Point of View

Point of View

The Malleability of Memory: Putting Psychotherapy on the Witness Stand

By Ryan Howes

November/December 2014

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. Galvanized by bestselling self-help publications like The Courage to Heal, empowered by the women’s movement, and spurred to action by 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.

In the fervor that accompanied the public airing of what had previously been family secrets, critics began to argue that overzealous therapists were fueling a witch hunt against innocent parents and irresponsibly ignoring the basic rules of scientific evidence, not to mention sound clinical judgment, encouraging the fabrication of stories of childhood abuse years after the fact. Many troubled families were torn apart by irresolvable conflicts about whether abuse had taken place. Some of these cases wound up in court, with therapists being sued for causing irreparable psychological damage through their treatment of suggestible and emotionally vulnerable clients.

Enter Elizabeth Loftus, a…

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Monday, January 26, 2015 6:41:45 PM | posted by Winja Lutz
I applaud Lynn Crook's efforts in pointing out - I have to say it harshly: Mr. Howes journalistic failures. I recommend he reads up on the references she points out and stops doing interviews and writing articles from a groupie perspective. It doesn't make for very interesting journalism.

Additionally, though at this time and age it should not be necessary to point this out anymore, Loftus' so-called Lost in the Mall study has numerous methodological faults and fails the Daubert standard: http://wendymurphylaw.com/LOSTINTHEMAIL.pdf

It might also have been an interesting topic for an interview to ask Mrs Loftus about her own experiences. Jennifer Hoult did thorough research to be found on: http://www.rememberingdangerously.com

"Loftus claims she was herself a victim of child sexual abuse.[120] Describing her abuser, she wrote, "I hate your guts," saying he "betrayed [her] trust, stole [her] innocence, and put an indelible impression, a bad, black memory into the place where only good, warm, happy memories should be."[121] Alternately she has said her molestation was, "...not that big a deal."[122] Loftus is critical of the memories of victims who have proven their claims in courts of law, but she protects her own memory from investigation or critique by withholding the name of her alleged abuser. While she claims continuous memory of the molestation she alleges, Loftus' description that her memory of the incident "flew out at [her], out of the darkness of the past, hitting [her] with full force,"[123] bears striking similarity to descriptions of flashbacks by Hoult and others who report traumatic amnesia. Furthermore, like Hoult and many other victims of sexual abuse, Loftus reports no eyewitnesses or medical records of abuse, and a twenty year lag in her reporting of the abuse.[124]
While Loftus passionately supports defendants' claims of innocence and attacks victims' memories, she expects the public and press to believe her claim without the investigation and kinds of corroboration she expects of other victims. Without providing her alleged abuser the chance to deny her claim, she denies him a chance to exonerate himself, shields herself from any possible claim that hers is a "false memory," and prevents other potential victims from being warned that he may be a threat. Loftus denigrates "uncritical acceptance" of other victims' claims,[125] but expects uncritical acceptance in her own case. Since she has "no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser,"[126] it appears Loftus cannot satisfy the standard she applies to others.[127] Under her standard, if her alleged offender denied the molestation, as most sex offenders do, he ought to be believed and her memory deemed "false." "Interview the [accused]," she says about other cases, but not her own.[128]"

[120] Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory, 226 (1994).
[121] Elizabeth Loftus, Witness for the Defense: The Accused, The Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, 152 (1991).
[122] Psychology Today, 73 (Jan./Feb. 1996).
[123] Elizabeth Loftus, Witness for the Defense: The Accused, The Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, 149-152(1991).

