The Diva of Disclosure
Profiles Elizabeth Loftus and her work on memory malleability. Comments made; Background information.
By Jill Neimark published January 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
This woman has unusual gifts of brains, guts, and charisma. So why is she avillain to some who know her life's work, while a hero to other?
She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, "You're that woman!", and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes security guards at lectures. The war over memory is one of the great and perturbing stories of our time, and Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory's malleability, stands at the highly charged center of it.
Even in her field, opinion is divided between fury and admiration. "I have nothing good to say about Elizabeth Loftus" says Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a psychiatrist at Harvard, who is an expert in dissociative disorders. "I have only the highest regard for Elizabeth Loftus's work," states Frederick Crews, former chair of the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of the most widely debated and discussed series of cover stories the New York Review of Books has ever published on the recovered-memory movement.
Loftus has spent most of her life steadily amassing a clear and brilliant body of work showing that memory is amazingly fragile and inventive. Her studies on more than 20,000 subjects are classics that have toppled some of our most cherished beliefs. She has shown that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, that false memories can be triggered in up to 25 percent of individuals merely by suggestion, and that memory can be interfered with and altered by simply giving incorrect post-event information.
Because her work raises doubt about the validity of long-buried memories of repeated trauma in particular--though it in no way disproves them--she has found herself asked to testify in some of the more famous trials of our time. In fact, Loftus has been called as an expert witness in more than 200 trials, from that of mass murderer Ted Bundy to accused child-killer George Franklin; has appeared on countless talk and news shows, from 60 Minutes to Oprah; has published 19 books and innumerable papers; and in 1995 received the Distinguished Contribution Award from the American Academy of Forensic Psychology.
Perhaps her voluminous mail says it best. One anonymous letter from an incest survivor concludes, "Please consider your work to be on the same level as those who deny the existence of the extermination camps during WWII." Another, from a jailed minister accused of mass child molestation, begins, "Your dedication and compassion for the innocent have earned my deepest admiration" Yet another, from a confused therapy patient, reads: "For the past two years I have done little else but try to remember. I have been told that my unconscious will release the memories in its own time and in its own way . . . . And I need to know if I am really remembering. The guessing has become unbearable"
The war over memory is far from academic. In the mid-'80s an extravaganza of child-abuse cases swept this country, often directed at day-care workers, all of them based on testimony of children who often at first did not "remember" abuse, but when coached and asked suggestive questions, began to unravel a tapestry of magnificently horrific memories: preschoolers raped with knives, forced to drink urine, assaulted in networks of underground tunnels, tied naked to trees, and forced to watch their caretakers torture animals.
These notorious cases were quickly followed by a second wave, equally fantastic, involving adults who claimed they had recovered memories of sexual and/or satanic ritual abuse they had repressed during childhood. More than 800 lawsuits have been reported to date. Yet a third wave might have followed if we could prosecute extraterrestrials, for scores of Americans began to claim they had been abducted by UFOs and had long repressed those memories.
At the root of these claims is the belief that memory is always accurate, and that memories can be repressed--that one can bury traumatic experience in some crypt of the brain, forget it consciously, and then recover it in pristine form years or decades later. This two-pronged view of memory, imported (and distorted) from Freud into the popular culture, has been embraced by a whole sector of America, from therapists to police detectives to the tens of thousands of adult women who read The Courage To Heal, often dubbed the bible of the recovered memory movement.
Uniquely, the war over memory has galvanized and mesmerized both high and low culture. It is the subject of earnest scientific research utilizing the most sophisticated tools of biology and psychology, and it is also battled out in lurid court cases covered intensively by the mass media. It is a war that has placed everyone from Roseanne to Cardinal Bernadin on the firing line. It has powerfully shaped and reshaped legislation, in a massive see-sawing of legal and public opinion.
