Into The Past Imperfect -- Elizabeth Loftus Challenges Our Total Recall

A VERY BAD THING happened to Rose as a child, but for a long time she never knew it.

When she flipped through the mental photo album of her life, it wasn't as if she made a conscious decision to skip the part of the album that should have included the bad thing; rather, the pages were blank, entire years missing. By the time Rose was a mother, with children of her own, she wondered if she could recover any of the 40-year-old snapshots.

One day, Rose learned the house she had grown up in was for sale. She arranged a walk-through. Inside the sprawling old house, she stopped short in amazement. Here were the stairs from a recurring dream, the one where her legs always dissolved before she could make it to the top. The realtor led her up to the second floor, to the master bath.

Rose took one look at the claw-footed bathtub. Her mind's eye pictured her father in the bathroom. She pictured herself as a little girl in the tub. She pictured . . .

Very bad things.

She thanked the realtor and hurried out of the house and into the summer swelter. The memory shimmered like hot blacktop. Her heart pounded. Minutes passed. She pulled her car to the side of the road, not quite sure how she had traveled the last dozen blocks. Calm down, she told herself; cool off.

She drove to a swimming pool and floated.

This memory was terrible, yes, but it was also precious and powerful. It redefined Rose - she had become an incest survivor. It

helped her understand her bouts of depression and fits of rage. It filled in the blanks. Rose started leading a support group; soon she took up studies for a master's degree in counseling. Her life was a jigsaw puzzle and she had found the missing piece. She believed in the trueness of her memory. Her faith was total.

So deep was Rose's conviction that she made a pilgrimage to the University of Washington to tell her story to Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and world-renowned expert on the workings of memory.

Rose knew of Loftus; she had seen her on television and heard her speak at a mental-disorders conference. What Loftus had said about so-called "repressed" memories made her angry. So Rose called Loftus, set up this visit to her office, and, for this story, asked that her real name not be used.

Loftus jotted notes while Rose talked: 5 to 10 no memory; age 10 remember most everything; F abused her while v sick, tonsils, 4-5 years old. The term Loftus uses for information like this is "anecdata." Her label for people such as Rose: True Believers.

"How do you know these memories are real?" Loftus asked Rose.

"It explains the feelings," said Rose. "It explains a lot of things."

Her words fell into place carefully, like Scrabble tiles being laid on a board so as not to disturb the words already there. Rose sat erect. Nothing seemed to move but her mouth.

"Why couldn't I have intimate relations? Not because I didn't want to. Not because I wasn't married. Not because I wasn't attractive."

Loftus said, "I think it's very natural to want an explanation."

"And I have it," Rose said.

"But," Loftus wondered, "is it the right explanation?"

ONE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST, Carol Tavris, likes to call memories "the table of contents of our lives."

A passage from Loftus' new book, "The Myth of Repressed Memory," published this month by St. Martin's Press and co-written by Katherine Ketcham, puts it thus: "In a chaotic world, where so much is out of control, we need to believe that our minds, at least, are under our command. We need to believe that our memories, inherently trustworthy and reliable, can reach back into the past and make sense of our lives."

On the inherent veracity, durability and unalterability of memories, Loftus has spent the last 20 years - almost her entire professional life - casting broad shadows of doubt.

"By the late '70s she was a household name" in her field, says Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University who has collaborated with Loftus. "Here was this woman reporting experiment after experiment showing memory is not like a Camcorder."

Loftus has never been one to keep her findings quiet. Professional journals cannot contain her. Loftus believes her work to be of such practical consequence that she sows her conclusions wherever people gather: courtrooms; radio and TV talk-show audiences; Rotary club luncheons.

Meanwhile, recovered-memory therapy has become something of a technique du jour. To dredge for long-lost traumas, certain counselors, psychologists and popular self-help books advocate an array of tools: hypnosis, dream analysis, trance writing, sodium amytal, even the interpretation of "body memories" said to reside in the muscles. What starts as treatment for an eating disorder or depression may, with enough excavation, reveal hitherto unknown memories of childhood sexual abuse. Many of the stories share the traits of disturbing detail and confounding undocumentability.

