Memory & Manipulation

The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused

Like many of the people in the sexual-abuse cases, most of the alien abductees McNally interviewed did not actually remember, at the time of awakening from their hypnopompic episode, that they had been abducted. What they did feel was intense discomfort; many then sought the help of therapists or counselors—under whose tutelage they began to "remember" that they had been abducted and experimented upon while in this strange state. In a different cultural context, the same individuals would likely have recalled being visited by witches, ghosts or Satan. "Under the suggestive questioning of clinicians," McNally states, "these individuals' minds are generating very powerful explanatory frameworks—under the guise of memory—for their sleep paralysis. They're very resistant to reinterpretation." Soon, such "memories" become an integral part of the individual's self-identity—"I am an alien-abductee survivor"—and physiologically, the alien abductees, when asked to relive their experiences, respond in much the same way (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, facial muscle tensions) as do traumatized war veterans.

Those who cling to "recovered" memories of long-ago childhood sexual abuse—many of whom, says Loftus, also have a tendency to vibrant visual imagination, are somewhat suggestible in the presence of more extroverted personalities (such as therapists) and tend to have problems concentrating—are likewise invested in the reality of their claims. In both instances, says McNally, psychological problems lead to therapy, which leads to hypnotic regression, which leads to "false memories that explain the original problem." Maybe that's why Jane Doe reacted so furiously when Loftus and a colleague challenged the veracity of her story. It wasn't just that strangers were snooping around her past; those same strangers were actually, in effect, telling the world that the adult Jane Doe might not have as valid an excuse for perceived adult neuroses and problems as she believed she had.

Maybe that's also why many therapists have also reacted so furiously to Loftus' work. One female therapist sat down next to her on an airplane a few years back and, when in the course of casual conversation she found out whom she was sitting next to, got so angry that she hit Loftus over the head with a rolled-up newspaper, saying over and over again, "You're that woman."

Loftus, says Tavris, "makes people question, even if they don't know they're questioning, the explanation they've lived with for so long. She's telling doctors they're killing women because they're not washing their hands. The venom in the clinical world to Beth is in direct relation to how defensive she makes them feel. Beth is questioning some of the basic principles on which people are earning their livelihoods. People don't like that."

Now Loftus is getting ready to defend herself in court. Like many of the cases in which she has testified over the decades, Taus v. Loftushas the potential to once again remake the ground rules in the memory wars. Win or lose, however, Loftus has already succeeded in highlighting the legal system's overreliance on uncorroborated eyewitness testimony. "I think I've really helped people to understand the malleable nature of memory," Loftus says. "When I help save one innocent person, I feel really good about it."

Recently, Loftus tells me, she got a call from "Jane Doe's mother. She said, 'I'm calling because I had a stroke. I'm getting out of the hospital, and I just wanted to say to you that I'll never forget what you did for me.'"

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