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Elizabeth Loftus has proved again and again that our memories can be distorted truths, or even elaborate lies. All of which makes the controversial UC Irvine memory researcher hard to forget.
It’s unsettling to discover that Elizabeth Loftus, the UC Irvine professor who may be the world’s most renowned expert on the malleability and fragility of memory, occasionally has trouble remembering things. I know this because when she gets into my car for a ride to a guest lecture she’s giving to a colleague’s class, she brings along a stuffed toy animal as a way of reminding herself not to leave her campus parking pass on my dashboard _at the end of the evening.
“A retrieval cue,” she explains.
Loftus herself is not so easy to forget. She’s sixtysomething, with stylish reddish-brown tresses. Her look, a maroon jacket, black blouse and slacks, is set off by arty eyeglass frames and a pair of funky black knee-high boots one might not expect of a National Academy of Sciences member whom the Review of General Psychology ranked as the top woman among the 100 most important psychologists of the 20th century. Her curriculum vitae runs 39 pages, single-spaced, and includes 20 books and an astonishing 400 articles in scientific journals.
But few academics of Loftus’ stature have become crossover celebrities in popular culture as she has, thanks to her role in scores of sensational court cases, including many involving A-list celebrities-Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Martha Stewart, and Phil Spector, among others-and her appearances on TV shows such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “60 Minutes.” With the exception of “Dr. Phil” McGraw, she may be the most famous psychologist in America. Her work exploring the dependability of eyewitness testimony is so familiar to millions of criminal-justice junkies that it once was the subject of a “Jeopardy!” clue.
Given her credentials and fame, one would expect Loftus to be as imposingly self-assured as one of those haughty expert witnesses on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Instead, like the rest of us, she fusses and perseverates about the difficulty of finding good parking spaces, her misplaced desk calendar, and whether she’ll be able to work the projector to show her PowerPoint presentation. On the way to the lecture hall, she seems almost taken aback by the steady stream of star-struck UC Irvine undergraduates, pleading with her to autograph their copies of her 1991 recollection, “Witness for the Defense,” in which she describes her work on behalf of serial sex-killer Ted Bundy and alleged Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
“I could not put it down!” one student gushes.
“Really?” replies Loftus, who seems almost bewildered by the compliment. “That’s amazing.”
When her lecture is scheduled to begin, she’s still patiently signing the paperbacks being thrust at her. “So, ah, what’s your major?” she asks another admirer. “How do you spell your name? Is it Stacey with an ‘e’?”
Finally, Loftus begins with a story about Hillary Clinton and the secretary of state’s famous gaffe during the 2008 presidential primary campaign when she vividly described landing at an airport in Bosnia in 1996 and coming under attack. Embarrassingly for Clinton, photographs and eyewitness accounts quickly revealed that she was welcomed not by snipers, but by a delegation of schoolchildren, and that danger was nonexistent. Clinton’s explanation that she had misspoken due to the passage of a dozen years didn’t satisfy critics who lambasted her as a liar. Loftus, in contrast, gives it a more empathetic spin. “What I really like about this example,” she says, “is that all of [Clinton’s] training, all that Yale education, all that experience, doesn’t protect you from false memories.”
That’s the difference between Loftus and most of us. We tend to think of memories as faithful, unchangeable, and forever enduring, as if they were a mountain of snapshots meticulously preserved under plastic in giant scrapbooks, which in turn are stored on numbered shelves within the recesses of our gray matter. We know that we may not immediately recall each and every image. But we assume that if we think long and hard enough, perhaps with the assistance of an old friend or a return to a locale we frequented long ago, we can reach into that archive and retrieve the right image, still as detailed as the day we formed it. Perhaps if the memory is a traumatic one, we might need more involved help-sessions with a probing psychotherapist, or even drugs or hypnosis. But we know that somehow, somewhere in our minds, we still remember events, just as they were. We take comfort in this.
More than that, though, we stake virtually everything on this belief, from trivial things to matters of life and death. Our judgment as to the innocence or guilt of criminal defendants, our decisions about which candidates to vote for, our relationships with family members, our perceptions of self, even our choices of what to buy or eat-all are influenced by our faith in the integrity of memory.
