A cookbook for memories of sexual abuse.

The future of false memories.
May 27 2010 6:57 AM

The Recipe

A cookbook for memories of sexual abuse.

Eileen Franklin’s murder memories
Eileen Franklin's murder memories
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the summer of 1990, Elizabeth Loftus got a phone call from an attorney in San Francisco. A man named George Franklin had been charged with murdering a child, based on the recollection of his daughter, Eileen. Loftus, a psychologist, had testified in dozens of cases about the fallibility of eyewitness memory. But this case was different. The murder had happened 21 years earlier. Eileen's purported memory, however, was less than a year old. According to the prosecution, she had repressed it.  

Repressed? How could such a crucial memory vanish for 20 years, leaving its owner completely unaware of its existence, and then resurface in full color? Loftus had her own bad childhood memory—being molested when she was 6—but she had never purged it. She searched the psychological literature and found no basis for the repression theory. George Franklin's attorney had a different theory: Eileen Franklin had never seen the crime. In her head, she had blended details of the murder, as it was reported in the press, with an imaginary picture of her father doing it. She had developed a false memory.

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At the trial, Loftus explained how memories naturally eroded over time and became susceptible to distortion. She told the jury about an experiment in which she had shown people a video of a robbery and shooting. After the video, the viewers had watched an erroneous television report about the shooting. When they were asked afterward to describe the incident, many of them blended false details from the television report with their recollections of the video. They clung to these altered memories even when the experimenters suggested that they might be mistaken. Something like that must have happened to Eileen Franklin.

In previous cases, such testimony had swayed juries. But not this time. The prosecutor forced Loftus to admit that she had never studied memories like Eileen Franklin's. Loftus had proved that people could misidentify random perpetrators, not that they could mistakenly accuse their own fathers. She had proved that memories could be altered, not that they could be wholly invented. Her work seemed irrelevant. In November 1990, George Franklin was convicted.

Roseanne Arnold’s incest memories.
Roseanne Arnold's incest memories

The nightmare was just beginning. Repressed memories were surfacing everywhere. In June 1991, Marilyn Van Derbur, a former Miss America, told the world that at age 24, she had discovered her father's sexual abuse of her as a child. Later that year, Roseanne Barr claimed to have recovered 30-year-old memories of both parents molesting her. ("He used to chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head," she said of her father.)   Women were suing their parents for millions of dollars. Hundreds of accused families sought help.

If these memories weren't real, where were they coming from? Eileen Franklin claimed that her memory had surfaced during hypnosis, therapy, a dream, or a flashback. Barr said hers had emerged during individual and group therapy.

Loftus began to read popular books that told women and therapists how to recover memories of sexual abuse. The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest. They listed symptoms that supposedly indicated abuse even if it wasn't remembered. They invited women to search for memories by imagining the abuse. They encouraged group therapy in which women could hear one another's stories of being victimized.

These ideas sounded fishy. Suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion were known to alter memories in police interrogations and experiments. But could they create a whole memory? Could the recent surge of incest recollections be the product of recovered-memory therapy?

Marilyn Van Derbur’s incest memories.
Marilyn Van Derbur's incest memories

To find out, Loftus went to a talk by George Ganaway, a respected psychiatrist, at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in August 1991. Armed with case studies, Ganaway argued that "iatrogenic implantation"—implantation by therapists—was creating false memories of satanic ritual abuse.

Loftus suspected the same phenomenon was creating incest memories more broadly. But how could she expose it? In her book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, she described her next thought:

"While I couldn't prove that a particular memory emerging from therapy was false, perhaps I could step around to the other side of the problem. Through careful experimental design and controlled studies, perhaps I could provide a theoretical framework for the creation of false memories, showing that it is possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened."

This was a pivotal decision. Loftus wasn't a detective. She was a designer of experiments. She couldn't start with seemingly recovered memories and demonstrate that they were false. But she could start with false memories and demonstrate how they were seemingly recovered.

Piece by piece, she analyzed and incorporated her adversaries' methods. For example, she noted in her book, "to parallel the therapeutic process, the memory had to be implanted by someone the subject trusted and admired, either a relative, friend, or a respected authority figure." That insight led to what became known as the "lost-in-the-mall experiment." (For more on the genesis of this experiment, see Part 2.) Each subject was given summaries of four incidents from his childhood. Three stories were true; one was false. The false story followed a formula: You got lost in a mall or department store, you cried, you were found by an old person. The summaries were written with the help of older relatives who knew the true incidents and the family. One woman, for example, was falsely told:

You, your mom, Tien, and Tuan all went to the Bremerton K-Mart. You must have been 5 years old at the time. Your mom gave each of you some money to get a blueberry Icee. You ran ahead to get into the line first, and somehow lost your way in the store. Tien found you crying to an elderly Chinese woman. You three then went together to get an Icee.

Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007

The subjects were told that their relatives had recalled all four incidents. They were asked to fill in the details of each incident or, if they couldn't remember it, to write, "I do not remember this." In follow-up interviews, they were asked to think more about each incident and to retrieve any additional details they could recall. Of the 24 people subjected to this procedure, six came to remember the fake story as true.

From this experiment, Loftus began to sketch what she called a "recipe" for planting memories. First, you needed the subject's trust. A therapist had that; so did a family member. Then, by suggesting that the incident might have happened, you planted a seed. The subject would think about it, and the idea, if not the scene, would start to become familiar. The people and places mentioned—Tien, blueberry Icees, the Bremerton K-Mart—would evoke real memories, and these would begin to blur with the suggested scenario. By coaxing the subject to imagine the scene, you could accelerate this confabulation. Gradually, she would add details, seizing authorship of the story and securing its authenticity. The fabrication was out of your hands now. The memory was hers.

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