From Incest to Ivan the Terrible: Science and the Trials of Memory
Debbie Nathan is co-author, with Michael Snedeker, of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Basic). Jan Haaken, professor of psychology at Portland State University and a practicing psychotherapist, is completing a book on women and childhood memory.
The recovered sex-abuse memory wars are winding down, after half a decade of bitter conflict. On one side, the troops have been adults--many of them women in therapy--who recalled images of childhood incest that they and their clinicians insisted really happened. Opposing them has been the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), a group of parents who indignantly deny the accusations, joined by researchers who assert that memories can be grossly transmuted, even falsified, by influences like therapy.
Battles raged through the early 1990s, but it is now generally agreed that although people can suddenly recall long-forgotten incidences of sexual assault that really happened, they can also "remember" abuse that never occurred. It's also by now a truism that memory is no audiotape or camcorder documentary of past events. Instead, it is constantly constructed and reconstructed, which means that the passage of time can add material that isn't literally true.
One of the main proponents of this position is FMSF board member and University of Washington memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. In her experiments, she has implanted subjects with false memories--of everything from imagined stop signs to fantasied recollections of being lost in a shopping mall. Loftus has carried out her work using empirical models. A given number of individuals are shown the same film of a traffic accident; later, each is misleadingly asked about a nonexistent detail such as a stoplight. Statistics on how many subjects "remember" the light are then tallied to compute the odds of altering memory.
The precision of such experiments gives the scientist an infallible authority in court, where guilt is supposed to be adjudicated by finding facts, and where facts are based on what can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled, touched--and therefore measured. Vicissitudes of imagination and fantasy have no place here, and rightly so.
But what happens to the authority of the scientist when we leave court and reenter the overdetermined world with its dense (re)collectivity of historical, political, and cultural memory? And what happens when the scientist herself is embroiled in this world that her method ignores?
To explore these questions, let us shift our discussion from memories of incest to remembrance of the Holocaust. The venue is different, but the protagonist is the same: Elizabeth Loftus. Long before therapeutically recovered sex-abuse memories became an issue, Loftus was serving as a defense expert in trials where damning evidence came from witnesses who claimed they had seen all manner of grisly crimes, including homicide. Loftus often testified on behalf of accused murderers--serial killer Ted Bundy was a client--that the investigations that fingered them were fraught with mistakes that could produce false witness.
Homicide expanded to genocide when Loftus's help was sought by lawyers for John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk was the Ukrainian immigrant who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981, extradited to Israel, and sentenced to death in 1988 for murdering almost a million Jews at the Treblinka death camp. The case had begun in 1975, before any link was suspected between Treblinka and the bespectacled, retired auto mechanic from Cleveland. At that time, Justice Department officials suspected that Demjanjuk had done guard duty in Sobibor, a smaller camp not far from Treblinka, where 250,000 Jews perished. Although guards at Sobibor participated in the atrocities common at all the death camps, authorities had no evidence that Demjanjuk personally murdered anyone. Nonetheless, he apparently had avoided telling the Immigration Service about his Nazi affiliations, which disqualified him from immigrating after the war and now made him deportable. The evidence was solid: an old Nazi-issued identification card bearing Demjanjuk's name and picture; on his immigration application, he had declared that he was near Sobibor during World War II.
After examining this material, U.S. officials sent Demjanjuk's 1951 immigration picture to Israel. It was pasted next to old photos of two other Ukrainians under investigation for war crimes, including Fedor Fedorenko, another emigre suspected of having done guard duty at Treblinka. Using the photos, the Israeli police advertised in local newspapers, asking Treblinka and Sobibor survivors to contact them about an investigation of Ukrainians suspected of serving the Nazis at the camps.
The ad explicitly mentioned Demjanjuk. But instead of calling him John, it referred to his pre-emigration given name: Ivan. Publishing the words "Ivan Demjanjuk" was the first in a long series of Israeli actions that led Holocaust survivors to mistakenly associate Demjanjuk with Treblinka. The error would have been easy, for if the aging survivors remembered little about most Treblinka personnel, they vividly recalled "Ivan the Terrible." That was their nickname for the psychopathic, unspeakably sadistic Ukrainian guard who had tortured and mutilated Jewish prisoners, beat them with a lead pipe, and operated gas chamber equipment that asphyxiated some one million victims.
All this the Treblinka survivors remembered. Some also examined Fedor Federenko's old photo, and, without any prompting, recognized him as a man who had guarded them thirty-five years earlier. Aging survivor Eugen Turowski was the first subject interviewed. He readily recognized Fedorenko, but failed to identify Demjanjuk. A few hours later, Treblinka survivor Abraham Goldfarb found Demjanjuk's photo "familiar," but did not connect him to the hated Ivan the Terrible.