But from Loftus’ research and years of meticulously vetting eyewitness testimony in court cases, she knows our recollections are anything but permanent. In her four decades as a psychologist, she has helped build a new view of human memory as highly malleable, and proved that our impressions of the past tend to change over time-not through some glitch in our intellectual or biological processes, but rather as a normal consequence of using them. Moreover, she’s proved that it’s possible to deliberately reshape memories, and even to implant recollections of events that never happened.
“Just because a memory is vivid, just because it’s detailed, just because it’s expressed with confidence and emotion, doesn’t mean it’s true,” she says. “False memories have the same characteristics.”
From the media glare that surrounds Loftus, it’s easy to assume she discovered the notion that recollections can be fallible, or even outright wrong. In fact, the idea dates back at least as far as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who theorized that the human memory is the equivalent of letters scratched onto wax tablets, which are as individual as human beings. In the early 1900s, psychologist Hugo Münsterberg demonstrated the ease with which even trained experts at a researchers’ convention could form mistaken memories after witnessing a staged brawl between two men and then being asked to describe the actors in detail. As Loftus notes in her memoir, early 20th century child psychologist Jean Piaget documented his own false memory that a man had attempted to kidnap him as a toddler, a “memory” implanted by a governess who wanted to appear heroic.
Nevertheless, for decades, judges and juries regarded eyewitness testimony as reliable proof of guilt, provided that the witness was a person of good morals. As appellate Judge Albert Cohn explained to The New York Times in 1949: “We can usually assume that the victim of a holdup will have a lasting memory of the holdup man’s face.”
In reality, as Loftus and other researchers have discovered, memory is far more erratic. As Loftus told a reporter for The Dallas Morning News in 2008, the first weak link is the human eye itself, which collects information in fleeting bursts that last a fraction of a second. “Even though it feels to us like a movie camera, actually we are taking in the world in a series of eye fixations,” she says. That incomplete collection of images is then reconstructed again and again by the brain. Like film, the memory of those images is subject “not only to decay, but to contamination and distortion” from outside influences. In the article, Loftus sketched a scenario in which a witness could be fed false information about a suspect’s guilt, and then recall it on the stand as if it were the original recollection. “You’re going to think that’s the guy, rehearse the face in your story, and pretty soon, you can develop a strong memory that that’s the person, even though it isn’t.”
The Los Angeles native first became interested in how memories are formed-and altered-as a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford in the late 1960s when professor Jon Freedman asked her to help him with a study. The resulting scientific article she coauthored advanced a new hypothesis: that the mind organizes items according to categories, rather than by attributes. As a faculty member at the University of Washington from 1973 until 2002, she continued to conduct memory research and write articles. In a seminal 1974 piece for Psychology Today, she debunked eyewitness reliability by describing experiments in which she used leading questions to alter subjects’ memories of an event.
Had Loftus only published her findings like a typical academic, today she might be well known only among psychology students and professors. But instead, starting in the mid-’70s, she began appearing as a scientific expert in high-profile criminal cases, working with defense attorneys trying to cast doubt on the reliability of eyewitnesses.
In many of her early cases, Loftus went beyond simply attempting to educate judges and jurors about the imprecision of the memory process. As she describes in “Witness for the Defense,” she also vetted prosecution witnesses’ statements and testimony, looking for incongruities that might indicate that authorities had contaminated their memories with information or pressured them to alter their recollections. In one early case, she worked on behalf of a Washington man, Steve Titus, who was framed for a rape he did not commit, and ultimately vindicated. In a North Carolina case, she helped the attorneys for Army Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis, who had been convicted of rape and murder, win a new trial at which he was acquitted.
Lest you think Loftus is always on the side of the angels, she also put her expertise at the service of such loathsome defendants as Angelo Buono Jr., one of the two Hillside Strangler torture killers, and serial killer Bundy.
Bundy, the handsome, all-American sociopath, was so creepy that he even unnerved Loftus. In a Utah courtroom in 1976, she was set to take the stand to raise doubts about the recollections of a woman who accused Bundy of attempting to kidnap her. She looked over and saw Bundy smiling at the prosecutor. “That smile was wrong,” she would later recall. “It was dead wrong. I had worked on behalf of innocent people before, and I’d never seen one of them, not one, smile at the prosecutor.”
Despite Loftus’ testimony about the psychological phenomenon of “unconscious transference,” in which an eyewitness can inadvertently insert a person he or she has seen before into a crime scene, Bundy was convicted and eventually confessed to scores of abductions and at least 30 murders in several states.