Such memories have been recovered by the children of attorneys and businessmen, professors and police officers, ministers and farmers. Roseanne Barr was 36 when she suddenly recovered mental pictures of abuse and incest spanning from adolescence back to infancy; she charged her parents on the cover of People magazine ("Roseanne's Brave Confession: I Am an Incest Survivor," Oct. 7, 1991).

In 1988, the legislature embraced recovered memories; Washington became the first state to revise its statute of limitation for filing civil sexual-abuse lawsuits. The clock starts ticking not when the alleged abuse is committed, but when the abuse is remembered.

Also striking close to home, the dramatic case of Paul Ingram was brought to national attention this year in a book by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, "Remembering Satan." Ingram, a former Thurston County deputy sheriff, was jailed in 1988 and is now serving a 20-year sentence after confessing to the repeated satanic ritual abuse of his daughter. Ingram now insists that his confession, as well as his daughter's accusations, were the product of false memories (Loftus has appealed to Gov. Mike Lowry to re-open the investigation of the case).

Car keys, anniversaries, phone numbers, formulae: We forget much, some of which we remember later. However, Loftus advances a far more unsettling proposition: that, through a combination of outward suggestion and inward credulity, we may wholeheartedly come to believe we remember some very bad things that never happened.

"People can definitely recover true memories," Loftus said. "You just have to go to a high-school reunion to prove that to yourself. The thing I am trying to say is: Where is the evidence that an endless stream of traumas can be buried in the unconscious, where decades later you can reliably dig them up?

"There's no scientific proof."

What there has been, though, is an accretion of anecdata. It has created a new subset of victims who, in 1992, formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

"Over 14,000 families have contacted us to say something like this has happened to them," said the Philadelphia-based group's director, Pamela Freyd.

"Her integrity in speaking out on an issue that is so politically incorrect, especially for women, is remarkable," Freyd said of Loftus, who sits on the FMSF advisory board. "She didn't need this to be famous."

To deny another's memories is akin to razoring out pages of a Gutenberg Bible; the owner will probably protest. True Believers have called Loftus evil, opportunistic, an enemy of children, women and the recovery movement. She has been compared to those fringe historians who deny the Jewish holocaust.

An employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections who recently wrote a letter to Loftus and signed it "Survivor," followed by seven exclamation points, wondered: "I'm not sure how well you can sleep knowing that you are on the top 10 reading list for sex offenders."

MEMORIES OF Elizabeth Loftus:

Her vita is thicker than most term papers (it lists more than 150 articles of which she was primary author, and 19 books, including the scholarly "Memory," the practical "Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal," and the hagiographic "Witness for the Defense").

She has consulted or testified in more than 200 cases, sometime under the employ of defenders of the notorious: Ted Bundy; Willie Mak; the alleged Harborview Rapist; the Hillside Strangler; the Menendez Brothers; Oliver North.

Three hundred fifty dollars an hour is her posted rate for forensic consulting. ("I like the tall-building lawyers to know my time is worth as much as theirs.")

This year alone, and not counting a late August trip to Norway, she has racked up 50,000 United frequent flier miles (next stop: Tokyo, to deliver the keynote address to the annual meeting of the Japanese Psychological Association). On one flight, she sat beside a woman who turned out to be a lecturer on surviving childhood trauma - and who, upon learning Loftus' identity, began swatting her with a newspaper.

She cannot pinpoint the year of her last real vacation. ("Why would I want to get on an airplane and go somewhere for no reason?")

She is 49 years old and pursues nothing that could be reasonably called a hobby. To unwind, she reads true crime.

She makes friends easily. They call her Beth. She socializes with great relish, and a modicum of cheese and nuts. She displays a fondness for white wine and red licorice.

She might be seen around the UW Psychology department wearing one clip-on earring, owing to the amount of time she spends on the telephone. She harbors an irrational fear of having pierced ears (she's convinced that during sleep the jewelry would become entangled with her bedclothes), and a completely rational fear of bee stings (she's allergic).

She is a compulsive hair-twirler.

She never sleeps for eight hours without awakening in the middle, and she dreams recurringly of being pursued - sometimes by criminals, sometimes by police.

"They both chase me," Loftus says. "On different nights."

THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL of Loftus' memory experiments is known by what could be the title of a Macaulay Culkin movie:

Lost in the Shopping Mall.

