I doubt that psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus knew that, when Rachel Aviv of the New Yorker interviewed her for a recent profile, Aviv had a hit job in mind. I say this because Aviv makes statements in the piece (click on screenshot below; I think access is free) implying that she, Aviv, believes in the dubious and largely discredited concept of repressed and recovered memory; and Loftus has spent much of her life doing research that caused the discrediting.
When I first saw the piece’s title, I thought, “Wow! The New Yorker is doing some real science pieces now.” Indeed, the title seems to be about Loftus’s work, which I knew a bit about. I had met Loftus (her friends call her “Beth”) at the 2016 American Humanist Association Meeting in Chicago, where I spoke and she received the Isaac Asimov Science Award for scientific work that advanced humanist values. After the award, Loftus gave a talk on the fallacies of memory, a talk I found quite impressive. (As you’ll see from the TED talk below, she’s a very good speaker.) At the conference dinner, I sat beside Loftus and we had a delightful conversation, which was also a bibulous one because, as I recall, we’d each had more than our share of wine. But after I wrote the preceding sentence, I looked up my emails from Loftus after the dinner and found one that said “they should have given us wine”, implying that my memory of being tipsy with her was false! What I wrote was an example of the kind of false memory she works on!
Click below to read the New Yorker piece:
Here’s Loftus speaking about her work. You’ll learn a lot more from this 17½-minute talk than you will from Aviv’s piece.
So I looked forward to reading Aviv’s piece, hoping to learn more about Loftus’s work on memory. As Aviv notes, Loftus is “the most influential female psychologist of the twentieth century, according to a list compiled by the Review of General Psychology.” She’s written 24 books and more than 600 papers. I haven’t read any of those works, but know Loftus from her talks and from what I’ve read about her, and so anticipated learning a lot more about memory from the New Yorker.
Oy, was I mistaken! For despite the piece’s title, it has almost nothing about Loftus’s accomplishments, which are many. Instead, Aviv concentrates on Loftus testifying at the trial of Harvey Weinstein, at the appeal of Jerry Sandusky and in legal proceedings of other miscreants—while noting that Loftus has only ever refused a single invitation to testify in anyone’s defense, for she testifies about the known science, not the defendant’s actions. That action alone demonized her, as it did Ronald Sullivan, a Professor of Law at Harvard who was kicked out of his position as a Harvard “faculty dean” at Winthrop House because he also worked for Weinstein’s defense. Because of this, Loftus was also deplatformed at New York University and snubbed by her colleagues at UC Irvine, where she’s a professor.
As someone who worked on the DNA evidence at O. J. Simpson’s trial, and testified about DNA evidence for public defenders in trials for rape and murder, I object to this kind of demonization. (I didn’t take money for any case after the first one I worked on in Chicago.) The job of the defense is to make the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the prosecution is making statements that are scientifically questionable, including, as we see above, using eyewitness evidence, which can be deeply fallible, the defense’s job is to call those statements into question. Everyone deserves a fair trial, including those accused of the most odious crimes, as well as those who are wealthy.
I digress, I suppose, but I see Aviv’s repeated mentions of Loftus’s testimony for Weinstein as an attempt to smear her. There are too many mentions to think otherwise.
But it’s worse, for while Loftus’s work is barely mentioned, you’ll see that Aviv concentrates on Loftus’s personal trials: in particular, her relationship with her late mother.
Virtually the entire article is devoted to Loftus’s childhood and adolescence, and a large part of that to a single Skype call Loftus had with her two brothers, largely about their mother, Rebecca. A depressive, Rebecca died, most likely by suicide, when Loftus was a teenager. Loftus is still wounded by this loss. Worse, Elizabeth has very few concrete memories of her mother, and cannot decide whether her mother drowned accidentally or as a deliberate suicide attempt. Elizabeth had a heart-to-heart talk with her mother the night before she was found drowned, and that makes her feel even worse. Aviv mentions several times that the Skype call, which Aviv was party to, made Loftus cry, and that also appears in the last sentence. I don’t think that’s accidental.
After I finished this peculiar article, I wondered why Aviv concentrated so much on Loftus’s thoughts about her mother and not on her work. When Loftus is asked whether her work on memory somehow grew out of her attempts to remember her mother, she denies it, for all three of her degrees were in mathematical psychology and had nothing to do with memory. Loftus hit upon the memory work only after she started a job at The University of Washington and came upon police records of car crashes, which piqued her interest in memory.