Later the same day, though, investigators apparently asked Goldfarb if he remembered a guard named "Ivan Demjanjuk." Goldfarb answered "yes"; then he reexamined Demjanjuk's photograph and identified him as Ivan the Terrible. Thus was made the first connection between the Cleveland retiree and the monster of Treblinka. Survivor Turowski went through similar questioning and made the same fateful identification. As the summer wore on, two more Treblinka survivors did likewise.
Identification by four eyewitnesses might seem like strong evidence that John Demjanjuk was indeed Ivan the Terrible. But Israeli police methods were terribly flawed forensically. In the first place, while they were at Treblinka, prisoners never heard their guards' last names. How, then, did Goldfarb and the others know Demjanjuk's? It seems obvious that the source of their memory was not events from almost four decades earlier, but the police's recent newspaper ads.
This probable contamination of the survivors' recall, coupled with their repeated viewings of Demjanjuk's photograph, constituted an investigative error so severe that it should have invalidated their eyewitness identifications in a criminal proceeding. Further, seven other survivors, some of whom spontaneously picked out Fedorenko as a Treblinka guard, failed to identify Ivan. But their negative responses were neutralized after a Treblinka survivors' annual reunion in Tel Aviv in late 1976.
In attendance were many survivors who already had been interviewed by police, and they no doubt talked with other guests about their identifications of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. In the following weeks, a number of other reunion-goers examined Demjanjuk's picture and made the same connection as had the first group.
Eventually, John Demjanjuk was put on trial in Israel's most famous Nazi war crimes proceeding since the case against Adolph Eichmann. Demjanjuk's supporters seized on the issue of eyewitness testimony and memory contamination. They asked Elizabeth Loftus to take the case, and as she examined the investigative records, she immediately noted many irregularities that could have produced false eyewitness memories.
As Loftus notes in her book, Witness for the Defense, from a scientific point of view there was every reason for her to help Demjanjuk's defense, and none to justify refusing. Yet she did refuse, in a dramatic illustration of the conflict between the disinterested pretensions of science versus the fervid politics of recovered memory--a politics that can affect even scientists.
We can sympathize with Loftus's decision to opt out, particularly when we acknowledge the broader political and cultural issues behind the trial. Though largely ignored in Witness for the Defense, they included a combination of genuine demands for justice, mixed with opportunism on the part of the Israeli government. By the late 1970s, there was an urgency attached to preserving the memories of Holocaust survivors, who were mostly aged or already dead. Particularly pressing was the need to validate the tragedy of Treblinka, where a million Jews perished, and only fifty or sixty came out alive.
Yet other factors were driving the trial, opening the way for the manipulation and defensive political use of survivors' stories. On one front, the effort to memorialize and revivify memory of the Holocaust helped mobilize Jewish unity in the face of PLO military buildup and increased world support for the Palestinian cause during the late 1970s and early '80s. As a defense for its intensified aggression against the PLO, the Israeli government used the Demjanjuk case to bolster its historical claim to collective trauma.
On another front, momentum for the trial may have been spurred by anxiety over the increasing visibility of Holocaust deniers. In late 1979, an obscure neo-Nazi group, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), held a publicity-grabbing convention in Los Angeles and offered $50,000 to anyone who "could prove that the Nazis operated gas chambers to exterminate Jews." The IHR sent letters to survivors inciting them to submit evidence before a tribunal of "experts." One target was Mel Mermelstein, an Auschwitz survivor whose family had been gassed there. He submitted "proofs," then sued the IHR and won in 1985 when a Los Angeles Superior Court ordered the organization to pay Mermelstein $90,000. This pseudo-controversy captured media interest in the early 1980s, and in response to increasing uneasiness about a possible resurgence of anti-Semitism, survivors' eyewitness accounts seemed the most persuasive defenses.
Elizabeth Loftus is Jewish, and although not religious, she could hardly have remained isolated from the forces driving Demjanjuk's prosecution. Almost immediately after she was asked to work for the defense, she began experiencing a tortured sense of dissonance between her identity as a scientist, versus a reemerging consciousness of her Jewishness. "On the outside," she writes, "assessing the facts," was Elizabeth Loftus the University of Washington memory researcher; it made complete sense for this scientist to take the case. But, she adds, "something cracked my cool, professional exterior."
