The case led some to accuse her of double standards. But those criticisms were mild compared with the reactions that she would soon trigger in her most controversial legal work.
Digging up the past
In 1990, Loftus got a call from a California attorney defending George Franklin, whose daughter claimed that during therapy, she had recovered decades-old memories of him murdering her friend, Susan Nason. Loftus decided to consult for the defence team. “I thought it was pretty fishy and started looking into the literature,” she says. She found little convincing research to support the idea that traumatic memories could be repressed for years.
Franklin was convicted despite her testimony. He spent five years in prison before an appeals court reviewed and then overturned his conviction amid doubts over his daughter's statements.
The courts went on to see a surge in cases based on recovered childhood memories, fuelled in part by popular books and high-profile accusations. Loftus began to wonder whether it was possible to fabricate complex, believable memories. “I wanted to see if we could implant a rich memory of an entirely made-up event,” she says. An idea eventually came to her as she drove past a shopping mall.
Working with a student, Jacqueline Pickrell, Loftus recruited 24 people and, with the cooperation of family members, presented them with four detailed accounts of events from their childhood. Three of the incidents had actually taken place, but the fourth — a dramatic account of being lost in a mall — was entirely concocted by Loftus and corroborated by the participants' relatives. One-quarter of the participants claimed to remember the false event.
Loftus became convinced that well-meaning psychotherapists could inadvertently implant false memories into patients' minds, and her subsequent testimonies led to a row between therapists who believed their patients were recovering lost memories and researchers who thought something else was afoot. To try to settle these 'memory wars', the American Psychological Association (APA) commissioned an expert report about the subject, to be written by three memory researchers, including Loftus, and three clinical psychologists.
The groups could not agree, and each ended up writing a separate report. “It was very polarizing,” says Stephen Ceci, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who worked with Loftus on one of the reports.
There are ways in which traumatic memories of real events can be recalled after being buried for years, he adds, but without hard evidence, it is impossible to distinguish false memories from real ones in court. It is, therefore, possible that some claims of childhood abuse go unvindicated because of Loftus' testimony, and this is the cause of much of the hostility towards her.
Ross Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, started the Recovered Memory Project in 1995 to document and respond to what he says has been a one-sided debate. There are now more than 100 corroborated cases of recovered memory on his website (http://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory), he says, including some on which Loftus had consulted.
“Loftus is often on the losing side, and she's sometimes wrong in a spectacular way,” Cheit says. Her testimonies, he adds, can be psychologically damaging for the victims. “If you're telling someone you think their memories are false, when they have corroborating evidence that they were abused, that's corrosive.”
Loftus does not believe that Cheit's site corroborates recovered memories. “He might have some cases of people who didn't think about their abuse for some time and were reminded of it, but as for actual repression, no,” she says. “I cringe at the idea of hurting genuine victims, but when an innocent person is accused, we have a whole new set of victims, and I'm more horrified by an innocent person getting convicted than by a guilty person being acquitted.”