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The State | COLUMN ONE

Memory, Pain and the Truth

A leading psychologist long skeptical about 'repressed' recollections challenged a much-cited sex abuse claim. Scorn and litigation ensued.

June 21, 2005|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus was instantly suspicious when she read about a 17-year-old called "Jane Doe" who purportedly had recovered a memory of her mother sexually molesting her as a child.

The claim, published by two psychiatry professors in a professional journal, was being hailed as proof of "repressed memory," a theory that says the mind avoids intense pain by sealing off recollection of traumatic events. Under the theory, the victim may recover the memory accurately years later, usually in therapy.

The Jane Doe study contradicted everything that Loftus had been saying in lecture halls and courtrooms around the country. A professor at UC Irvine, Loftus is a leading figure in the so-called memory wars, a divisive dispute about whether repressed memory is the biggest fraud to hit psychology in decades or the outcome of careful therapy in which patients are able to heal themselves by finally coming to grips with painful pasts.

Mindful of the power of case studies to spur diagnoses and change therapeutic practices, Loftus decided to investigate. Her "expose" of Jane Doe would ignite a firestorm over the ethics of revealing information about subjects of case studies and a legal battle over privacy rights that has reached the California Supreme Court.

Stepping outside the confines of academia and working with two private eyes, Loftus tracked down the family of Jane Doe and published an article casting doubt on whether the girl had ever been abused. She questioned the methods of the psychiatrist who reported both the initial abuse in 1984 and the recovered memory of it 11 years later and portrayed the accused mother as the true victim.

Even though Loftus revealed no names or hometowns, Jane Doe retaliated, claiming in a lawsuit that she had been abused again, this time by an internationally recognized psychologist probing her private affairs for "professional and commercial exploitation."

Loftus, 60, is tenacious and fearless in her work, though it doesn't necessarily show in a first meeting. Unassuming, with an air of vulnerability, she has shoulder-length dark blond hair and wears rimless glasses. She dresses with a hint of the 1960s, softening a professional black suit with a floppy black hat and calf-high boots.

Scholars have ranked her among the top psychologists of the 20th century. She has been elected to the National Academy of Scientists, won the Grawemeyer Prize -- the largest monetary prize in psychology -- and written 20 books and more than 400 scientific articles.

Her work has been influential. The American Psychological Assn. "has raised a lot of red flags about the notion of recovered memories," a spokeswoman said. "The general consensus is that it is very rare."

Loftus also has testified or consulted about the fallibility of memory in hundreds of trials, including the McMartin Pre-School and Hillside Strangler cases. During the course of her trial work, she made enemies.

Critics saw her as a silencer of the sexually abused, even though she once startled a courtroom by testifying that she, too, had been sexually molested, by a male baby-sitter.

Her confrontation with believers in repressed memory, including alleged sexual abuse victims, grew so intense that one campus she visited assigned a guard to accompany her to a lecture. A bullet-riddled paper target hangs in her office at UC Irvine, a testament to her firearms training in the face of threats on her life.

At the same time, Loftus has become a hero to people who say they were falsely accused because of others' "repressed" memories. They show up at her lectures to thank her, and she greets them like old friends.

Loftus feared the Jane Doe study would encourage more false charges. "I can't stand to see injustice," she said. "I just can't stand it."

Loftus called her probe of the case "my own little innocence project."


The Jane Doe study was published in the May 1997 issue of Child Maltreatment. The primary author, Dr. David L. Corwin, said he had first interviewed Jane as a 6-year-old in 1984 during a custody battle.

In the videotaped interview, the little girl told Corwin that her mother repeatedly put her finger up her vagina while bathing her and admonished her to tell no one. She also said her mother burned her feet on a stove.

It was Corwin's professional opinion that the mother had abused the child. The father won custody, and the mother eventually lost visitation rights.

Corwin, with permission from the father, showed Jane's videotape at conferences on child abuse. Ten years after his first contact with Jane, Corwin called her and her father for renewed permission to use the videotape. The father was then in a convalescent home recovering from a stroke, and the teenager was living in a foster home.

Jane gave her permission and called Corwin a year later to ask to view the video. She was 17, and her father had died. Corwin agreed to meet her, and her foster mother went along.

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