LOST AND UNFOUNDED
Sasha Abramsky’s profile of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus [“Memory and Manipulation,”
August 20–26] is an uncritical testimonial more worthy of a eulogy than a representation
of the true nature of Loftus’ career and agenda. Abramsky brushes aside the
ethics complaint against Loftus without analysis and accepts Loftus’ clearly
self-defensive posture without question. Furthermore, Abramsky only includes
supportive comments by Loftus’ allies and none from her critics. Loftus deliberately
and egregiously breached the confidentiality of an individual and, to avoid
an ethics complaint lodged with the American Psychological Association, resigned
from that standard-bearer for the profession of psychology.
Loftus is not the defender of the wrongly accused so much as the defender
of those with deep pockets or high profiles. It should be clear to the American
public who have had the opportunity to follow high-profile court cases that
just because someone wins a case or avoids conviction does not mean he or she
was wrongly accused. It means that his or her lawyers were better, the jury
more uncertain, the evidence too weak or that any number of other variables
did not fall into place. It does not mean that there was no basis for accusation
or that the accused was not guilty. Journalists have a duty to explore all sides
of an issue or personality, and, when they do not, they are publicists.
Executive Director, International Council on Cultism and Ritual Trauma
Give me a break: The article “Memory and Manipulation” reeks of grandstanding
by the subject, Elizabeth Loftus, whose reputation is now on the line. Loftus
is no scientist or defender of the so-called “wrongly accused.” (After all,
she testified on behalf of Ted Bundy and, as she freely admits in her book,
upon meeting him in court thought “he’s adorable.”) She is a paid mouthpiece
with an agenda, manipulating the judicial system with her unscientific theories.
Indeed, her testimony has been excluded in many a case.
Loftus propagates misinformation by comparing normal memory and rote memory
with traumatic memory of repeated childhood sexual abuse. While she may recall
her own abuse experience, there are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the
phenomenon of delayed recall for core events of personally experienced emotional
trauma, like childhood sexual abuse, war trauma, torture and the like. Many
victims of childhood sexual abuse have continuous memories; a little less than
one-third can experience full or partial dissociative amnesia for the trauma.
There is also no mention in Abramsky’s article that Loftus resigned from the
American Psychological Association in the face of two ethics complaints. Moreover,
the description of her bizarre role in the Jane Doe case is reminiscent of stalking,
not objective, peer-reviewed scientific research.
—Helen L. McGonigle
Abramsky’s memory article is a good example of the value of fact-checking.
Dr. Loftus is in her early 50s? Since she’s been an expert witness “since
1975,” this means she must have been, at the most, 24 when she began testifying
as an expert. But her online vita says she didn’t get her Ph.D. to qualify as
an expert until she was 26. Moreover, an online bio says she was born in 1944,
which makes her 60 this year.
Abramsky says the Holly Ramona case “spawned a generation of repressed-memory
allegations.” The Ramona case made headlines in the mid-’90s, long after many
high-profile cases had gone public. Did Abramsky mean the Eileen Franklin case?
Loftus testified as an expert in that case in 1990. Or perhaps the Marilyn van
Derbur case, a People magazine cover story in 1991?
Finally, Abramsky says that Dr. Loftus was sued for “violations of [Jane Doe’s]
privacy,” yet the Solano County lawsuit also claims defamation, libel and slander.
Abramsky replies: For the better part of a decade I have been writing on
issues of crime and punishment, including on how we judge guilt and what our
criteria of proof of guilt need be before we send people to prison. In an era
in which America incarcerates 1 percent of its adult population — a far higher
percentage than any other democracy on Earth — and spends more on incarceration
than any country on Earth, I believe such questions to be of considerable importance.
Pamela Perskin argues that “just because someone wins a case or avoids
conviction does not mean he or she was wrongly accused.” That may be true; but,
as I argue in my article, perhaps the strongest pillar in our system of justice
is a presumption of innocence. To charge a person with a crime should not be
enough, in and of itself, to prove their guilt. Yet that is the logical outcome
of Perskin’s argument.
Of course, many people who are charged turn out to be guilty. I certainly
would not deny that; I imagine Loftus would not, either. However, the mere fact
that some of those whom Loftus has studied — Ted Bundy, for instance, as Helen
McGonigle mentions — turn out to be guilty does not negate the broader notion
that skepticism can serve as a valuable brake on a system that too often conflates
accusation with guilt. As we have seen so many times in recent years, eyewitness
testimony can sometimes produce devastatingly wrong outcomes, resulting in innocent
people spending years in prison before their innocence is definitively established.
Regarding Lynn Crook’s arguments, I apologize for the error regarding Loftus’
age. As for her note about the Jane Doe lawsuit, I did not state in my article
that Loftus was being sued only for violation of Jane Doe’s privacy.
I mentioned that specifically, however, since I viewed it as somewhat bizarre
that someone could be sued for violating a person’s privacy when the Jane Doe
was not referred to by name in Loftus’ articles, and yet was referred to by
name in the lawsuit alleging a violation of privacy. As for the idea that I
only wanted to quote Loftus’ supporters, I requested an interview with Jane
Doe through her attorney. I received no reply from her.