Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
This recipe was what the incest-survivor books were unwittingly teaching. It was what the recovered-memory therapists, with equal folly, were practicing. They hooked their readers and clients with checklists of supposed symptoms: headaches, guilt, low self-esteem, fear of darkness. Then they induced collaboration. "Let yourself imagine or picture what might have happened to you," said one book. "Occasionally you may need a small verbal push to get started. Your guide may suggest some action that seems to arise naturally from the image you are picturing." The guide, a therapist, supplied personal knowledge to help the process along. Group therapy helped, too. The more incest memories a woman heard, the more plausible her own victimization became. The more images she absorbed, the easier it was to picture the scenes she had repressed.
The mall experiment had obvious flaws. It involved only 24 people. Getting lost was different from being sexually abused. And maybe the six people who bought the story really had gotten lost in a mall, even if their parents or siblings didn't remember it. So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.
Loftus speaking at the Center for Inquiry's World Congress, April 2009
Critics protested that Loftus still hadn't proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn't abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.
With each escalation and success, Loftus turned the tide of the cultural and legal war over repressed memories. Her experiments became potent evidence in court. Around her rose a flourishing field of research in the malleability of recollection. (For a selection of recent studies, read Memory Editing: Best of the Web.) Psychologists, judges, and initially credulous news organizations became skeptical of repressed memories. Many women retracted allegations of abuse. Lawsuits and regulators began to punish reckless therapists. The frenzy subsided.
For her courage in confronting this menace, Loftus was ostracized by clinical psychologists, denounced as an enemy of women, and accused of molesting her own children, though she had none. Armed guards accompanied her at lectures. And when she dared to reinvestigate a particularly compelling allegation of sexual abuse—the "Jane Doe" case—her university seized her files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. (Read Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe.) She persisted in the face of these ordeals because she refused to live in a world of lies.
That was the story she told about herself in books and interviews. And it was the truth. But not the whole truth.
Next: Truth or Consequences?