The rest is part of the history of psychology, but Aviv isn’t interested in that. She’s obsessed with Loftus’s scant remembrance of her mom, and Loftus’s doubts about whether she did kill herself. It goes on and on and on, and the article becomes not only boring, but pointless.
When I was puzzled about this, I asked my friend Fred Crews—former professor and chair of English at UC Berkeley, well known critic of Freud and his ideas, student and critic of recovered memory therapy, and a friend of Loftus— if he’d read the piece. He said he had, and had not only found it dreadful, but also had an explanation for its slant. I quote him with permission:
To be brief, Aviv subscribes to Freud’s original bad idea: People repress traumatic memories, and psychotherapists can coax them into recalling them. With that conviction, Aviv regards Loftus less as a memory scientist than as someone who lets abusers off the hook. In that case, the only interesting question is biographical: how did Loftus acquire this undesirable peculiarity? The result, in Aviv’s prose, is what I would call a “friendly libel.” We are meant to empathize with Loftus’s personal trial, but insofar as we do so, we impugn her testimony as a neutral expert witness.
That assessment seems fair to me, and explains Aviv’s neglect of Loftus’s work in favor of her “personal trial”. In fact, Aviv even impugns some of Loftus’s work, noting that one of her famous studies, on car crash memories, had a sample size of only 24. I can’t comment on that, but sample size alone does not invalidate the study. Does Aviv know enough science to raise such a criticism?
Loftus has sacrificed a lot for her work, and although she is highly influential, and to my mind has largely laid to rest the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed and then recovered through therapy, she is still demonized by the kind of people who think that anybody who testifies in court for an odious person is to be shunned. Loftus moved to Irvine because her position at the University of Washington became untenable when she was criticized for asking questions about a woman who said she’d been abused by her mother.
Enough. I want to close by reproducing, again with permission, a letter Crews wrote to the New Yorker criticizing Aviv’s execrable hit job on Loftus. The magazine didn’t publish it, for the New Yorker which has a reputation for allowing only very mild criticism of its pieces and deep-sixing any highly critical letters.
The letter notes that Aviv appears to buy into the idea of repressed but recoverable memories of sexual abuse broached (and later rejected) by Freud. Aviv seems to think that Freud made a mistake when he reversed course and decided that the “repressed” events never happened, but were confected by the patients and manifested as hysteria.
According to Rachel Aviv, Sigmund Freud “realized that his patients had suppressed memories of being sexually abused as children.” In subsequently disavowing that realization, Aviv adds, Freud “walked away from a revelation” of the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Later, Aviv writes that in the 1980s and 90s Ellen Bass—the coauthor of The Courage to Heal—and other theorists were “careful not to repeat Freud’s mistake.” And then Aviv refers again to “Freud’s female patients, whose memories of abuse were believed and then . . . discredited.”
This version of events became popular in 1984 with Jeffrey Masson’s book The Assault on Truth, which argued that classical psychoanalysis was founded on a cowardly retreat by Freud from the truth of his “seduction” patients’ molestations. But Freud scholars have known since the 1970s that this account is wrong.
In the brief period of his “seduction theory,” Freud maintained that hysteria is invariably caused by the repression of traumatic abuse memories from early childhood. Although he later claimed that his hysterics had spontaneously told him (in error) about having been molested, the reverse was true. He told them so, because his theory demanded it. Nearly all of his patients at the time disputed Freud’s claim, even scoffing at its absurdity. Freud finally abandoned the “seduction” etiiology because his colleagues, too, regarded it as “a scientific fairy tale” (Krafft-Ebing). They were entirely right. But in the hands of Bass and other modern proponents of “recovered memory,” a theory that collapsed in its own time was rehabilitated for very risky ends.
If you want to see what a charlatan Freud was, I’d highly recommend Fred’s book Freud: The Making of an Illusion.
Full disclosure: here’s a picture I asked someone to take of Loftus and me after the AHA dinner (see my post here). I may not be a completely unbiased observer, but read the NYer piece for yourself and see if you don’t find it weird.
The New Yorker continues to largely ignore or denigrate science, mired as it is in a woke perspective and a view that the humanities are valid “ways of knowing”. Aviv’s piece is a particularly good example of how the magazine misses the boat when it comes to science, obliquely trying to denigrate an influential scientist by concentrating on her life and her own traumas rather than on her peer-reviewed work.