That something was "Beth Fishman," Loftus's childhood name, and the embodiment of her forgotten Jewishness. Once retrieved, this earlier identity became the other pole of Loftus's ambivalence--an ambivalence that was strikingly absent (repressed?) in her self-portrayals as a dispassionate expert witness in other controversial trials. It was Beth Fishman, Loftus writes, who emerged as though
"from one of those Russian folk dolls that pull apart to reveal a slightly smaller version of the same figure .... Beth Fishman was the five-year-old Jewish girl who cried bitterly when the boy next door made fun of her last name. Beth Fishman was the adolescent who, fearing that her boyfriend broke up with her because she was Jewish, instructed her best friend to take him a message: `Tell him I'm only half Jewish'.... Which of my parents did I deny then? Which half of me did I throw away so casually and for such a cheap price?"
In a dramatic identity reversal, "Beth Fishman couldn't stop" with the files, which showed without a doubt that Dr. Elizabeth Loftus ought to be reflexively lending her expertise to Demjanjuk's defense. Beth Fishman pushed on, or rather, pushed backwards, as she was flooded with intrusive thoughts of her heritage and haunted by guilt over ignoring the trauma and suffering of that legacy. Elizabeth Loftus, debunker of repression and recovered memory, was carried away by her own unbidden reminiscences. In passionate language that echoes the sex-abuse therapists she routinely critiques, Loftus describes the tortured recovery of her own "repressed" past:
Memories of my childhood came back to me, the stories told by my grandfather of the early twentieth-century pogroms in Russia and the stories told by my mother and father about the Holocaust ... lively ghosts filled with energy and emotion and minds of their own.
As she agonized over whether to take the case, Loftus was also tormented by the present: by loyalties to her Jewish relatives and friends, and by fears that helping Demjanjuk would betray them and the entire Jewish people. A conversation with her beloved Uncle Joe proved decisive, for he acknowledged that his insistence that she not testify was complicated by his own guilt over complicity in the Holocaust: "I, like millions of other Jews, did not do much." Loftus describes the Demjanjuk prosecution as "a chance to bring the memories alive again .... Soon there will be no one alive to remember."
As she well intuited, personal ties and fears of ostracism can create both strong solidarity and repressive silence. In Loftus's case, both combined with guilt and the desire to makes things right at any cost. Eventually, these politics would override science, as Loftus decided to listen "to my heart" instead of "my head"--and refuse the case.
But Loftus's heartfelt reaction obscured other politics in this modern show-trial. In the annals of history, guilt over failure to respond to past suffering often has a tricky way of infusing demands for rectification. Loftus's fear of once again betraying her Jewishness led her to rationalize her refusal to testify. Her fear also transformed her into a convert to the concept of "decades-delayed" memory--even though insight about this transformation remained "dissociated" from her consciousness and unintegrated into her science.
Like women in therapy, Loftus was revisited by the ghosts of the past, and all her eyewitness research momentarily fell away before the magnitude of what she saw. Yet in choosing to withhold her expertise from the case, Loftus failed to recognize the profound way in which Demjanjuk's highly charged trial refashioned not merely her history, but that of Jews as a whole. In the emotional heat of the accusations, what she and everyone else overlooked was an insight that her own research could have led her to.
Totally ignored was the fact that, in the urgency to condemn John Demjanjuk and thereby rekindle memory of the Holocaust, another memory was degraded. That memory--of which there are so tragically few--was of armed Jewish resistance to fascism. Indeed, while testifying for war crimes and historical commissions a full three decades before the Demjanjuk investigation, several survivors had described a 1943 Jewish rebellion in Treblinka. In what would go down in history as a major Jewish uprising of the Holocaust (second in magnitude only to the Warsaw Ghetto revolt), 200 sick and starving prisoners, men and women, managed to burn the camp and kill dozens of their tormentors, including several German Nazis. In 1947, four years after the Treblinka rebellion, survivor Elijahu Rosenberg recounted how prisoners "ran into the barracks where Ukrainian guards were sleeping" and bludgeoned them to death with shovels. Among the dead, Rosenberg said, was Ivan the Terrible. Other survivors had agreed: The Monster of Treblinka had died in 1943 at Jewish hands.
For years, the survivors' epic account was definitive. But after Demjanjuk was convicted, investigators working on his appeal produced old Soviet war crimes trial records in which former Treblinka guards testified that Ivan the Terrible was seen in a brothel after the war. With that, a precious piece of Jewish narrative was challenged. The import of Treblinka rebellion history, and the tragedy of revising it, is illustrated by the irony that survivors only began telling each other "Ivan is still alive!" at their 1976 reunion--a reunion whose very purpose was to honor a story that heretofore had included his death.
