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Memory and Manipulation 

The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused

Thursday, Aug 19 2004
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Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

On the wall of Professor Elizabeth Loftus’ third-floor UC Irvine office is a paper bull’s-eye target, pockmarked with bullet holes. If it looks somewhat incongruous in the mostly sedate academic surroundings — bookshelves lined with psychology texts, a large desk with a black Dell computer and stylish flat screen, a mock Vanity Fair cover with Loftus’ face staring out from atop Demi Moore’s body (a humorous gift from students), and photocopies of Andy Warhol’s Mick Jagger portraits — there’s good reason. Loftus — who, when she pulls her blue straw hat over her mussed shoulder-length brown hair and stands up in black-velvet pants and cotton blouse, looks startlingly like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — took up target practice in 1994 after receiving death threats following the publication of her book The Myth of Repressed Memory. “We’re going to kill the bitch,” was one choice missive. The holes in the paper, Loftus says, laughing nervously as she recalls the events, were made on the firing range.

Target practice aside, Loftus’ work veers into an X-Files-type reality where nothing is as it seems, where even the inner sanctum of an individual’s most personal memories is subject to manipulations and falsification. We think of that sanctum as a citadel invulnerable to outside pressures. Loftus tells us that, to the contrary, it is a marshland crisscrossed with paths, instantly imprinted by the footprints of all those who traverse it.

Beth Loftus grew up in a house on Santa Monica Boulevard. And while she has spent much of her adult life away from the place of her birth, she has always been drawn back to the city where things are not always what they seem, where humans — the storytelling species — have perfected the art of illusion. The allure is appropriate given that Loftus specializes in studying the malleability of, the fallibility of, human memory and given that she has spent a lifetime exploring the strange nether regions of the mind where fact and fantasy, reality and distortion, blend into new versions of “the truth.”

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Recently, three decades into her influential career as a research psychologist and memory expert in legal cases, Loftus, in her early 50s and recently divorced, returned to Southern California after several years at the University of Washington in Seattle. Now ensconced at UCI’s department of psychology and social behavior, as well as its criminology department, she lives in a modest faculty house. A framed panoramic oil painting of the early-20th-century wooden house overlooking Lake Washington in which she lived until 2002 hangs on her hallway wall, copied from a photograph by a man she believes to be wrongfully imprisoned and whose cause she has championed.

Somewhat ironically, her return was a side effect of research work investigating the veracity behind the allegations at the heart of a high-profile Jane Doe child-abuse case. She eventually co-authored an article about the case with University of Michigan psychologist Mel Guyer — from which stemmed a lawsuit against the authors, the university, the journal in which the article appeared and the organization that publishes the journal — but first Jane Doe filed an ethics complaint against Loftus with the University of Washington. Though the university eventually cleared Loftus of breaking research protocols — after seizing all of her files on the case and preventing her from publishing her work for almost two years — its support was so lukewarm, and its unwillingness to stand by its controversial psychologist during the current lawsuit so clear, that Loftus was only too happy to accept an offer from Irvine.

For the past many months, Loftus, who herself has served as an expert witness in over 250 cases since 1975, has been preparing to go to trial. It is a battle for personal survival as much as for her professional reputation — never mind that she was recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences as well as listed by the Review of General Psychology as one of the 20th century’s Top 100 psychologists. “I’m so proud of what I’ve done,” Loftus states defiantly. “I’ll fight to the bitter end.” Over the last year, the lawsuit has been wending its way toward the trial stage. If she loses, not only will academic freedom have arguably suffered a grievous blow, but on a personal level, Loftus herself could face bankruptcy.

 

In early 2003, Loftus gave a lecture in Hollywood, at the Center for Inquiry West, a venue run by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal (CSICOP) that specializes in casting skeptical eyes over discussions about paranormal, and otherwise scientifically dubious, or unprovable, happenings: UFO sightings, alien abductions, crop circles, that sort of thing. “Preconceived ideas and the accuracy of memory are factors that always seem to come into play, at least with these anecdotal beliefs we investigate,” explains Jim Underdown, the center’s executive director, hinting at the strange interplay of cultural beliefs and sensory input that goes into molding complex memories. “The fact that memories are so plastic and changeable, if a memory can be introduced, then that becomes a serious issue and a serious aspect of an investigation. Even if somebody is telling the truth, it may be they’re telling the truth about a false memory — about something that didn’t happen.”

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