To memory researchers like Loftus, who for years were quietly conducting their studies in academia, all this furor has been an incredible shock, as well as an unrivaled opportunity: "If I had known what my life would be like now--the frantic phone calls, the tearful confessions, the gruesome stories of sadistic sexual abuse, torture, even murder-would I have beaten a retreat back to the safety and security of my laboratory?" she asks in her recent book, The Myth of Repressed Memory (St. Martin's Press). "No. Never. For I am privileged to be at the center of an unfolding drama, a modern tale filled with such passion and anguish that it rivals an ancient Greek tragedy."
We are now entering Act IV of the tragedy, for this past year convictions in mass-abuse cases have been overturned with amazing rapidity and laws are changing once again. George Franklin, who was sent to jail in 1990 for first-degree murder in a 1969 incident that his daughter Eileen "remembered" 20 years later, was recently set free, as were the accused in three cases where convictions for mass child molestation were overturned last fall. And in May, a New Hampshire judge barred prosecution based on repressed memories. Maryland, Minnesota, and California have now followed suit with similar rulings.
But Act V is yet to come, and may never end: for how do those innocently accused individuals put their lives back together? It is the theme that haunts Elizabeth Loftus. "I keep thinking of Oskar Schindler circling the lake with thousands of people," she says without a trace of irony, though she adds that she realizes people may misinterpret this statement as one of hubris. "If I could save one more person. . . . "
The accused have been shot at, ostracized, imprisoned, interrogated, lost jobs and homes, and forced to fight lawsuits that have sometimes bankrupt-ed them. In some of the cases, the charges seem entirely false. As Wall Street Journal writer Dorothy Rabinowitz writes of the notorious Amirault case, where three members of a family were accused of molesting the children in their model day-care center: "No reasonable person who looked at the trial transcript could doubt that three innocent citizens were sent to prison on the basis of some of the most fantastic claims ever presented to an American jury"'
"It's shocking to me," says Loftus. "I feel as if some of these accusers are willing to blow up a 747 full of people because there might be one suspected child molester on board, They don't care that they're ripping the hearts out of families by their absolute insistence that this crime must be true, and that any attempt to cast doubt on that is backlash at best, and at worst the activities of some pedophile protector."
Though Beth Loftus is gregarious, warm, and (as one friend states) "always seems to be on a high without the aid of chemical infusion," she burst into tears twice in the first 20 minutes of our interview. We'd walked a few blocks back to her home from her favorite morning haunt, the Surrogate Hostess, pausing outside to lament with a neighbor over Loftus's "schizophrenic" tree, which wasn't growing properly. Her home is on a hill, comfortably furnished, with an eye for open space. Upstairs a loftlike, open-air bedroom offers a spectacular view of Lake Washington, set off with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Out in the garage is a cream-color sporty Mercedes, a quiet testament to the kind of money that can be earned as an expert witness (up to $400 an hour).
After a few minutes of chitchat, I asked her about her mother's death by drowning when Loftus was 14. I was particularly curious because of an amazing anecdote she tells in her book: On her 44th birthday, at a family gathering, an uncle informed her that she had been the one to discover her mother's dead body. Until then, she remembered little about the death itself; suddenly the memories began to drift back, clear and vivid. A few days later her brother called to say her uncle realized he'd made a mistake, that Loftus's aunt had found the body, not Loftus. Therefore, those few days of "recovered" memories were utterly false. "My own experiment had inadvertently been performed on me!" she had written. "I was left with a sense of wonder at the inherent credulity of even my skeptical mind" But when I asked about her mother, she began to cry.
"It's too upsetting to start this way, I think. Couldn't we come back to this later?"
I steered the conversation to her early career, and we began looking through her photograph albums. We paused over an old picture of her ex-husband, Geoffrey Loftus, who is also a psychologist at the University of Washington. (They are still friends, though he has remarried.) He was on a motorcycle: dark and sensual, a kind of gentle echo of James Dean. Loftus began to cry again. "He was beautiful, wasn't he?"
