Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe
In the spring of 1997, an allegation of child sexual abuse shook up the debate over repressed memory. For several years, recollections of child abuse, ostensibly "recovered" in therapy, had been under attack in courtrooms and scientific journals. According to skeptics, these memories weren't real; they were unwitting products of suggestion and imagination. But this case was different. The alleged victim, known only as Jane Doe, had described the abuse on videotape at age 6 and again at age 17. In the second video, she appeared to recover the original memory. And this time, the memory couldn't be dismissed as a recent fabrication. Its corroboration was right there on the original tape.
Believers in repressed memory finally had their smoking gun. Expert witnesses began to present the case in court, citing it as proof that such memories were real. The tapes impressed many skeptics. But they didn't convince Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist who had led the campaign to discredit repressed memory. She refused to believe that two stories told by the same witness could corroborate each other. Loftus suspected that Jane Doe, like other accusers, was under the spell of a false memory. But the memory hadn't been planted in Jane the teenager. It had been planted in Jane the child.
Loftus understood that the past could be opaque. When she was 14, her own mother had drowned, either by accident or suicide. Loftus would never know which, and she had learned to accept that. As an expert witness in dozens of trials, she had made her peace with mystery. To acquit a defendant, reasonable doubt was enough.
But this mystery had to be solved. The power of the videotapes and the use of Jane's story in other court cases demanded an answer. What lay behind the tapes? What had really happened to this little girl? Loftus had to know. She had to leave her laboratory and become a detective.
Jane had accused her mother of abusing her. From the tapes, Loftus ascertained Jane's home county. She hired a private investigator to get records from the local courthouse. Using databases, obituaries, and Social Security death records, Loftus and a colleague, Melvin Guyer, identified Jane's father. They scoured files from the custody fight between Jane's parents. They found a psychological evaluation and a Child Protective Services report that cast doubt on Jane's story. They interviewed local doctors and nurses to debunk the medical evidence against Jane's mother.
Loftus interviewed Jane's mother at her home. She spent four hours with Jane's foster mother. Finally, she tracked down Jane's stepmother. She learned that Jane's brother, who was alleged to have witnessed the abuse, had denied it. She discovered that Jane's mother had cooked on a gas stove, which couldn't have caused the coil-shaped burns Jane had attributed to her.
Gradually, Loftus and Guyer pieced together a theory. The psychologist who evaluated Jane as a child had questioned whether the abuses were real or had been "communicated" to her. "She has told her story numerous times to a number of different people and she now sounds mechanical," his report noted. This matched a comment from Jane's stepmother. "That's how we finally got her—the sexual angle," the stepmother told Loftus, referring to the custody fight she and Jane's father had waged against Jane's mother. "We were building a case against this woman. We were going for broke."
From legal records, Loftus determined that the stepmother was the first person to whom Jane had reported her abuse. With that, the puzzle pieces fell into place. Loftus and Guyer surmised that Jane's accusations "may have originated in the mind of StepMom and were communicated to Jane" prior to her first taped interview. Jane's memory at age 17 was an honest retrieval of her original story. But the story was false.
Before Loftus could publish her report, Jane Doe struck back. She told Loftus' employer, the University of Washington, that Loftus had violated her privacy. The university seized Loftus' files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. It took Loftus two years to win a letter of exoneration and another six years to get rid of Jane's subsequent lawsuit, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. By then, Loftus, furious with the University of Washington, had moved to the University of California at Irvine. In their report on Jane Doe, published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2002, Loftus and Guyer affirmed their duty to uncover "the whole truth" and presented the results of their investigation.