Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Point of View

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Point of View

Article excerpt

Point of View

The Malleability of Memory

Putting Psychotherapy on the Witness Stand

By Ryan Howes

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost every newspaper, mass circulation periodical, and television news show covered a fiercely polarizing debate, played out in highly publicized court cases around the country, about whether it was possible to recover childhood memories of abuse. Galvanized by bestselling self-help publications like The Courage to Heal , empowered by the women's movement, and spurred to action by the growing recognition that child abuse was far more prevalent than had been believed, an increasingly vocal adult survivors' movement had begun to form, determined to bring to light the previously ignored subject of child abuse. During this time, many clients began to tell their therapists tales of early abuse they'd never spoken of before.

In the fervor that accompanied the public airing of what had previously been family secrets, critics began to argue that overzealous therapists were fueling a witch hunt against innocent parents and irresponsibly ignoring the basic rules of scientific evidence, not to mention sound clinical judgment, encouraging the fabrication of stories of childhood abuse years after the fact. Many troubled families were torn apart by irresolvable conflicts about whether abuse had taken place. Some of these cases wound up in court, with therapists being sued for causing irreparable psychological damage through their treatment of suggestible and emotionally vulnerable clients.

Enter Elizabeth Loftus, a research psychologist specializing in understanding the malleability of memory, who went on to become one of the most honored psychologists of all time. During what came to be known as the memory wars, she emerged as the most prominent public critic of the notion that memories of childhood abuse could be recovered years later. She served as an expert witness in many of the most publicized recovered-memory cases of that era and became a controversial figure, whom many therapists came to regard with a mix of fear and outrage for what they considered her assault on their profession.

Today, while Loftus has adopted a far less conspicuous public profile, she continues to do research on the phenomenon of false memories at the University of California, Irvine, where she was the founding director of the Center for Psychology and Law and is now a professor in several departments and in the law school. In the interview below, she reflects on her role in the memory wars of the 1990s and whether our increasing understanding of the brain has succeeded in further illuminating the difference between real and false memories.

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RH: How did you become interested in researching the unreliability of human memory?

Loftus: After graduate school at Stanford in the '60s, I was pursuing an academic career in semantic memory research when a cousin asked what discoveries I'd made as an experimental psychologist. I said, "I discovered that when people have to give you the name of a bird that's yellow they're faster to do that than if you ask for the name of a yellow bird. They're 250 milliseconds faster!" She looked at me and asked, "How much did we pay for that?" It was really then that I knew I wanted to do some work that had some immediate social relevance.

Since I'd had a long-standing interest in the legal process, I began to think that maybe I could study the memory of witnesses to crimes and accidents. That's what I started doing in the '70s, and that's really how I got launched into the intersection of psychology and law. At that point, my focus was on witnesses and the ways in which they were interrogated by police officers or investigators. I became interested in the ability of those interrogations to shape the stories the witnesses told and the memories they ended up with. I then began to be involved with court cases.

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RH: Weren't you involved with the McMartin Preschool and Ted Bundy trials? …

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