In the summer of 1990, Elizabeth Loftus got a phone call from an attorney in San Francisco. A man named George Franklin had been charged with murdering a child, based on the recollection of his daughter, Eileen. Loftus, a psychologist, had testified in dozens of cases about the fallibility of eyewitness memory. But this case was different. The murder had happened 21 years earlier. Eileen’s purported memory, however, was less than a year old. According to the prosecution, she had repressed it. The Myth of Repressed Memory, pp. 40-72”>
Repressed? How could such a crucial memory vanish for 20 years, leaving its owner completely unaware of its existence, and then resurface in full color? Loftus had her own bad childhood memory—being molested when she was 6—but she had never purged it. She searched the psychological literature and found no basis for the repression theory. George Franklin’s attorney had a different theory: Eileen Franklin had never seen the crime. In her head, she had blended details of the murder, as it was reported in the press, with an imaginary picture of her father doing it. She had developed a false memory.
At the trial, Loftus explained how memories naturally eroded over time and became susceptible to distortion. She told the jury about an experiment in which she had shown people a video of a robbery and shooting. After the video, the viewers had watched an erroneous television report about the shooting. When they were asked afterward to describe the incident, many of them blended false details from the television report with their recollections of the video. They clung to these altered memories even when the experimenters suggested that they might be mistaken. Something like that must have happened to Eileen Franklin.
In previous cases, such testimony had swayed juries. But not this time. The prosecutor forced Loftus to admit that she had never studied memories like Eileen Franklin’s. Loftus had proved that people could misidentify random perpetrators, not that they could mistakenly accuse their own fathers. She had proved that memories could be altered, not that they could be wholly invented. Her work seemed irrelevant. In November 1990, George Franklin was convicted.
The nightmare was just beginning. Repressed memories were surfacing everywhere. In June 1991, Marilyn Van Derbur, a former Miss America, told the world that at age 24, she had discovered her father’s sexual abuse of her as a child. Later that year, Roseanne Barr claimed to have recovered 30-year-old memories of both parents molesting her. (“He used to chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head,” she said of her father.) The Myth of Repressed Memory, p. 80”> Women were suing their parents for millions of dollars. Hundreds of accused families sought help.
If these memories weren’t real, where were they coming from? Eileen Franklin claimed that her memory had surfaced during hypnosis, therapy, a dream, or a flashback. Barr said hers had emerged during individual and group therapy.
Loftus began to read popular books that told women and therapists how to recover memories of sexual abuse. The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest. They listed symptoms that supposedly indicated abuse even if it wasn’t remembered. They invited women to search for memories by imagining the abuse. They encouraged group therapy in which women could hear one another’s stories of being victimized.
These ideas sounded fishy. Suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion were known to alter memories in police interrogations and experiments. But could they create a whole memory? Could the recent surge of incest recollections be the product of recovered-memory therapy?
To find out, Loftus went to a talk by George Ganaway, a respected psychiatrist, at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in August 1991. Armed with case studies, Ganaway argued that “iatrogenic implantation”—implantation by therapists—was creating false memories of satanic ritual abuse.
Loftus suspected the same phenomenon was creating incest memories more broadly. But how could she expose it? In her book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, she described her next thought:
“While I couldn’t prove that a particular memory emerging from therapy was false, perhaps I could step around to the other side of the problem. Through careful experimental design and controlled studies, perhaps I could provide a theoretical framework for the creation of false memories, showing that it is possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened.”
This was a pivotal decision. Loftus wasn’t a detective. She was a designer of experiments. She couldn’t start with seemingly recovered memories and demonstrate that they were false. But she could start with false memories and demonstrate how they were seemingly recovered.
Piece by piece, she analyzed and incorporated her adversaries’ methods. For example, she noted in her book, “to parallel the therapeutic process, the memory had to be implanted by someone the subject trusted and admired, either a relative, friend, or a respected authority figure.” That insight led to what became known as the “lost-in-the-mall experiment.” (For more on the genesis of this experiment, see Part 2.) Each subject was given summaries of four incidents from his childhood. Three stories were true; one was false. The false story followed a formula: You got lost in a mall or department store, you cried, you were found by an old person. The summaries were written with the help of older relatives who knew the true incidents and the family. One woman, for example, was falsely told:
You, your mom, Tien, and Tuan all went to the Bremerton K-Mart. You must have been 5 years old at the time. Your mom gave each of you some money to get a blueberry Icee. You ran ahead to get into the line first, and somehow lost your way in the store. Tien found you crying to an elderly Chinese woman. You three then went together to get an Icee.
Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
The subjects were told that their relatives had recalled all four incidents. They were asked to fill in the details of each incident or, if they couldn’t remember it, to write, “I do not remember this.” In follow-up interviews, they were asked to think more about each incident and to retrieve any additional details they could recall. Of the 24 people subjected to this procedure, six came to remember the fake story as true.
From this experiment, Loftus began to sketch what she called a “recipe” for planting memories. First, you needed the subject’s trust. A therapist had that; so did a family member. Then, by suggesting that the incident might have happened, you planted a seed. The subject would think about it, and the idea, if not the scene, would start to become familiar. The people and places mentioned—Tien, blueberry Icees, the Bremerton K-Mart—would evoke real memories, and these would begin to blur with the suggested scenario. By coaxing the subject to imagine the scene, you could accelerate this confabulation. Gradually, she would add details, seizing authorship of the story and securing its authenticity. The fabrication was out of your hands now. The memory was hers.
Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
This recipe was what the incest-survivor books were unwittingly teaching. It was what the recovered-memory therapists, with equal folly, were practicing. They hooked their readers and clients with checklists of supposed symptoms: headaches, guilt, low self-esteem, fear of darkness. Then they induced collaboration. “Let yourself imagine or picture what might have happened to you,” said one book. “Occasionally you may need a small verbal push to get started. Your guide may suggest some action that seems to arise naturally from the image you are picturing.” The guide, a therapist, supplied personal knowledge to help the process along. Group therapy helped, too. The more incest memories a woman heard, the more plausible her own victimization became. The more images she absorbed, the easier it was to picture the scenes she had repressed.
The mall experiment had obvious flaws. It involved only 24 people. Getting lost was different from being sexually abused. And maybe the six people who bought the story really had gotten lost in a mall, even if their parents or siblings didn’t remember it. So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.
Loftus speaking at the Center for Inquiry’s World Congress, April 2009
Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.
With each escalation and success, Loftus turned the tide of the cultural and legal war over repressed memories. Her experiments became potent evidence in court. Around her rose a flourishing field of research in the malleability of recollection. (For a selection of recent studies, read Memory Editing: Best of the Web.) Psychologists, judges, and initially credulous news organizations became skeptical of repressed memories. Many women retracted allegations of abuse. Lawsuits and regulators began to punish reckless therapists. The frenzy subsided.
For her courage in confronting this menace, Loftus was ostracized by clinical psychologists, denounced as an enemy of women, and accused of molesting her own children, though she had none. Armed guards accompanied her at lectures. And when she dared to reinvestigate a particularly compelling allegation of sexual abuse—the “Jane Doe” case—her university seized her files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. (Read Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe.) She persisted in the face of these ordeals because she refused to live in a world of lies.
That was the story she told about herself in books and interviews. And it was the truth. But not the whole truth.
Next: Truth or Consequences?
Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: