The New Yorker’s hit job on Elizabeth Loftus

April 25, 2021 • 9:30 am

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.

36 thoughts on “The New Yorker’s hit job on Elizabeth Loftus

  1. The NYer is now utterly worthless. It’s hard to reconcile its earlier pioneering reportage, way back when, on the severely carcinogenic nature of asbestos (at a time when the main peril from this dangerous material was thought to be asbestosis) and the hazards of dioxin with its current astrology-and-spoon-bending level of scientific stupidity.

    I guess it’s just another case of all good things coming to an end…

    1. The New Yorker seems to have joined the “science must support my politics” bandwagon. It’s a comfy wagon and has room for right and left wingers alike.

  2. Loftus’ book Eyewitness Testimony is excellent.

    If anyone is interested is a quick-read science fiction novel that deals with the harm the repressed memories movement caused, Robert J. Sawyer’s Factoring Humanity is also excellent.

  3. What a tremendously interesting subject. As to the hit piece, I suspect that it is very important to Rachel Aviv that recovered memories be an accepted and noncontroversial phenomenon.

    It is distressing that so many people have the tendency, should their worldview conflict with observed reality, to try to modify the reality rather than their own views. Of course, actual reality is hard to change, so they go after those who promote that reality, or try to force everyone to at least pretend to go along with the fantasy. It seems like this is still at a trivial level, except for those directly effected, but it is a trend that seems to put us at risk of repeating the horrors of the 20th century, except at a more frantic pace, and with a thoroughness allowed by digital technology.

  4. I wonder if the same discrediting of the concept of repressed and recovered memories can apply to the concept of lived experience treated as sacrosanct in the CRT canon.

  5. I’ve got an idea about why this piece is the way it is, though I could be wrong. Back in January, The magazine

    published a story by writer Katie Heaney about the controversy surrounding “recovered memory,” and using the False Memory Syndrome Foundation as a central talking point. You can read the article here. A companion podcast episode is here.

    This quote is from a Medium piece where Carrie Poppy compiles letters criticizing the piece. Letters that the magazine did not print.

    So, it seems as though they’ve planted their flag on the recovered memory hill.

      1. Oh my goodness – terrible, sloppy error on my part. Thank you for correcting. I’m past the editing time limit, so it our website host wants to delete my comment that would be fine, though I think the letters are all worth reading.

        1. The NYer and NYM do seem to be dead wrong in the same way about quite
          a few things, so it’s not that much of a stretch to get their content conflated…

          1. I think it might be safe to blame it on my faulty memory? But yes, it is interesting that these stories are happening now in tandem.

  6. I am pleased to learn that our host is a pal of both Elisabeth Loftus and of Fred Crews. The latter is one
    of my heros, as much for “The Pooh Perplex” and “Postmodern Pooh” as for his deconstructions of Freud. Elizabeth Loftus’ work has also been impressive, although she hasn’t written anything as funny as Professor Crews’ satiric masterpieces. As for The New Yorker, I may have a repressed memory of having subscribed to it long ago, but it would take heavy psychoanalysis to exhume that memory trace.

  7. I think there might be another conflict playing out here: a clash between the scientific skepticism of “ The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” vs. the popular emphasis on “you know yourself and your truth, don’t let others take this away.”

    If our memories aren’t reliable, then our sense of outrage over insults may be mistaken. If we cannot trust our recollections of being a toddler, we may not have “always known” we were not really a boy, or a girl. If we can’t completely believe what we’re convinced is true, then it’s much harder to divide the world between Us and Them, the Good and the Evil.

    In a world in which “you could be fooling yourself” is often seen as the sort of thing a conservative would say to attack those marginalized by social injustice, Elizabeth Loftus’ research and theories are probably going to do a head run into a lot of sacred cows.

  8. I, too, am distressed, and even angered by The New Yorker’s increasingly knee-bending obeisance to Wokeism. But it’s not entirely the case that it has abandoned science, especially medical science. Writers such as Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman are excellent. But Ceiling Cat help us if their views disappear.

    1. Yes, I’ve posted about this; the science they DO pay attention to is almost invariably stuff involving human health, like these guys do. As for pure science, very little. I was heartened by a recent article about animal migration (by Elizabeth Kolbert?), which was one of the few straight-up science pieces I’ve seen.

      As I’ve said previously, science relating to human health is the NYers one exception.

  9. As a retired psychologist, I have to stand up for those whose experiences were so horrid and difficult to assimilate that they blocked them out. I have seen it. This does not preclude falsely claiming a “repressed memory” for revenge, or the possibility that a patient can unintentionally distort a memory until it is inaccurate. However, I hardly think that thousands of adults would set out to accuse priests of abusing them long ago, for what–publicity? To publicly accuse another of a sexual assault usually requires tremendous courage and is one of the main reasons this crime goes unreported most of the time. Memory is a very complex process. Once I had to tell a 20 year-old relative, meeting her as she returned home one evening, that her mother had just died suddenly in that very house two hours before. Years later I mentioned the event to the daughter. She said, Oh, no, it was ___ who told me.” I immediately dropped the subject. I myself do not remember basic facts about my father’s funeral.

    1. You are conflating those who were abused by priests and remembered it, but didn’t speak up, with those who block out memories of traumatic abuse to the point where they don’t think it ever happened, and then have those memories dredged up by a therapist. The cases I’ve seen of abuse by priests do not involve people “forgetting” it and then remembering it when prompted, but rather of people remembering the abuse but not speaking about it.

