The Woman Who Taught Us Not to Trust Our Memories Has Some Doozies of Her Own



When people first started coming forth with stories of being abused by Catholic priests, it felt as though a fault line had opened in the earth, and all sorts of buried rats and lizards were scampering out. As a reporter, I fielded calls weekly. Sometimes with trembling voices, sometimes erupting with rage, people wanted to tell me, and have me tell, their story.

The triage was tough. We were living at a time when enlightened wisdom directed that anyone with a traumatic memory must be believed, fully and automatically. Skepticism would only add trauma. Most of the time, I could let the story unfold, piece together other facts and accounts, reach some sense of validity. But a few stories were inconsistent, lurid, vengeful for other reasons. Whose life do you protect? Was the woman who, in her sixties, still seemed coy and flirtatious, hungry for attention, inventing these wildly detailed tales for her own purposes? Or was she coy, flirtatious, and hungry for attention because the wrong kind of attention had sexualized her too soon and frozen her in place?

Around this time, I read the work of Elizabeth Loftus. I have never forgotten it. She blew open the whole notion of recovered memories, buried for years because they were too painful to integrate. One dramatic, hysterical case after another, she shot down. She even showed how an entire group of children (a rather small group, I learned later) could be persuaded into false memories.

Loftus’s studies were coolly scientific, and I used their conclusions to force my brain to stay open, not slip into credulity because I liked the person and wanted to trust them. But I still paid stubborn attention to the fragments and glimpses, even in the wildest stories. What if the story was false but its basis was accurate? Surely someone could weave a false narrative from true scraps. . . .

Once the shock of priestly sin sank in, we all calmed down a bit, and many lawyers, judges, and social workers got better at sifting out the truth. Loftus continued to sow doubt. A professor at the University of California, Irvine, she did not treat people who had suffered trauma, but she studied and teased apart and tested their memories. The highest-ranked woman on the Review of General Psychology’s list of the twentieth century’s most influential psychologists, she was brought in as an expert witness in high-profile court cases (O.J. Simpson, Oliver North, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Bosnian war crimes, the Oklahoma City bombing and, most recently, that of Harvey Weinstein). In the words of a lawyer who co-authored a book with her, she “obliterated the idea that there is a permanent, stable memory capacity in humans.”

A few months ago, I read a profile of Elizabeth Loftus in The New Yorker. Why had I never thought to learn more about her past?

As a teenager, she kept a relentlessly cheerful journal: “I’m completely satisfied with my life.” “My family is one of the happiest.” “Life is really my best friend.” “I love the world & everyone.” Presumably, that included her parents, but she rarely mentioned them. When the profile writer, Rachel Aviv, asked Loftus to describe her mother, “she could come up with only one vivid memory, of shopping for a skirt with her.” Loftus’s father, a doctor, emerges only slightly more clearly, and we learn that his wife’s unhappiness annoyed him. It was her siblings who intervened and sent her to a private psychiatric hospital to be treated for depression.

Young Elizabeth did not mention her mother’s hospitalization in her journal. Even when the absence stretched to four months, she wrote, “Life’s wonderful! When I’m old and lonely at least I’ll know once I wasn’t!”

Granted, fourteen-year-old girls have stopped looking to their parents to make life wonderful. And in the Fifties, having your mother packed off to a psychiatric hospital was nothing you wanted to talk about.

When her mother was finally released, Elizabeth drove with her aunt and cousin to pick up her mother, and they celebrated with a short stay at a vacation lodge. One morning, Elizabeth woke up to find her mother gone. An hour later, they found her body in the lodge’s swimming pool.

“Today, July 10, 1959, was the most tragic day of my life,” Elizabeth wrote in her journal that evening. She drew an arrow to a smudge on the paper and wrote, “A tear.” Why had her mother died? “Only God knows what happened,” she wrote dutifully, stifling any curiosity. But when she returned home, her father cut through all the “accidental death” suppositions: “Beth, it was suicide.”

Elizabeth and her two brothers did not talk about what happened. All three had privately decided to ignore their father’s verdict. A week after finding her mother drowned, Elizabeth was writing, “I’m a happy teenager! . . . . it was such a wonderful year for me.” But Aviv tells us a secret: The journal also contained paper-clipped scraps of paper, private thoughts Elizabeth called “removable truths.”

Removable truths.

Years later, she would become famous for showing that how we remember an event is colored by the language we use to describe that event. Her work would help erode our legal system’s confidence in eyewitness testimony. She would put the very existence of unconscious repression on the defensive, raising a skeptical eyebrow when buried memories resurfaced later in life.

Now I am obsessed. I skim Loftus’s Wikipedia page and see honors from the British Psychological Society, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the American Association of Applied and Preventative Psychology, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the American Philosophical Society, the International Academy of Humanism, the American Psychology-Law Society, the Society for Experimental Psychologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Humanist Association, and multiple universities. Then I look up an old episode of Scientific American Frontiers, in which she tries to persuade Alan Alda to “remember” that hardboiled eggs made him sick as a kid. Alda does not budge. Nope, no memory of that. Never ate many hardboiled eggs. With his usual amused affability, he does concede that nobody’s memories of childhood are perfect, so when he takes her quiz again, he moves down one notch, from a numerical score that means absolutely not to one that means I really can’t remember this, but there is a remote possibility. She pounces. She has introduced doubt, lowered his confidence in his memory.

It hardly seems a victory.

Many of us are vulnerable to suggestion, our memories blurry and uncertain. But intense emotion can also etch an experience in memory with every detail intact. Overly involved therapists can push a certain narrative until their client believes it verbatim. But the mind can also shelter us from pain and release it back to us little by little, as we can handle it.

“I’ve trained myself to be wary of emotions, which can distort and twist reality,” Loftus once wrote.

During a trial, grilled about her lack of personal experience with children who have been sexually abused, she calmly revealed that she had been abused at age six by a babysitter. “The memory flew out at me,” she later wrote, “out of the blackness of the past, hitting me full force.”

Interesting, that she trusted that memory. She included it in her book Witness for the Defense, although she gave the babysitter a pseudonym. Howard. Which, Aviv notices, was the name of Loftus’s first boyfriend. A guy who dumped her and, perhaps worse, made her cry.

One of Loftus’s brothers says that he once urged her to get therapy, but she told him she could never do that, because the next time she testified in court, opposing counsel would grill her about it.

Loftus does not remember the conversation.

By now, reading all these . . . inconsistencies . . . I am livid. This is the person whose worldview we allowed to shape our entire society’s approach toward memory and truth? Someone who has never fully integrated her own memories or allowed herself to feel their pain?

What do we do when at least partial truths emerge from neurotic minds? When exquisite music flows under the baton of a Nazi conductor?

Baby, bathwater. What if Loftus’s own dance with memory gave her unusual insight? If it is arrogant to automatically dismiss a recovered memory as entirely false, it is just as arrogant to dismiss important ideas because their originator lived through a private tangle and never pulled themselves together in private life. Neither memories nor minds should be discarded as worthless.

But as Loftus herself led us to realize, neither should be blindly praised as flawless, either.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.