Next to that photo was one of Loftus lying on a towel under the motorcycle, in a miniskirt and ribbed cotton stockings, hair dark and long. Two sexier academics would be hard to find. "I wasn't really fixing the motorcycle, just pretending to" she confided. "But I showed these on the overhead when I introduced him at a meeting of the American Psychological Society"
She quickly dried her tears, and explained without embarrassment that she has a hard time hiding her emotion around two subjects: her ex and her mother. "I was in an old abandoned castle in Holland with other memory scientists from around the world, and we were being taped for television. Somewhere in the middle of this the interviewer brought up my mother and I started crying. You know, it's with you forever. My brothers tease me, they say, 'Don't say the word or Beth will cry'"
There is still family speculation about whether her mother's death was a suicide, and just how much her father's emotional coldness might have contributed to it. At 14, just before her mother died, Loftus was happy-go-lucky and boy-mad. But there was a dark undertow: her mother had earlier been sent away to treat her depression.
"Today, July 10, 1959, was the most tragic day of my life," Loftus confided in her diary. "We woke up this morning and . . . found her in the swimming pool."
Grief and loss are common enough: Loftus keeps it alive, yet channels it unremittingly into "helper's high?' "I miss the idea of having a mother, so I've gone around being a mother" When a friend lost both her sons and mentioned over coffee that she was contemplating suicide, Loftus naturally began to cry and talked to her for several hours, convincing her to remain alive for her only daughter. (The friend's husband confirmed to me that the woman never considered suicide again).
Her mother's death also drives her involvement with the shattered families she encounters. At 8:45 one morning I found her in her office, talking to a woman from Boise, Idaho, who had seen her on a talk show and called out of the blue. The woman was in hysterics: she claimed she'd had psychotic breakdowns as a result of repressed memories of childhood abuse. Loftus listened sympathetically for 20 minutes, located a Boise therapist on her computer, and suggested the woman use her name as an introduction. (Ever the researcher, she also took notes on her computer as she listened.)
Such generosity of heart is startling in someone who, ultimately, puts devotion to her work first. In fact, Loftus freely admits that it was her love of work that broke up her marriage. "I did not realize what a workaholic I was going to become" She is clearly and unabashedly sad over separating from Geoff, but at the same time "proud that my marriage lasted as long as it did, 23 years. I'm very proud of that."
Yellow Fruits and Mass Murderers When she was growing up in Bel Air, California, Beth Fishman had no idea she was going to be one of the most famous psychologists in the world, that one day she would beat out B.F. Skinner when students at the University of Houston were given a choice between the two as guest lecturer. She was planning to be a high-school math teacher, "because math was the one thing my father and I could talk about," Two years after her mother's death, her father remarried. "Our stepmother had three children, and she was much nicer to her own kids. My two brothers and I became very close. We had all this history and tragedy and we bonded against our stepmother."
At UCLA she discovered psychology, graduated with a double major, and applied to graduate school at Stanford in mathematical psychology. There she met and in 1968 married Geoffrey Loftus. "I thought I'd take care of my husband's career just like my mother had, and then somehow in the third year of graduate school I got interested in long-term memory."
Fellowships and jobs kept the couple apart; even when they were both in New York, from the summer of 1971 to the summer of 1972, they lived in separate apartments. Finally, Geoff landed at the University of Washington and a year later Beth was offered assistant professorships at both Harvard and Washington.
He gave her 24 hours to decide, and suggested that if she went to Harvard they should divorce. "I think he was hurt that I even had to think about it. I spent the next 24 hours on the phone with people. My advisors said, 'If you have to give up anything for Harvard don't do it, chances are you won't get tenured' My friends said, 'If you have to give up anything for that odd marriage of yours, don't do it.' But I had to find out about Geoff. I really respected and cared about him" She moved to Washington, and not long after they bought the house she is living in now.
"Then I got a fellowship to Harvard. So we spent another year apart."
All this time, Loftus had been working seven days a week on yellow fruits: specifically, she was studying how the mind classifies and remembers information. In the early seventies, she began to reevaluate her direction. "I wanted my work to make a difference in people's lives." She asked herself, "What do I talk about when I have no other reason to be talking?" An impassioned conversation about a man who'd been convicted after killing someone in self-defense suggested the answer. Perhaps she could combine her interest in memory with her fascination with crime by looking at eye-witness accounts.
Loftus obtained a grant to show people films of accidents and crimes and test their memory of such events. Thus the study of eyewitness testimony was born, a field she can literally claim as her own. At that time the world believed that eyewitness testimony was as reliable as a video camera. Loftus found that just the questions interviewers asked, and even the specific words they used, significantly influenced memory. "How fast were the two cars going when they hit each other?" will elicit slower estimates than " . . . when they smashed each other?"
Merely by careful questioning, Loftus could cause subjects to remember stop signs as yield signs, or place nonexistent barns in empty fields. Subsequent research has shown that violent events decrease the accuracy of memory: in fact, memory is weakest at both low (boredom, sleepiness) and high (stress, trauma) levels of arousal. The bottom line? Memory is fragile, suggestible, and can easily decay over time.
The implications for real life are obvious: witnesses of violent crimes questioned by police and detectives, who often have a bias, may not be reporting the truth. When Loftus published an article about her results in this magazine in 1974, she was suddenly hurtled from the safety of yellow fruits into the courtroom. She was called frequently to testify about the validity of eyewitness testimony for mass murderers like Bundy, Willie Mak, and Angelo Buono.
It was exciting and terrifying: "Eyewitnesses who point their finger at innocent defendants are not liars, for they genuinely believe in the truth of their testimony. . . . That's the frightening part--the truly horrifying idea that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth." Needless to say, her colleagues were bitterly divided about the appropriateness of her expert testimony. She was accused of exploiting trials to build her career; of taking research from windowless laboratories and applying it inappropriately to real life.
But she loved it. Her husband protested her all-encompassing involvement with work: "He wanted to hike or take walks or spend leisure time," an idea Loftus genuinely doesn't comprehend. For her, work is play. "For instance, I don't understand how people can have country homes. Why drive to be somewhere else, why not enjoy where you are?" Her ideal day--and she'd like 365 of them a year--is to get up early, work hard for about 12 hours, and take off at night by socializing (probably with colleagues) over a few glasses of good wine.
She takes pleasure in super efficiency: She loves to open her mail in her office while reading and responding to e-mail while on the speakerphone returning phone calls. She has sent me e-mail posts at five in the morning that begin, "I've learned not to fight insomnia, just make use of it . . . "
Yet she is vibrant and sensual. Loftus' graduate students took the famous Demi Moore picture on the cover of Vanity Fair (Demi's Birthday Suit--in which the naked actress had a tuxedo and striped shirt painted onto her body), substituted Loftus's face, and flamed it for her. It sits on the window ledge in her office.
When the couple hit their mid-30s, Geoff's father died. "He didn't want children before that, and then he wanted them." They tried. Loftus underwent surgery, and when that didn't work, they gave up. "We didn't talk about that as a factor in the divorce, but I think it was" (He has a child with his current wife.)
Despite the divorce, there is still vitality in the bond. While I was in her home, Geoffrey Loftus phoned from Oklahoma; he was driving East to MIT for a sabbatical. Loftus came back from the phone call smiling. When she gets an interesting message on her faculty voice mail, she often forwards it to him. And as she took me on a tour of her home, Geoff's belongings kept showing up. Some of his ties hang in her closet; and she keeps some of her hats in the cradle he was rocked in as a baby.
Single life has not been easy, but she gives it an edge of humor in the telling. There was a Mick Jagger look-alike whom she spied in a restaurant and met by convincing her lunch mate to turn and say, "George? Is that you, George?" (It turned out the man's middle name and his father's name was George, so he was hooked.) Then there was Ply, who used to complain that she didn't buy two-ply toilet paper.
And there was Blot (so named because he used Rorshach tests), who romanced her for two months, then suddenly ended the romance and was engaged to someone else two months after that. "I was heartbroken, I got through it by asking everyone I met if they'd ever had an experience like that. I collected stories of heartbreak." She hopes she can feel about someone else "the way I feel about Geoff. But the truth of the matter is when I look around and ask, 'Would I want to trade my life for someone else's?' I wouldn't. I don't feel, 'Gee, I'd rather have that life instead.' I've learned to want what I have."