"Boy, is that an experiment people love to hate," Loftus said.

By the time the mall part of the idea came to her, in 1991, while passing a shopping center outside Atlanta, Loftus already had spent 15 years examining the "misinformation effect." Some of her earliest studies had been funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which was interested to learn how easily Loftus, with nothing more than a few leading questions, could implant the recollection of a YIELD sign at an intersection where, in fact, the only sign had said STOP. It took no stretch for Loftus to create false nonvehicular memories, too: mustaches in place of clean-shaven lips; Mickey Mouse in place of Minnie.

"It was one step further to implant a whole, detailed memory," Loftus said. "That's what Lost in the Mall stands for."

The methodology: Two dozen adult subjects were recruited. A close relative of each subject helped the experimenters come up with a brief account of three childhood events that had actually taken place (a birthday party, say, or a trip to the zoo); the relatives also helped devise a fictitious fourth event - a shopping trip where the subject became lost. Then, each subject read a brief description of his or her four childhood events, and was asked if he or she remembered the event, and if so, to provide more details.

Phase two: The subject returned to the lab twice during the following two weeks and was asked again to recall the four events.

Results: By the end of the experiment, at least 20 percent of the subjects developed at least partial lost-in-the-mall memories.

"I walked down all the aisles," recalled Tran, a 20-year-old woman who had been told she became lost in a Bremerton K-mart while on her way to buy a blueberry Icee. "I walked the whole shoe department. Then I walked down . . . where all the sheets and comforters are. Then I went to where the electronics were and I was crying."

An earlier test subject, Chris, refused to relinquish his false memory even after he was told it never happened. His implanted recollection of being found, crying, in a Spokane mall by an old man in a flannel shirt had become realer than his memory of some actual events. Chris had become, to borrow a term, an honest liar.

WHAT IS OF MOST practical significance about Lost in the Shopping Mall is this: It buttresses an alternative explanation for the source of recovered memories that True Believers purport to have been repressed. Namely, that the memories have been implanted by some type of suggestion; they are false; they are "pseudomemories."

Almost a century ago, Sigmund Freud theorized that the mind possessed a defense mechanism that it employed, at times deliberately, to guard the conscious mind from painful experiences and feelings. Today, the term repression is usually used to describe an unconscious mechanism that can lock away even a voluminous experience in some mental closet, so that not even a memory of the memory remains; decades later, the closet somehow can be opened and the memory unfurled, pristine and un-gnawed, as if it had been packed in camphor. Recovered-memory therapy is built on this notion of repression.

One of Loftus' pet similes is that false information can invade the mind like a Trojan horse. To continue the thought, suggestive questions help open the gate; and our society's preoccupation with sexual abuse may distract us from considering an unpopular possibility - the horse may not be what it seems.

"Do we need sexual abuse to justify the awfulness of our feelings?" Loftus wonders. "Somehow, if you can create a crime that matches the severity of your sadness, it fits together better."

Critics of Loftus reject the implanted memory of Lost in the Shopping Mall as insufficiently traumatic for the experiment to be used as a chisel to chip away at recovered memories of sexual abuse. "I think she betrays her place in the debate by referring to those who disagree with her as `true believers,' " notes Jenny Durkan, a Seattle attorney who won a $600,000 verdict in a recovered memory case heard by a King County jury earlier this year. "Those are not the words of a scientist but of an advocate."

For many, repression continues to explain certain feelings. It also resists disproof.

"It's like proving that unicorns don't exist," says Richard Ofshe, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist and zealous critic of therapists who embrace the concept he calls "robust repression."

Ofshe shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for raking muck around the Synanon drug-rehabilitation program. He has since turned his scrutiny to recovered-memory therapy (his new book, "Making Monsters: False Memory, Satanic Cult Abuse and Sexual Hysteria" is scheduled for publication by Charles Scribner's Sons next month). Ofshe calls recovered-memory therapy "the major psychiatric quackery of the 20th century," a "pseudoscience" wreaking more damage than even the 1940s and '50s craze for lobotomies.

ELIZABETH FISHMAN Loftus' parents met at Fort Ord, during World War II. Sidney Fishman was an Army doctor; Rebecca was the base librarian. Beth was their first child, and Dr. Fishman received notice of the birth while stationed in New Guinea.

