Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ph.D. is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Law at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in the study of human memory as applied to the field of law. She is widely published and the author of the book Eyewitness Testimony, and co-author of the books The Myth of Repressed Memory, and Witness for the Defense. Professor Loftus kindly granted an interview to the TFP’s Crusade Magazine on the subject of “repressed memory” widely used in the clergy sex abuse cases.
Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus
Crusade Magazine: Dr. Loftus, could you begin by giving our readers a brief explanation of repressed memory?
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus: The problem with the term “repressed memory” is that it is used to cover so many different things. Sometimes people use the term in a situation where something happened to you, even something bad happened to you, and you didn’t think about it for a long time. Then, someone reminds you of it, and you start thinking about it again. You could use the term “repressed memory” for such an instance.
However, the term “repressed memory” is also used, for example, in the case of years of brutalization, which supposedly completely vanish out of one’s awareness into the unconscious by some process that is too extreme to be explained by just ordinary forgetting and remembering. Then, at some point, you reach in there and dig this material out, and what you get is an accurate, pristine memory. It is this definition of “repressed memory” for which there is virtually no solid scientific evidence.
Crusade: When was the term first used in the legal field? Has it always been used, or is it something new?
Dr. Loftus: Well, of course, Freud used the term “repression” and he often changed what he meant by it. However, in current times, you began to see it used in the eighties by people coming forward claiming that they had been brutalized for years and that they repressed their own memories. Then they had gone into therapy and recovered their memories.
In the late eighties, you began to see efforts by victims’ groups, recovered memory therapists and lawyers representing these alleged victims trying to get the legislatures around the country to lift the statute of limitations so that people could file lawsuits no matter how long ago these things had happened.
The first state to do this was Washington which enacted legislation in 1989. Essentially it said that you had three years from the time you remembered your abuse to file your lawsuit, and it did not matter how long ago the abuse happened.
Within a short period of time, many other states followed Washington. We began to see thousands and thousands of court cases being filed against parents, former neighbors, former teachers, former ministers and priests based on newly discovered memories.
There was another class of victims that said: “Wait a minute, I didn’t repress my memory. I knew it all along and I felt miserable my whole life. It’s not fair that I can’t sue too. At least this repressed person didn’t have to think about it for the last twenty-five years.”
So, some states also granted the right to sue to individuals who said they knew it all along, but maybe only in their twenties and thirties began to appreciate-however they got that appreciation-that their current problems such as depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem or whatever problem, was supposedly due to childhood sex abuse. Anyhow, we saw so many lawsuits of this kind. It was just a horrible messy situation with frequent lawsuits all over the country during the nineties.
The next thing that happened from a society point of view was that some of these individuals began to realize their memories were false. And when they came to this realization, they sued their former therapists who planted these false memories. We saw hundreds of lawsuits from these retractors who came to realize that their memories were false and who had perhaps accused their parents based on these “memories.” Sometimes the parents died with these accusations hanging over them. Families were estranged, there were hospitalizations and medical bills associated with this.
Crusade: Were there many cases like that?
Dr. Loftus: There were hundreds. Some of them got a fair amount of publicity. The biggest case was in Illinois where Patricia Burgess sued her former psychiatrist. She was a multiple personality disorder patient, and her three and five-year old children were hospitalized for years with the same kind of treatment. She got a $10.6 million settlement.
Crusade: Many of the victims of sexual abuse claim that after many years or even many decades, something they see or hear triggers something in their minds and that starts them remembering the abuse. Scientifically, are there actual cases where this has actually happened, where one incident provokes the memory to recall something, or would you say that, across the board, this is really false memory?
Dr. Loftus: No, you can’t say that they are false across the board. One thing we do know is that retrieval cues will trigger memories. It happens. You see retrieval cues working in scientific studies. A retrieval cue can remind you of something that you have not thought about in a long time.
If you want to experience this for yourself, you just have to go to a high school reunion where someone can remind you of some event that you haven’t thought about in years. Still, just because someone remembers something that gets triggered by some retrieval cue, you don’t know without further attempts to corroborate it, whether it is a real memory or not. However, all this would fit with regular forgetting and remembering. Something would fade over time and something would bring it back to mind.
However, what is not supported scientifically is the idea that you can banish years of brutalization to the point of being completely unaware of it, and that the process whereby this is done involves something other than ordinary forgetting and remembering. There just isn’t proof for that.
Crusade: To be more specific, the website of the organization, SNAP, has a questions and answers session. One of the questions is, “What about false memory syndrome?” The answer on the website is, “False memory syndrome is a highly volatile subject with survivors. Whether or not a particular individual’s memory is literally true or not is not something that can possibly be distinguished such as a mailing list. It is the view of the mentors of the SNAP in general that while psychology of repressed or suppressed memory is not well understood, the reality is well documented.” How would you comment on that? Is it well documented?
Dr. Loftus: Well, that was a compound question. First of all, whether you like the term “false memory syndrome” or not, it is a term that was given in a definition by Dr. John Kilhstrom who is a prominent psychology professor at the University of California in Berkeley.
It is a term that you will now see in dictionaries and other places. Thus, it is a term that has meaning. However, you do not even have to use the term. The point of research shows that people sometimes do have false memories and that those false memories come about through suggestion or some other process. There is no question that we can produce false memory in laboratory situations. We have seen them out in the real world, and trying to tell whether a memory report is a true memory or a false one, you need independent corroboration.
The other part of that question slips into whether suppression or repression actually exists or not. I think we’ve already addressed that.
In this field, it is important to keep two things separate and distinct. One issue is whether or not people can have false memories. Can they have false memories that would have been traumatic if they actually had happened? The answer is yes. Can they have false memories of abuse or painful experiences? Yes. Scientific research shows that this is possible. There are many well documented corroborated cases of false memory out there in the real world that have been produced by natural causes.
However, a completely separate question is what happens to truly traumatic experiences. That is a separate question. Can we not think about them for long periods of time and then be reminded of them? Yes, that happens. Can we take years and years of them and banish them completely out of our awareness and then reliably recover them? This is where there is tremendous controversy and really no scientific support. Those are really two separate questions because, in theory, you could have false memories but there is the question of whether you could have true repressed memories that return.
Crusade: In the present wave of repressed memory claims, do you have any idea, statistically, how many cases that are brought forth could be proven bogus?
Dr. Loftus: Let me just tell you that I don’t think there is any real way to attach a percentage to true cases and false cases. There is a difference between the present cases and the wave of repressed memory cases that we saw in the nineties that clogged those courthouses. You could often disprove or at least be highly suspicious of these cases because they would have elements that led you to legitimate doubt. I saw cases where people were remembering abuse at the age of six months or one year old. We know that it is virtually impossible for adults to have a concrete and reliable memory of things that happened back then. We saw cases where they claimed years of Satanic ritual abuse. Number one: the FBI never found any evidence that these cases involved satanic abuse, even though they looked for it for years. Number two: there wasn’t any good evidence that memory ever worked this way that you could take years.
In many of the current priest cases, individuals are claiming they knew it all along. Therefore, there is no massive repression in those cases where they knew it all along and never told anyone. Some of them told others at the time, and there is a record of it even if it was ignored. On the surface of it, there may not be much reason to be suspicious of those cases. However there are other cases where the claim of massive repression is made. Generally they won’t involve these easily refutable claims, such as age one-year-old abuse. However, sometimes you will be able to show because it is biologically, geographically or psychologically impossible.