has requested that Loftus' APA resignation be rescinded and a formal investigation begun. Crook insists that in filing her complaint, she wasn't influenced by Hoult, even though they are friendly. Recently, Hoult called Southwestern Psychological Association officers about a possible lawsuit if they allowed Loftus to discuss her case at an April conference.

Why Loftus? And why now? The tide has turned. Many recovered memory convictions have been overturned. Much of this is due to Loftus: it would help if she could be discredited as an expert witness. But far more powerful a reason is that Loftus is a woman, a scientist, unshakable, and widely liked; she's broken too many taboos. Women are supposed to burn bras, weep, and yell, not marshall strong science in powerfully argued debates. And no woman is supposed to turn traitor to the cause--the misguided feminist cause of other women as victims.

Columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote, "You don't have to check your skepticism at the door of feminism any more than you have to check your bra." Loftus has every right to engage in this debate, as do Hoult and Crook. All sides need to be heard. That's what academic freedom, journalism, and supposedly feminism are all about, aren't they?

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