"I've still got the letter," Beth said. She keeps it in a cardboard box, and reading it makes her cry. What her mother wrote, in part, was: "I hope you weren't too disappointed that it isn't a boy. Girls are really very cute and affectionate and you can go on kissing them when they grow up."

After the war, Sidney opened a general practice in Santa Monica, Calif. When Beth was 14, she and her mother and her aunt Pearl traveled East to visit an uncle. While on vacation, her mother drowned in a swimming pool.

"I never saw my mother's body," she recounts in "The Myth of Repressed Memory," "and I could not imagine her dead."

Thirty years later, the uncle's brother told Beth it was she who found the body in the pool. "After the initial shock . . . the memories began to drift back . . . Perhaps this memory, dead and now revived, could explain my obsession with memory distortion, my compulsive workaholism, my unfulfilled yearning for security and unconditional love."

As things turned out, it could not. Beth learned later her uncle made a mistake. It was Aunt Pearl who had discovered the body.

"I do remember, when my mother died, deciding there was no God," Loftus says.

There were other childhood traumas, the basics of which Beth has no reason to doubt. At age 6 she was subjected to unwanted frottage by a baby sitter (an incident she first talked about publicly on the stand, when a prosecuting attorney implied she knew little about the sexual abuse of children). When she was in high school, her family's Bel Air house burned down.

Beth excelled in math ("The only thing my father and I did together") and went on to study it at UCLA, where she also enrolled in her first course in psychology. The subject thrilled her. "All I'd been doing is the Pythagorean theorem for years, and all of a sudden there's people!" She devoted her electives to psych, and graduated with a double major. When she heard that Stanford offered the best Ph.D. program in something called mathematical psychology, it seemed obvious that she should apply.

At Stanford, she fell thump in love with a handsome psychology grad student named Geoffrey Loftus. They were engaged after three months, and married after nine.

Meanwhile, her research projects left her frustrated. She felt "like a factory worker," waiting for a colleague up the line to attach a bolt before she could screw on her nut.

Near the end of her studies at Stanford, as Beth was already working on her dissertation ("An Analysis of the Structural Variables that Determine Problem Solving Difficulty on a Computer-based Teletype"), she happened to take a course with a professor studying semantic memory - the ways in which different pieces of information stored in the brain relate to each other.

"All of a sudden," says Geoffrey, "she was fully immersed. Within two years, she became the semantic memory lady.

"Whether a person hates your work or loves your work doesn't matter. The fact that a person is interested in your work is what's important to Beth."

Geoffrey Loftus, himself a respected cognitive psychologist, joined the UW faculty in 1972; Beth accepted a position there the next year. Their offices are stacked almost directly atop each other in Guthrie Hall, and they talk often about work in progress. Their easy friendship over matters of scholarship and emotion might take a stranger aback; they've been divorced for three years, but defy the caricature of rancorous exes. Both attribute the split, in large part, to Beth's consuming devotion to her work.

"I like to take vacations where I want," Geoffrey said, "not where the American Bar Association happens to be holding its annual meeting."

ELIZABETH LOFTUS' powers of recall are nothing special. For the demands of daily life she relies on a few mnemonic crutches.

A strategically placed stool blocking the doorway from kitchen to laundry room signals . . . clothes in the dryer. In the airport garage, "peg words" ("C is cute; D is dumb; E is eat...") help her remember in which aisle she parked her car. A short pile of papers fastened by a single staple contains the phone numbers of her friends, including fellow UW psychology professor Ilene Bernstein. "She'll probably tell you I'm obsessed with repressed memories and I can't talk about anything else and I'm getting boring," Loftus warned. On the contrary, Bernstein said: "She can talk to anyone about anything."

More often than not, Loftus and the people she happens to be associating with agree that the subject of memory is fascinating, and the conversation naturally circles around to it.

This is what happened one recent Friday evening.

A University of Utah psychology professor named David Raskin had flown up for some steelhead fishing. Raskin is one of the country's foremost experts on administering lie-detector tests ("He's polygraphed anyone who's anyone," Loftus announced more than once. "He polygraphed John DeLorean."). Loftus invited Raskin over to her house, and called a handful of friends to drop by, too. "One of Beth's salons," an invitee called it.