What If the World Is Flat After All?
"Don't you ever worry that you're protecting pedophiles and molesters?" I ask her one afternoon, as we sit on her terrace. Her neighbors are gardening and have just invited her to a block party, the sun is shining, and we seem far removed, in this sylvan suburb, from the nightmare images of pederasts and butchered babies. "How do you make your judgment call?"
"You know, I've seen so many of these cases there's a cookie-cutter quality to them now. But I do wonder" she admits. "I have these moments when I think, What if I'm wrong about memory? What if people really do shove this collection of experiences into the subconscious and bury them there, and they leak and you can recover them in some accurate form and rely on it? I'm not saying it's impossible. Even the Hungerford case--where the daughter claimed her father raped her from the age of five until 23, including just days before her wedding, and then repressed all the memories until a few years later, when she entered therapy--even that I wouldn't say was impossible.
"When working on legal cases, in the end I can't say the abuse didn't happen. I can only say if these memories are false, here's how they may have developed. And I have this history--going way back--of worrying about the falsely accused. If there's one question I have about myself, one puzzle, it's that history." She has always worried about unfair punishment and has accepted almost every death penalty case offered. Her schedule is packed with flights to various cities to participate in court cases.
Scratch the surface and you discover how skeptical she is about the view of sexual abuse as the root of life-long trauma: she herself was molested by a baby-sitter when she was six and shrugs it off. "It's not that big a deal," she says candidly. When I mention award-winning poet Michael O'Ryan's recent memoir--in which he describes his childhood molestation as the cause of a tragic life centered around sexual addiction, which psychotherapy only belatedly began to heal--she gently scoffs and suggests that O'Ryan's therapy itself may have helped him create a revisionist view of his life, in which all of his troubles were traceable to that early experience.
The science of memory is itself contradictory, offering up evidence to both sides of the war--and both sides discount the other's arguments. Loftus's classic study, Lost in the Shopping Mall, showed that children and teenagers could be induced to remember the experience of being lost in a mall when young--even though it didn't happen--simply by being questioned about it. As time passed, the memories were embellished and became more vivid, much like traumatic "repressed" memories unearthed in therapy.
Since then, Loftus and colleagues have shown that even imagining a "false" (as opposed to real) event increases subjective confidence that the event happened, that subjects can confuse dreaming and waking events when presented with a list of them; that after being told they have tested "high perceptual" ability and must have been exposed to spiral colored disks in their kindergarten classrooms, 50 percent of subjects can be induced to recall these nonexistent kindergarten "memories"; 63 percent can "recover" nonexistent memories of being exposed to colored mobiles while in their hospital cribs--a literal impossibility since the nervous system is not developed enough to lay down explicit memories in the first few years of life.
Advocates of the phenomenon of memory repression claim that Loftus's work simply does not apply to abuse. "She doesn't study traumatic memory, she studies normal memory," asserts Judith Herman, M.D., a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. "During trauma, the explicit memory system fries," contends Connie Kristiansen, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carlton University in Ontario.
Indeed, recent research shows that abuse may impact the master regulator of explicit memory--a tiny, seahorse-shaped organ called the hippocampus. Survivors of childhood abuse have a smaller hippocampus than normal. According to Daniel Siegel, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA, if the hippocampus malfunctions during trauma, while other components of memory carry on unabated, a memory may be laid down "implicitly", without conscious recall. In fact, the work of Joseph Ledoux, Ph.D., at New York University has shown that the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped organ in the brain, stores primitive emotional responses like fear independently of the hippocampus.
"The leap they're making, from implicit memory and Ledoux's work, is unconscionable," responds Frederick Crews, whose elegant essays in the New York Review of Books drew a direct and damning link between Freud and recovered memory. "We all know there's a wide area of mental activity that's implicit. When we drive our car down the street we are not consciously applying our skills. To say that the mere existence of implicit memory opens the door to the idea that multiple instances of incest can be completely forgotten is not only bad science, it's just flatly unethical."