Saturday, January 24, 2015 4:31:16 AM | posted by Lynn Crook
Interviewer Ryan Howes stands at the end of a very long line of Loftus interviewers who play it safe. He fails to ask follow-up questions. Loftus may say something interesting or wrong or outrageous. Howes ignores this and continues on with his list of questions. For example, Howes asks Loftus why she attracts ire among therapists. “Some writers, like Jill Neimark in Psychology Today, have speculated that it was because I'm a woman,” Loftus says. Howes moves on.
Loftus may have been referring to Neimark's 1996 editorial online at http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199605/dispatch-the-memory-war. Neimark says Loftus is violently hated by some women—“Lately they’ve been trying to destroy her reputation, actually filing ethics complaints . . . “ Jennifer Hoult and I filed ethics complaints in 1995 against Loftus with the APA charging Loftus with misrepresenting our successful recovered memory cases to the media. Loftus resigned before the complaints could be investigated. Neimark writes, “Rumors flew that Loftus had been tipped off.” Those rumors were true.
Howes might have taken a look at Gerry Koocher's recent article in The Journal of Personal Violence (available on request). Here, Koocher reports that Loftus was tipped off. The APA's Executive Officer in 1995, Dr. Raymond Fowler, acknowledges he told Loftus about the complaints. Loftus subsequently faxed in her resignation. Fowler explained his reasoning for tipping her off: “An ethics investigation of a high profile psychological scientist at that time in APA’s history would have severely damaged the organization.” And indeed it might have. But that’s another story.
Loftus says, “In the clergy cases, people come forward with continuous memories of their abuse.” Howes might have asked Loftus about her testimony for the defense in MA v. Shanley, a clergy abuse case based on recovered memories. The guilty verdict was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Howes might well have addressed Loftus’s comment on the line from The Courage to Heal, “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were” as it allegedly relates to would-be victims. The idea that reading this sentence might convince someone they were molested is based on the now-rejected “hypodermic” or “magic bullet” theory of the 1930’s. This theory proposes that a message is directly injected into the brain, entirely accepted and the recipient is helpless to resist. To date there is no evidence that reading this sentence has caused anyone to believe they were molested.
Howes quotes Loftus on CA v. Franklin: “In 1990, I got a call from the lawyer representing someone accused of murder based on his daughter’s repressed memory.” Howes moves on. Instead, he might have asked Loftus about the evidence that led to Franklin’s arrest. The evidence is described in a review of the case by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (Para. 81) online at http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F3/312/423/608793/
Loftus says in the interview that she didn’t get negative reactions until after she wrote “The Reality of Repressed Memories” for the American Psychologist in 1993. Loftus discusses the Barton case in this 1993 article. Howes might have asked Loftus to explain why she left out the fact that Patti Barton had always remembered one abusive incident. She just didn’t think of it as abuse. Barton initiated the first lobbying effort in the US to get the statute of limitations extended. On June 9, 1988, RCW 4.16.340 became law in Washington State. The statute allowed “victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers within three years of the discovery of an injury caused by the abuse, even if that discovery should occur decades later.” Loftus refers to these lobbying efforts as “legislators were seduced into doing things.” Howes has no follow-up question.
Just because someone tells an interviewer something with great detail and confidence and emotion, it doesn’t mean it is true.

Friday, January 23, 2015 6:21:36 AM | posted by Ellen Lacter
This short interview with Elizabeth Loftus quickly reveals her bias and spin. In response to the questions of Ryan Howes, she consistently asserts that recovered memories of abuse are false. Not once does she offer that any recovered memories of abuse may be true. This is not how ethical scientists discuss a subject. We present material as objectively as possible, taking into account all potential outcomes. We do not behave as a defense attorney presenting only one side of a case.

Saturday, December 13, 2014 12:26:23 AM | posted by daisy swadesh
Loftus should study false memories in relation to the grooming/manipulation/and/or
intimidation of perpetrators.

Friday, December 5, 2014 6:16:23 AM | posted by David Cummins
Wonderful article.

David Cummins
Counseling Psychologist

Wednesday, December 3, 2014 8:46:18 PM | posted by John McDonagh
I was puzzled by Dr. Loftus\' disparaging comments on the merits of expanding the statutes of limitations to allow adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse greater opportunity to take legal action against their perpetrators. Admittedly, I have not read all of her research, but had the impression that many of her studies were done in experimental settings where expectations and cognitions were systematically manipulated to demonstrate that memories could be indeed wrong. Also the famous court cases of false memories involved young children who were interviewed by grossly incompetent interviewers. As psychologists,we are taught not to generalize results from one population to very different populations. I was taken aback therefore by her apparent dismissal of the value of allowing adults greater opportunity to pursue legal action. Patrick Schlitz, an attorney who defended over 500 clergy accused of sexual abuse stated to the New York Time (8/21/02) that \"less than ten were false allegations.\" Admittedly, not a controlled study, but it would appear that Mr. Schlitz\' population sample is large and comparable in composition to many thousands of adults who have litigated cases based on memories from childhood or adolescence. His sample yields less than 2% false accusations. It would appear that Dr. Loftus is understandably concerned about the 2% who are falsely accused of abuse. I suggest that she would do well to as concerned about the 98% of survivors who are truthful and who are being time-barred from the courts by laws passed generations ago. In my State (New York), survivors of sexual abuse can initiate legal action only up until age 23, yet the statute of limitations for rape was abolished in 2006. Where is the evidence that memories of rape victims are more reliable than the victims of childhood/adolescence abuse ? In California and Delaware, survivors have been granted time periods (\"windows\") during which they may litigate offenses even decades old. Since this legislation , hundreds of perpetrators have been identified who otherwise would be continuing to abuse minors. The reason they were identified is because when survivors were permitted to take action in the justice system, subpoena power could unearth previously concealed records, and other survivors gained confidence to come forward and corroborate the accounts of each other. Thus, a momentum toward greater justice is achieved. This momentum toward increasing the rights of survivors to have their day in court is referred to disparagingly by Dr. Loftus as \"hundred of people come forward and jump on the suing bandwagon\" and claiming \"repressed memories\" as their justification. I have met dozens of survivors and have not met one who bases his or her claims on \"repressed memory.\" Maybe we need less emphasis on repressed memory and more attention given to repressive laws that do no allow our fellow citizens the freedom to make their cases before judges and juries of their peers. Defending archaic laws which thwart the efforts of survivors to seek justice results in the enabling of perpetrators who would otherwise be exposed such that parents could better protect their children.