  10. It looks like Elizabeth Loftus, who I have only heard about, is doing interesting and possibly valuable work. (I would worry about the quoted sample size too.) But I can see why she is controversial, in the large and in the small – I reacted to her suggestion that the goal validated the method for parents but not for doctors (“first, do no harm”) and the Santa Claus lie was not a good reference.*

    I didn’t know that there were still people who defends Sigmund Freud. But I did know that people being defensive can become nasty – Aviv seems to be an example.

    *There is also the problem that perhaps about half of bad food and activity choices are genetic, half environmental. Maybe the parents set bad examples in the first place, and now they are offered yet another way to avoid modifying their own behavior.

    1. “I didn’t know that there were still people who defends Sigmund Freud.”

      I just made a very quick tour of web pages in German, French, Spanish and Italian and found plenty of people who defend at least some parts of Freud’s work. I did not read all I found and I am not competent enough to have a critical opinion.

      1. Yes, there are many that defend a lot of his ideas, though those who accept everything he said are very few. Look at the reactions to Fred Crews’s book debunking Freud: the psychoanalysts and their running dogs were INCENSED that their idol be criticized in that way.

  11. “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.”

    I contemplate why Aviv was or should have been listening in on that call. I hope to make time to read the article to find out why (assuming the article reveals that). Strikes me as one more reason not to let some mouthy media magpie be privy to one’s personal life.

  12. I wonder if this also ties in with the New Yorker’s star writer Ronan Farrow, who has pushed his sister’s alleged, but delayed memories of being abused by Woody Allen??

    What’s next, re-revisiting the McMartin pre-school investigations? Or maybe they could find some genuine victims of the Hilary Clinton et al sex-trafficking ring that QAnon has brought to everyone’s attention?

    1. I am a fan of Elizabeth Loftus’s work, but Dylan Farrow’s memories of abuse were not “delayed.” According to her own account, she told her mother about the incident immediately and has never repressed the memories. You may or may not believe Dylan’s story but it’s not an example of repressed memory.

      1. OK, I haven’t researched this much, but recalled (imperfectly?) that it may have been after Mia had “coached” her. Do we know that she told her mom immediately?

        1. The way I understand it, Mia was informed by her friend that the friend’s babysitter had observed Woody Allen behaving inappropriately with Dylan on the day of the incident. Mia then approached Dylan, who told her about the abuse. I don’t know the exact timeline, but I got the impression this transpired over a few days after the alleged incident. The babysitter and friend corroborate this account.

          Afterward, Mia taped Dylan recounting the story (shown in “Allen v. Farrow”). You can come to your own conclusion about whether her story is credible, but the child abuse experts who were interviewed in “Allen v. Farrow” stated that Dylan’s account seemed genuine, based on its specificity, consistency, and the child’s behavior. The accusation of “coaching” seems to have been an invention of the Woody Allen PR team.

          Most importantly Dylan has been consistent — from childhood to the present — in her story and its veracity. From what I remember about Elizabeth Loftus’s work (I read one of her books several years ago), Dylan’s account doesn’t fit the profile of a person who has had memories implanted or artificially “recovered.”

          1. Thanks for info; I haven’t followed this closely, and probably shouldn’t have implied anything. I didn’t see the recent shows. Too many characters who seem to have their own agendas.

  13. I am reminded of Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Pulitzer Prize winning work exposing “recovered” memories of young children at several day care centers in the mid ’80s. People went to prison for child sexual abuse based upon prosecutorial misconduct and so called expert testimony brought on by the ensuing hysteria. Many of these children, later in life as adults, still believed they traveled underground to caverns and watched clowns murder people.

  14. “Everyone deserves a fair trial, including those accused of the most odious crimes…”

    I am constantly amazed at how often people seem to depart from this view. When someone is accused of serious crimes the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has a tendency to fly out of the window and the court of public opinion simply can’t wait to get the accused flung in jail (or worse). I remember the late John McCain gave a lecture on the BBC some years ago and in the question session afterwards was asked about the prisoners languishing without trial at Guantanemo Bay. His response was astonishing and although I cannot quote verbatim was basically that, as terrorists, they did not deserve a proper trial.

    Yet it takes the merest moment of thought to appreciate that the more serious the crime one is accused of, the more crucial it is that there is a free and fair trial in which to defend oneself against the charge as the consequences in terms of both reputation and deprivation of liberty (and life in some jurisdictions) are so great. Over the ages many people have been accused of crimes that they did not in fact commit.

    1. “I am constantly amazed at how often people seem to depart from this view.”
      To be fair to many of those who depart from the view, the departures are often contextual where a fair trial seems impossible. The complaints are often at underhanded tactics of lawyers, or systems where there’s political and cultural pressures that away a case a particular way, and the way money can effectively buy justice.

      In other words, critics of the idea are often critics of the system as it as practiced rather than the ideal the system is supposed to live up to.

      If the system doesn’t seem to favour particular groups and against others, if money wasn’t a deciding factor, if corruption didn’t play a part, and if the justice system better reflected the reality of the gap between crimes and their accountability in court, how many of those who deviate now would still dismiss it? I don’t think very many for the reasons you specified above.

      1. I’m not sure. I don’t dispute that the scales of justice can be – and are – tilted in all sorts of underhand ways and I have no issue with anyone criticising that. It is clearly objectionable if the rich and powerful can get away with criminal behaviour through the exertion of ‘influence’ at any stage in the criminal justice process from initial investigation to sentencing and the application of the court’s sentence. But, as in the McCain example I refer to, I find that depressingly often the simple fact that a person is accused of terrible crimes is sufficient for many people to decide they do not in fact deserve a fair trial.

        1. I see your point and agree. Terrorism especially is one area where people are willing to suspend the rule of law. Not helped by politicians and media pundits who would know better.

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