There was a criminal lawyer; a student; a former student, now a therapist; another lawyer; a legal investigator; and Nora (not her real name), a local woman Loftus had never met who belonged to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Before everyone else arrived, Nora told how her sister while in therapy had recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse; then the sister severed all contact with the siblings who dared to question her memories.

At one point Nora said, "The sister I knew died in a therapy wreck."

Loftus' Capitol Hill house is old and stately and simply appointed, in what seems less like a decorating statement than the product of inattention. The most memorable features are an unfurnished room piled with legal documents - depositions, medical records, therapists' notes - from the 20 or so active cases in which Loftus may be called to testify; some old framed maps, which Loftus collects, and an upstairs study with a small library's worth of books on repressed memory, including the bible of the movement, "The Courage to Heal" (which some FMSF members call "The Courage to Hate").

Downstairs, the rest of the guests arrived. The conversation ricocheted between Michael Jackson (Loftus had been retained when the singer was accused of fondling a young visitor to his mansion), O.J., fishing conditions on the Hoh River, and multiple personality disorder.

Eventually, Raskin said, "So much pathology, so little time," and everyone drove to Loftus' favorite neighborhood pub, Grady's, for dinner.

Pitchers of beer materialized, and a glass of white wine for Loftus. Presently, people began recounting their earliest memories.

Loftus listened intently, not mentioning her own first memory until another day.

"I used to think my earliest memory was of going to see the movie `The Greatest Show on Earth,' " she said. "Because I remember saying to myself, `This is the most fun I have ever had in my life, and I'm going to remember it for the rest of my life.' And for the rest of my life I remembered that as my earliest memory.

"And just recently when I was writing a paper on childhood amnesia I went into a bookstore and found a book on movies. And I found out that `The Greatest Show on Earth' was actually released when I was 8. And I thought, `Oh, no. This is terrible. It's not my earliest memory.' Because I know I had memories before 8."

MEMORY-AS-VCR, or as anything you could buy at Radio Shack, is an on-the-fritz metaphor, and Loftus helped break it. It is high time to replace the video cameras and Polaroids and computers and so forth. But with what?

Dr. Marsel Mesulam, a Northwestern University neurologist who helped organize a memory conference at Harvard University that Loftus attended earlier this year, said: "Really, some of the new theories about memory are extremely difficult to articulate and understand."

Nevertheless, he courageously tried to explain. "Every memory is distributed through a very large portion of the brain. We're talking about an organ that has between 10 and 100 billion elements intricately connected, each with specialization, using dozens of chemical transmitters. The resultant recall is the end product of many different areas being activated in certain patterns all at once."

Mesulam took a breath. "It's clear that distortion is part of the biology of memory. We can buy cameras that are pretty cheap; the beauty of the brain is not its precision, but its creativity."

This metaphor of memory has been suggested by the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Gerald Edelman: the mind as hurly-burly playhouse, where actor-neurons stage repeated revivals of performances, sans script.

"How nice," said Loftus. "I like that a lot."

For a scientist studying something that exists only as a concept - the mind - Loftus can be confoundingly concrete. Once, when asked a question about her own memory that was designed to set off deep philosophical repercussions, her answer was:

"Sometimes we might be better off with distorted memories. And sometimes it just plain old doesn't matter if our memory is perfectly accurate or not. It only matters when you start to use memories to accuse people, and you want to imprison them or take their money."

Elizabeth Loftus shows remarkable stamina in the face of so many True Believers who cling to the old metaphors. In her speeches and articles and TV appearances she takes pains to point out that genuine victims of sexual abuse do need our support, and that "many tortured individuals need time to bring the dark secret of their abuse to light." And yet Loftus is wedded to her research; it has led her inexorably down a certain path.

She has no shortage of compassion, but most of it is dispensed to a less popular, minority class of victims. Despite the Roses who transect her life, she remains allied with the Paul Ingrams, the parents of the Roseannes, the Noras of the world.

Their pain is real; their lives are puzzles; it's natural for them to want an explanation, too.

Kit Boss is a writer for Pacific magazine. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.