Monday, December 1, 2014 5:05:15 AM | posted by Kathy Downing
Anyone who believes they can assume that recovered memories have to be false, needs the humbling experience of giving a compassionate hearing to those who've been there. If you might be seeing clients, I would like to invite you to take part in a listserv on dissociative disorders. You might enjoy the learning curve.
Kathy Downing
Burbank CA

Dear Dr. Howe:
My best friend graduated from Fuller, some years back, now, and I work in Burbank. My client load consists about 1/3 of dissociate identity disordered clients, and through no fault of my own that has been the case since my earliest internship in 1985. As a raw new intern I was profoundly challenged – blindsided, even --- at what I saw & heard. IME, my DID clients report “extreme abuse” histories (google that), some of it recovered over time as adults. And where I personally am concerned, they reported recovering these histories before I knew them, and they initiated reporting these histories to me without my digging around.. Some of them have documented and verified histories within the child welfare system.

At the very least, I encourage you to look into the possibility that Ms. Loftus is only one possible perspective on so-called "recovered" memories or "repressed" memories or "false" memories, and to look into the research on dissociative identity disorder, and how memory works when it is trauma based, instead of ho-hum-normal. As for forgetting being raped for 10 years – well, yeah, actually, who’d want to remember that, when you have to get up & go to school the next morning? It’s not called “forgetting” or even “repression” --- it’s called “dissociation.” The simple version is, “it didn’t happen to the real me, it happened to that other not-me,” a sort of take-off on imaginary friends (because rape can start that early). If you don’t think that happens, google “child prostitution” or “child pornography international arrest” and if you really want to hurl your cookies, add in the word “distress” to that last one. If you recall, dissociation is one of the more primitive of all defenses (Kernberg,e.g.). Dissociation allows an utterly overwhelmed child to survive, to go to school the next day. Wikipedia has a reasonably good section on defenses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms

There is a lot more false forgetting than there is false remembering, IME. It is far easier for a parent to torque a young child's memory ("that [rape] never happened") than for a therapist to do so (“surely you must remember your father raping you?”). It is children who are “suggestible,” far more so than almost any psychotherapy client.

Anyone who believes they can assume that recovered memories have to be false, needs the humbling experience of giving a compassionate hearing to those who've been there. But I caution you: Ralph Hodgson said, "Some things have to be believed to be seen." Like rape on college campuses, this is one of them. If you might be seeing clients, especially clients who have abuse histories, I would like to invite you to take part in a listserv on dissociative disorders. You might actually enjoy the learning curve.

Kathy Downing
Burbank CA

Sunday, November 30, 2014 3:27:36 AM | posted by Kathy Downing
Loftus said "Well, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that just because someone tells you something with great detail and confidence and emotion, it doesn’t mean it happened." Wow. Right, if the person who said it is the parent or relative trying to get their kid to believe that something did happen (like getting lost in the mall), or, like something (like last night's sexual abuse) did NOT happen to him/her.

Saturday, November 29, 2014 8:46:13 PM | posted by Recovered Memory Info
This article repeats many of the myths of the 1990's. Research has found that there is strong evidence that recovered memories are often accurate and many have been verified. There was no "witch hunt" and many child molesters are still in jail from this era.

110 Corroborated Cases of Recovered Memory

Loftus' research cannot be applied to traumatic memory, because traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain than nontraumatic ones.

Friday, November 28, 2014 11:57:34 AM | posted by Jen Carter
"Loftus: Well, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that just because someone tells you something with great detail and confidence and emotion, it doesn’t mean it happened. So just being open to the possibility that you’re dealing with the product of some process other than an authentic memory recovery would be a step in the right direction."

Given my clearly less than "recognised" status, I've no doubt my comments will fall on deaf ears...that said, I will nevertheless proceed and say that I think this final quote is in fact meaningful - simply because Elizabeth speaks with both "great detail and confidence and emotion" doesn't make her universal assertions regarding memory (& repressed memories correct). Even my own undergraduate thesis 20 years ago showed unique differences between implicit and explicit memory systems...& the means by which to illicit them with minimal impact to suggestibility effects

As a clinician of 20 years experience, I have met more clients than I care to count who have experienced 'triggered' memories and who present consistently with symptoms of PTSD and who have each to a larger or lesser extent had corroborating evidence of heretofore 'repressed' or otherwise forgotten memories. I have worked with clients who present consistent with symptoms of DID, for whom some 'parts' absolutely deny abuse stories and other parts who remain adamant of the most minuscule of abuse details...

I remain truly fascinated that any actually unbiased researcher can, over the course of time & in the face of emergent cumulative research, steadfastly adhere to a singular line of belief.... For me, I will take the advice given and be "open to the possibility that you’re dealing with the product of some process other than" authenticity, as a "step in the right direction."