In refusing to testify for Demjanjuk, Elizabeth Loftus missed the chance to defend another part of her heritage: a communal memory that, whether true or not in every detail, updated the legendary Jewish heroism of Masada, the Maccabees, and the Book of Esther. She also ignored Judaism's ancient, Sanhedric commitment to providing defendants in capital cases every benefit of the doubt. (This commitment was honored in 1993: The Israeli Supreme Court acquitted Demjanjuk then, after Russia produced testimony and records suggesting not only that Ivan the Terrible was alive after the war, but that he was another Ukrainian named Marchenko. Demjanjuk has since returned to the United States, where efforts to deport him have been unsuccessful. There is now compelling documentary evidence that he did guard duty at the Flossenburg, Regensburg, and Majdanek death camps as well as at Sobibor. Yet several federal and Supreme Court hearings have refused to deport him, amid consensus that the Treblinka charges were the most bungled case ever brought by the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit. Demjanjuk still lives in Ohio.)
In recounting this bit of history, we have suggested that Elizabeth Loftus's own science might have led her to the discovery that John Demjanjuk's prosecution was about the reworking of memories--not just of a few Treblinka survivors, but of a whole people. Yet could science really lead to such an insight? Much psychological research focuses on the fidelity of memory to an original event; Loftus's experiments demonstrate the fragility of this correspondence, and how vulnerable it can be to social influence. But her work lacks a social psychology, or a framework for understanding the politics of remembering.
It is certainly true that social pressures can make people forget events. But memories are also sustained, even resurrected, by social groups, and Loftus overlooks the role of collective struggle in creating a more authentic history. In her own life, she experienced a moment when she realized this. But in the end, her revelatory encounter with the past never merged with her scientific thinking.
When history is written, the powerful tend to prevail; amidst both psychological and political repression, the weak must then recover their collective memory. Such salvage efforts are subject to intervention by both foes and friends, and the latter's intercessions are not always benign. In John Demjanjuk's show-trial, the Israeli government used survivors' accounts to advance its own interests. But these and other problematic politics were ignored, as the public fixated on Holocaust horror stories.
Likewise, a decade later in this country, the bitter war over recovered child- abuse memories has obscured deeper dilemmas about how a group--in this case women--rescues and revises its past. Once again, legal proceedings and psychological experiments are venues for the struggle, and separating true incest stories from false is essential to both. Yet courtrooms and laboratories collapse the psychosocial space between an event and a memory; they leave us precious little room to consider the range of meanings and interpretations that evolve in our individual memories and in our cultural legends.
These ranges are the stuff of history, and one of history's lessons is that righteous calls for retribution are easily distorted, particularly when fueled by a sense of urgency. Bringing the guilty to justice is vital to redressing historical wrongs. But when moral outrage is embedded in law-and-order demands to expand policing and punishment, it can easily be manipulated for repressive ends.
We saw this in the Demjanjuk trial, where Israeli police violated forensic guidelines, and where the government pressed ahead anyway with a trial that promised to bolster militarism against Palestinians. We have also seen it in the United States, as recovered sex-abuse memories have entered the courts. They have bankrupted defendants and sometimes even imprisoned them on evidence that is far too ephemeral to meet the test of fact.
Such cases have also foreclosed a broader discussion about what recovered abuse memories mean for women--even when their recollections aren't literally true. A generation after the crest of second-wave feminism, a painful gap persists between the heady promise of gender equality and the bleak reality of women's daily experience. Working wives and mothers still pull double duty when it comes to housework and child care. The home and the bedroom continue as private spheres of boorishness, even violence, by men toward their children and partners. More and more, the culture is commodified sexually; yet as always, women suffer from a denial of erotic pleasure. These disjunctions are so commonplace and uninteresting that they are hardly considered worthy of civic concern. Pushed from consciousness, they fester. When they emerge, it's not surprising that some complaints take on the symbolic and dramatic language of daughters molested long ago by their fathers: After all, it is far easier to fight old patriarchs than current ones.
Breaking silence about suffering can be tremendously healing, for individuals and for entire peoples. But as Elizabeth Loftus's dilemma shows, it is not enough simply to "bear witness" to forgotten trauma or "validate" survivors' memories. We need also to acknowledge the intricate ways in which individuals and peoples use remembrance, both restoratively and defensively. Collective memory can be an overwhelmingly powerful source of group identity and solidarity. That is why it can be blinding. Yet treated in all its complexity, it can also illuminate history--and sustain the will to preserve it.…