Memory & Manipulation

The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused

Just ask Pamela Freyd of the Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation. FMSF, on whose scientific and professional advisory board Loftus sits, was founded in 1992 to provide advice to those accused in repressed-memory cases. "We've been contacted by 22,000 families," says Freyd, a retired teacher whose own family was rent apart by an abuse allegation from her 33-year-old daughter in 1991. "There was a growing problem for some families who had adult children who had suddenly and inexplicably accused them of abuse—abuse they had had no awareness of till, as adults, they entered therapy. These were families with good relationships. Therapists used hypnosis, sodium amenthol, guided imagery, dream interpretation, relaxation exercises. These are very dangerous techniques to use if undertaken in the expectation you can excavate historically accurate memories."

Wisconsin attorney Bill Smoler, who represents several accused families in repressed-memory cases, recalls one instance in which a young woman entered therapy and "began a journey into believing she was raped by her father, grandfather, uncle, brother, two cousins and three members of the clergy—and had repressed all of these memories." Ultimately, it emerged that the woman had severe multiple-personality disorder, and after she died, Smoler sued her therapist on behalf of her parents for malpractice as well as for damages because of the hurt done to the family. In 2000, a jury awarded the deceased woman's estate and her family more than $5 million.

Back in Southern California, a 79-year-old onetime marriage, family and child counselor, who asked that her name not be used, explained how in the late 1980s, her then-41-year-old daughter entered therapy and began recalling images that started with a memory of her mother inserting scissors into her vagina and gradually built up to a point at which she decided her parents were Satanists who had killed and eaten babies in her presence. Nobody was ever charged in the case, but the family in question was, naturally, completely devastated.

Others were not so lucky. In her books on repressed-memory cases, Loftus details the experiences of many individuals who were charged with sexually abusing their children solely on the basis of recovered-memory testimony. Many of these men and women spent months in jail awaiting trial; others ultimately were sentenced to years in prison—all without a shred of physical evidence ever being presented.

Over the years, Loftus' work has generated many followers. But others have responded with the kind of venom rarely seen within the confines of academia. Her friend Carol Tavris—who herself tasted a little of the fury after she published a famous New York Times Book Review article in 1993 titled "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine"—jokes that they have both been caricatured as "evil pedophile psychologists from hell." Their critics range from rival memory experts, such as Jane Doe's champion, David Corwin, to an array of therapists, victims of child abuse, and those who, for whatever reason, feel betrayed by those around them and hold Loftus and Tavris personally responsible for their ills. A quick Google search reveals hostile Internet correspondence, angry radio-show transcripts and high-octane commentary 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."

Yet Loftus' work goes well beyond the veracity of sex-abuse claims. While she made a name for herself as a memory expert defending those she believed to be wrongly accused, her work increasingly highlights the rough edges of memory in a host of different situations. Take a high-profile case in which the guilt or innocence of a defendant revolves almost entirely around eyewitness testimony or memories recalled by defendants during police interrogation, and the chances are pretty good that Beth Loftus' name will show up somewhere in the proceedings. These cases include the celebrated McMartin and Dale Akiki kiddie-abuse cases from the 1980s, in which allegations of day-care providers systematically abusing their young charges led to a national panic about youngsters being ritualistically abused by those hired to care for them, and the Holly Ramona case, which spawned a generation of repressed-memory allegations. (Ramona was a student at UCI who went into therapy and "recovered" very vivid but ultimately false memories of being repeatedly raped by her father while she was a young girl. Eventually, in 1994, in a case written up by Moira Johnston in her book Spectral Evidence, the father successfully sued the therapist for malpractice for implanting the false memories in his daughter's mind.) Loftus has even testified in the Ted Bundy trial, as well as in the Hillside Strangler, O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases in LA—she argued that the video of the police beating King didn't capture the entirety of the event, yet likely shaped the firsthand memories of those called to give testimony in the trial. More recently, Loftus has served as a behind-the-scenes consultant in some of the church-abuse sagas around the country, trying to work out which allegations have merit and which are coattails claims.

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