"I've followed up on allegations of recovered memory made by patients in my practice," notes Richard Kluft, director of dissociative disorders at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. He claims that 60.7 percent were able to document at least one episode of the abuse they had alleged in therapy. "In one case a father who had perpetrated incest and denied it gave a deathbed confession. He begged his daughter for forgiveness. She'd never accused him, never confronted him, and had not recalled the incest until she was in therapy."
Loftus doesn't buy it. "Just ask him for one documented, published case. Interview the fathers. Do not, do not, do not take a second-hand report of supposed confession without investigating." As for studies on the brain: "Genuine trauma may cause neuro-transmitter change, maybe even brain volume changes. But can we rewrite laws based on such speculation? These findings are so far removed from actual repression of memories, and yet, sadly, so misused."
Says Kluft: "Loftus has done some brilliant work. Confabulation isn't new. The fact of the matter is, not only are there documentable recovered memories, there are also documentable false memories."
What's truly mystifying is that nearly every psychologist I spoke with acknowledged the possibility of truth on the other side--and yet the battle rages on, acrimonious as ever. Take Margaret Kelly Michaels--imprisoned for five years on charges of molesting children at the day care center where she worked. She's now free. But she still has eight civil suits pending against her; many parents are still convinced that she's guilty, and Michaels is filing a $10 million federal suit against the county, the state, and any individual involved in her prosecution. "I'm out to destroy a drooling, dark beast that never was," she has stated.
Red Licorice and Organ Donors
"I'm having an identity crisis," confesses Loftus over lunch one afternoon.
"You?" I stammer.
"I figure I have 25 years of good work left. And I'm wondering what to do next. Could I host a talk show? Could I be a columnist? Or should I start a think tank?"
She does not mean she would give up her work, just streamline it: "I could write four articles a year instead of eight, run two studies instead of six." What she really means is she wonders how to better instigate social change, and how to enlist others in that cause. (Later, in an e-mail exchange, she writes me: "Yes, yes, you can live an unconventional life . . . that's the point of wanting to have a perch from which to educate people who think this is not possible.")
Walking back to campus, we chat idly about a colleague of hers who specializes in the study of alcoholism and is famed for his "bar" lab. He was at a faculty party the night before; like Loftus, he has been admired and decried for his research. At the party, he'd invited her to the 20th anniversary celebration of his marriage, where he planned to show a video of his wedding. She'd had a few glasses of wine, was teary and happy, and had put her arms around him, saying, "I'm so glad you're my colleague."
The conversation wanders from alcoholism to cirrhosis.
"I wonder if they could have given the liver Mickey Mantle got to someone else," she says. By now I've learned to recognize this kind of statement as archetypal Loftus: wouldn't that be efficient and you could save a life at the same time.
We talk of organ donors. A friend of mine is waiting for a kidney transplant and is quite ill. Loftus pulls out her wallet and shows me her driver's license. Organ donor. "I had to get past the idea that maybe they'd take my organs out before I was really dead."
At one point I simply asked her, "Why are you so nice to people?" Her response, quite Skinnerian and yet elusive: "I like myself afterwards."
On my last day, at a small party for some of her students in her home, someone brought a bag of red licorice. Loftus had been proudly showing off a kinetic sculpture by a Romanian named Constantin--a melange of sharp silvery pieces that, when they moved, looked both lethal and beautiful. The sculpture was her first major art purchase, but her real delight in it (of course) seemed to be the heroic story of Constantin, who walked across Romania for six nights (hiding by day) to reach the border and freedom.
She took the licorice and turned to me.
"One of the articles about me mentioned that I love red licorice, and ever since I've gotten bags of it from all over. I was thinking after our conversation about organ donors yesterday, that if you mention it, someone out there may become an organ donor, and if even one life is saved. . . ."
"I'll do it," I promise.
"You see," she continued, confident and pragmatic, lifting her glass of wine, "you can do something like that in every article you write, and that way you can change the world.\
PHOTOS (COLOR): Elizabeth Loftus