Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost every newspaper, mass circulation periodical, and television news show covered a fiercely polarizing debate, played out in highly publicized court cases around the country, about whether it was possible to recover childhood memories of abuse. After the growing recognition that child abuse was far more prevalent than had been believed, an increasingly vocal adult survivors’ movement had begun to form, determined to bring to light the previously ignored subject of child abuse. During this time, many clients began to tell their therapists tales of early abuse they’d never spoken of before.
Enter Elizabeth Loftus, a research psychologist specializing in understanding the malleability of memory, who went on to become one of the most honored psychologists of all time. During what came to be known as the memory wars, she emerged as the most prominent public critic of the notion that memories of childhood abuse could be recovered years later. She served as an expert witness in many of the most publicized recovered-memory cases of that era and became a controversial figure, whom many therapists came to regard with a mix of fear and outrage for what they considered her assault on their profession.
In the interview below, she reflects on her role in the memory wars of the 1990s and whether our increasing understanding of the brain has succeeded in further illuminating the difference between real and false memories.RH:
Repressed memory and the question of whether psychotherapists were implanting false memories in their clients attracted widespread public attention in the 1990s, and still is 20 years later. You became known as perhaps the leading critic of what you considered some of the excesses of psychotherapy. Was there pushback?Loftus:
Oh yes. People didn’t start their major attacks in earnest until after that. I was amazed at the negative reactions I received. There were even death threats at my speaking engagements. When I went to the University of Michigan, they hired an armed security guard to be with me all day. Psychologists were trying to drum up letter-writing campaigns to the chair of my department, the president of the university, and the governor of my state to try to get me fired. Some said I didn’t believe any abuse ever happens, but I’d actually written about my own childhood abuse in a book in 1991.
What I was reacting to was a sentiment in the therapeutic community that the suspicion of abuse was sufficient evidence that it had happened. There was even a classic line in an influential book by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis titled The Courage to Heal that was read by many genuine victims and some would-be victims: “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.”RH:
You’ve argued that the phenomenon of repressed memory is largely a myth, but I’ve certainly recalled memories I haven’t thought about for decades.Loftus:
People might be reminded of something they haven’t thought about for a long time. That certainly happens, even if you’re not in therapy. If you go to a high-school reunion, you’ll experience that for yourself. You can also think about traumatic things that you haven’t thought about for a long time, but there’s no good evidence that you can be raped for 10 years and be completely unaware that this has happened to you and reliably recover it in therapy.
Nevertheless, in the 1990s, the idea of repressed memory became so accepted that legislators were seduced into doing things like extending the statute of limitations. To me, that’s a problem. I don’t think someone should be able to come forward and say, “I just remembered in therapy that you robbed me of $1,000 25 years ago and I want it back, so I’m going to sue you.”RH:
You were involved in cases during that time in which you testified against therapists being sued for their work with repressed memory. Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently in those cases?Loftus:
I don’t know. Other skeptics were expressing their views about false memories much more aggressively than I was. I always took the position that the therapists were well-meaning but attached to theories that were unsupported and procedures that might have unintended side effects.
RH: With all the brain research that’s been done over the past two decades, do we have a better understanding now of how to distinguish “false” memories?
Loftus: The first thing to acknowledge is that neuroimaging and other advances haven’t taken us far in discriminating true memories from false memories. The neural signals that are associated with somebody recounting something that they actually experienced versus something they think they experienced as a product of suggestion are still too similar.RH:
Looking back, how do you think your work transformed the way therapists address trauma?Loftus:
I think clinicians are more cautious these days. When they see someone with an eating disorder, they’re less likely to assume that buried trauma memories need to be dug out. I think a lot of therapists are more careful, whether it’s because they genuinely don’t want to do harm or because they don’t want to be sued. But not everybody. People out there are still clinging to these cherished beliefs.This blog is excerpted from “The Malleability of Memory” The full version is available in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!>>