Professor Elizabeth Loftus was also a prominent member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board. Professor Loftus has testified as a memory expert over 300 times, including the above mentioned cases. Professor Loftus’s career is built on her laboratory experiments demonstrating the malleability of memory. There is no doubt that human beings and their memories are ‘malleable’, but Loftus has massively over-generalized the findings from her experiments on college students, which have very questionable relevance for psychotherapy and sexual abuse survivors. For example, in a typical experiment, college students who had watched a video were convinced, based on suggestions by Loftus’ research team, that the video included a stop sign rather than a yield sign.
Assistant District Attorney, Joan Illuzzi, in the case against Weinstein, challenged the applicability of laboratory studies or as she described them, “pretend situations,” to real life situations (Klasfeld, A. 2021). It is an established fact in memory research that routine day-to-day memory is encoded, stored and retrieved through a different process than is often the case for traumatic memories. It is worth noting that in thirty-five years specialising in developmental and complex trauma, I have never met a therapist who disputes the fallibility of memory or who does not acknowledge that some therapists have not met accepted treatment guidelines. For example, my co-author Dr. Colin Ross, a Past President of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, has testified for the plaintiff in cases involving false memories and sexual misconduct by therapists. To allege that the fact of common errors in memory or recall proves that many sexual abuse survivor’s memories are entirely false is a gross misrepresentation of what we know about how memory works, akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.
It was noted in the Maxwell trial that of the hundreds of trials where Loftus has appeared as an expert witness, only once was she a witness for the prosecution. Referring to Dr. Loftus’ book, Witness for the Defense, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Elizabeth Pomerantz asked, “You haven’t written a book called ‘Impartial Witness,’ right?”, to which Loftus replied, “I don’t have a book by that title, no.” (Klasfeld, A. 2021).
In an interview with Rachel Aviv, New Yorker Magazine, extracts from Loftus’s teenage journal were shown to reflect an incongruence between her entries and reports from family members about the family environment. At the age of 14 years, Loftus’s mother spent several months in a psychiatric hospital where she was treated for depression. Shortly after discharge, her mother drowned in a swimming pool in a property owned by Loftus’s uncle. The coroner ruled it an accident. Loftus’s father said it was suicide. Whichever may be the truth, within a week of her mother’s death in December 1959, Loftus wrote, “I’m a happy teenager! It’s sort of sad to leave this year behind—it was such a wonderful year for me.” (Aviv, R., 2021).
The article goes on to reveal that in some parts of her journal Loftus used a paper clip to attach scraps of paper. On these scraps she wrote thoughts that she described as ‘removable truths’, so that in the event anyone demanded to read her journals, she could remove them. Removable truths may well be the forerunner of ‘alternative facts,’ the term coined by US Counsellor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway, to defend White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.
Loftus recounts her own experience of sexual abuse as a child by a babysitter at the age of six in her book Witness for the Defense and in her journal, she describes her subsequent confusion as to whether the reason she had not begun to menstruate at the age of thirteen was due to the babysitter “doing something to make me pregnant”:
“One night after my younger brothers had gone to bed and after Howard had rubbed my arm for a while, he took my hand and led me into my parents’ bedroom. He took his pants off, pulled my dress off over my head, and removed my underpants. He lay down on the bed and pulled me on top of him, positioning me so that our pelvises touched. His arms circled around me. I felt him pushing against me, and I knew something was wrong. Embarrassed and confused, I squirmed off him and ran out of the room. After that there is only blackness in my memory, full and total darkness with not a pinhole of light. Howard is simply gone, vanished, sucked away. My memory took him and destroyed him” (Loftus, 1991, p. 149).
Scholars have raised questions as to whether Loftus’s childhood experiences, remembered or otherwise, have a bearing on her work with memory. In her book, “Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century ” (2004), psychologist Lauren Slater writes, “There is something split off in Loftus. She is the survivor who questions the validity of survivorship. That’s one way out of a bind.”