“I’m not defending them,” Loftus has maintained. “I’m simply presenting the research on memory. The defense attorney has the duty of defending the client, and the jury has the duty of deciding guilt or innocence. … If my testimony causes members of the jury to doubt the defendant’s guilt, then according to the most basic, indispensable principles of our justice system, the defendant should be acquitted.”
That hasn’t immunized Loftus from being viewed by some as a virtual accomplice to violent criminals. In her book, she recalls that after testifying in the ’90s on behalf of a defendant accused of rape, she was confronted in the hallway by an angry prosecutor who shouted: “You’re nothing but a whore.”
Loftus also became embroiled in the controversy over whether victims and witnesses could repress traumatic memories of crimes and then, with assistance, dredge them up years later. The notion that the mind protects itself via selective amnesia actually is at least several centuries old-a Harvard researcher found that the earliest recorded reference is in a late 18th century opera, “Nina,” and Sigmund Freud claimed in the early 1900s that hysteria patients repressed painful events, which he could then retrieve through hypnosis. But for reasons that remain unclear, the notion lay dormant until the mid-’80s, when a spate of psychotherapy patients began coming forward with accusations of long-ago sexual abuse, satanic rituals, and even murders by parents, teachers, and others, based on supposedly repressed memories.
In 1990, a San Mateo man named George Franklin, accused by his adult daughter of having killed a childhood friend, became the first defendant in the United States to be convicted on the basis of a so-called repressed memory. The case against Franklin would unravel five years later, and he would be freed from prison by a federal judge. But in the meantime, a torrent of other such accusations-including some by celebrities such as comedian Roseanne Barr and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur-would follow. Based on such a recovered memory, an Orange County woman published a 1995 book claiming that her father had committed the unsolved 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated body was found in Los Angeles. Caught up in the furor, California legislators even created an exception in the statute of limitations for molestation cases, to allow charges based on repressed memory claims to be filed.
Loftus, who testified on Franklin’s behalf, soon found herself inundated by pleas from people whose families had been split asunder by such charges. The concept of repressed memory didn’t sit right with her. At age 6, Loftus had been a victim of sexual abuse by a teenage boy who was baby-sitting her, and she vividly remembered the ordeal. She searched the scientific literature, and found that little research had been done to substantiate that memories could be repressed. So she began conducting her own experiments, and proved that she could create false memories in subjects.
In her now-famous “lost in the mall” study, published in Psychiatric Annals in 1995, she and one of her University of Washington students, Jacqueline E. Pickrell, asked 24 subjects to recall several authentic events that had happened to them in childhood, which the researchers had learned by interviewing their families beforehand. They also slipped in a fictitious incident in which the subjects supposedly had been lost and frightened in a shopping mall, and then were rescued by a kindly older person and reunited with their families. The result: Six subjects-1 out of 4-suddenly remembered the fake event.
Loftus went on to conduct other false-memory implantation experiments, including one in 2003 in which researchers convinced subjects that, during a childhood visit to Disneyland, they had met an actor dressed as Bugs Bunny. She co-authored a 1994 book, “The Myth of Repressed Memory,” and a debunking article in Scientific American. She also testified on behalf of numerous defendants who’d been accused on the basis of repressed memories, including one that unfolded in Orange County.
After an Anaheim hospital gave sodium amytal to UC Irvine student Holly Ramona, she accused her father, Napa winery executive Gary Ramona, of sexually abusing her for years. He responded by suing his daughter’s counselor, the psychiatrist, and the hospital for malpractice, and won a $475,000 judgment against them in 1994. Loftus helped by telling the court that Holly Ramona had been subjected to “an outrageous degree of suggestion,” and by comparing her retrieved recollections with the false ones of the “lost in the mall” subjects.
Sixteen years later, Loftus remains passionate about the Ramona case, which helped slow-though not stop-the wave of repressed-memory cases. “There is no credible scientific support for the idea … that you could have been raped 11 years before, and be completely unaware of it for all those years until going into psychotherapy,” she says. Such “bizarre” cases, she says, “make me want to rewrite the witness oath. It should be, ‘Do you swear to tell the whole truth … or whatever it is you think you remember?’ ”
Work by other researchers has since bolstered Loftus’ views. A study published in 2009 by European researchers, for example, found that women who had recovered memories of sexual abuse during therapy were more vulnerable to the implantation of false memories than other subjects.
But she’s far from winning her war. An American Psychological Association brochure takes a noncommittal position, stating that some professionals believe in repressed memories of abuse-while conceding that they probably are rare. And repressed memories still are accepted as evidence in many states. In January, despite statements filed by Loftus and others, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to throw out the molestation conviction of Paul Shanley, a priest who had been convicted with the aid of such testimony.
“Because these cases aren’t getting as much media attention these days, it may look like the controversy is over,” Loftus says. “But it’s still going on.”
Loftus has paid a personal price for her persistence in attacking repressed memory. In the late ’90s, she read about the case of “Jane Doe,” whom advocates cited as evidence that memories could be repressed and recovered. At age 6, Jane had been videotaped recounting sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, and then subsequently had forgotten about it, only to seemingly recover the memory when again shown the recording at age 17. Loftus investigated the case herself, tracking down and interviewing the patient’s mother and foster mother, who made a comment that led Loftus to believe that the abuse had not occurred. Loftus also amassed medical records and other evidence that she felt cast doubt on the allegations. In 1999, the woman in question responded with an ethics complaint against Loftus with the University of Washington, Loftus’ then-employer. Suddenly, the researcher learned what it was like to be a suspect.
“They [the university] seized my files with 15 minutes’ notice,” she recalls. “I went through two years of investigation, and spent $30,000 in legal fees to defend myself. … I was so mad at how they had treated me. Really, that was one of the worst things in my life. My dad died of cancer, I got divorced, and then Jane Doe and all the enemies who heaped on to help her, to take a shot at me.”
Loftus says the experience plunged her into a funk in which she found herself coming home from work and watching TV for hours. She was later exonerated in the ethics case, and eventually, at the behest of her insurance company, accepted an offer to settle a potentially ruinous civil lawsuit for $7,500.
Loftus’ credibility also is regularly attacked by prosecutors. For example, in the 2007 trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney ultimately convicted on federal charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald sliced her up in what The Washington Post called a “Ginsu-like performance,” catching her in several misstatements of her research findings that were minor but damaging in appearance. (Fitzgerald even pounced on Loftus’ own memory lapse, correcting her when she mistakenly said that she had never met him before.)
The fusillade took its toll; Loftus has shifted to working on civil rather than criminal cases, and testifies no more than two or three times a year. Nevertheless, she’s still willing to take the stand on behalf of unpopular defendants such as record producer Spector. She’s troubled by the notion that there are inmates in prison-some on death row-who might have been convicted due to eyewitnesses’ false memories.
After her lecture, Loftus seeks sanctuary at a Japanese restaurant near campus, one of her favorite hangouts where she seems anxious about the lack of customers. “I hope they can survive,” she frets. “It’s empty. They need more business on a weeknight, don’t you think?” Between nibbles of edamame, she laments the difficulty of finding men her age to date, and admits she has few hobbies other than going out to dinner with friends. “My dream day is to work all day, and then reward myself with some interesting conversation and a glass of wine or two,” she says. “I’m never going to retire unless I’m forced to.”
She mentors successors who’ll carry on her work after she’s gone, and she joined the faculty of UC Irvine’s new law school, where she uses her name-recognition to recruit top-ranked graduates from college psychology programs as law students.
In recent years, Loftus has begun to explore the potential useful applications of tinkering with human memory-whether, for instance, subjects might be implanted with negative memories of fattening foods as an aid to dieting. She also has contemplated whether traumatic or unpleasant memories could be edited or replaced, perhaps using drugs-a prospect that she speculated about in a 2006 New Scientist essay.
If that sounds too much like the creepy premise of movies such as “Total Recall” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” rest assured that even Loftus is concerned about the future her work might bring. She worries about the potential applications of another study she’s collaborating on, which involves tinkering with the memories of soldiers undergoing simulated imprisonment.
“We found a very powerful way to distort the memories of these soldiers, and make them believe that a completely different person committed aggressive acts upon them other than the one who actually did it. And in getting ready to publish our results, I had the thought that we’re giving a recipe for teaching people how to commit atrocities, and then wipe away the memory in the mind of the victim.”
Loftus laughs, but a bit uneasily. Her worries won’t keep her from publishing the study. She values the truth too much, even when it might make it easier to lie.
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Orange Coast magazine.