How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory

Elizabeth Loftus was in Argentina, giving talks about the malleability of memory, in October, 2018, when she learned that Harvey Weinstein, who had recently been indicted for rape and sexual assault, wanted to speak with her. She couldn’t figure out how to receive international calls in her hotel room, so she asked if they could talk in three days, once she was home, in California. In response, she got a series of frantic e-mails saying that the conversation couldn’t wait. But, when Weinstein finally got through, she said, “basically he just wanted to ask, ‘How can something that seems so consensual be turned into something so wrong?’ ”

Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the most influential female psychologist of the twentieth century, according to a list ­compiled by the Review of General Psychology. Her work helped usher in a paradigm shift, rendering obsolete the archival model of memory—the idea, dominant for much of the twentieth century, that our memories exist in some sort of mental library, as literal representations of past events. According to Loftus, who has published twenty-four books and more than six hundred papers, memories are reconstructed, not replayed. “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-­like creature.”

George A. Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, once said in a speech to the American Psychological Association that the way to advance the field was “to give psychology away.” Loftus, who is seventy-six, adopts a similar view, seizing any opportunity to elaborate on what she calls the “flimsy curtain that separates our imagination and our memory.” In the past forty-five years, she has testified or consulted in more than three hundred cases, on behalf of people wrongly accused of robbery and murder, as well as for high-profile defendants like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, and the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, in 2006. “If the MeToo movement had an office, Beth’s picture would be on the ten-most-wanted list,” her brother Robert told me.

But after the conversation in Argentina, and after reading more about the allegations, she referred Weinstein to a different memory researcher. Over the phone, she told his lawyers, “He’s a bully, and I’ve experienced that bullying myself.” She didn’t realize that Weinstein was on the line until he piped up: “I’m sorry if you felt I was bullying you.”

She resisted the job for about four months, but Weinstein and his lawyers eventually prevailed, persuading her to fly to New York and testify on his behalf, in exchange for fourteen thousand dollars, only ten thousand of which was ever paid. “I realized I was wanting to back out for selfish reasons, and I didn’t want to live with that feeling about myself,” she told me. (The only time she has ever turned down a case for reasons of repugnance was when she refused to testify for a man accused of operating the gas chambers at Treblinka.)

On February 6, 2020, the day before she testified, she received an e-mail from the chair of the psychology department at New York University, where she was scheduled to give a lecture. Her plane tickets had already been purchased. “Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control it is necessary to cancel your talk,” the professor wrote. Lof­tus asked whether the cancellation was because of the Weinstein trial; the professor never responded.

Loftus can’t remember the last time that she bought something she considered unnecessary. At Weinstein’s trial, she wore a red jacket that she bought at Nordstrom Rack for about eighty-five dollars and a thin necklace with a golden feather that she has worn every day for the past forty years. As she walked through the courthouse, she looked as if she were struggling to appear sombre. “I have to admit,” she told me later, “that it is fascinating to be, you know, in the trenches with the trial of the century.”

She testified for roughly an hour, pre­senting basic psychological research that might lead a jury to think that neutral or disappointing sexual encounters with Weinstein could have taken on new weight in light of revelations about his predatory history. “If you are being urged to remember more,” Loftus said at the trial, “you may produce, you know, something like a guess or a thought, and that then can start to feel like it’s a memory.”

“Can an event that was not traumatic at the time be considered traumatic later?” Weinstein’s lawyer asked.

“If you label something in a parti­cular way, you can distort memory of that item,” Loftus said. “You can plant entire events into the minds of oth­erwise ordinary, healthy people.” She ­explained that in one experiment, her most famous study, she had convinced adults that, as young children, they had been lost in a mall, crying. “The emotion is no guarantee that you are dealing with an authentic memory,” she said.

The Assistant District Attorney, Joan Illuzzi, challenged the idea that experiments done in a “pretend situation”—free of context, stripped of gender and power dynamics—are relevant to understandings of trauma.

“You do not treat victims of traumatic events, is that right?” Illuzzi said.

“I may study them,” Loftus said, “but I do not treat anyone officially.”

Illuzzi went on, “And isn’t it true, in 1991, that the name of your book was ‘Witness for the Defense’?”

“One of my books is called ‘Witness for the Defense,’ ” Loftus answered.

“Do you have a book called ‘Witness for the Prosecution’?” Illuzzi asked. A few people in the courtroom laughed.

“No,” Loftus said, calmly.

The next week, at the U.C. Irvine law school, where Loftus teaches classes, she passed by a colleague who specializes in feminist theory. “Harvey Weinstein—how could you?” the professor said. “How could you!” (Loftus remembers that the conversation occurred at the buffet table at a faculty meeting, but the colleague told me, “I know that it didn’t, because I would not have stood next to her in a buffet line.”) Loftus said, “I was reeling. How about the presumption of innocence? How about ‘the unpopular deserve to have a defense’?”

Not long afterward, the dean of the law school received a letter from a group of law students, who demanded that the administration “address the acute problem of Elizabeth F. Loftus.” “We are terrified that she is a professor for future psychologists and lawyers and is training them to further traumatize and disenfranchise survivors,” they wrote. The students asked that Loftus be removed from the faculty, but she continues to teach.

Her friends and family were also skeptical of her decision to testify for Weinstein. Her ex-husband, Geoff Loftus (whom she calls her “wasband,” because they still treat each other like family), an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington, said that he thought, “Oh, God, Beth, really? Come on.” Her brother David told me, “Here these women are blossoming into a world in which people are finally going to listen to them, and then they’re going to have some professor on the stand—someone they’ve never met before—tell the jury that they can’t be believed.”

“I’m completely satisfied with my life,” Loftus wrote in a leather-bound journal, in 1958, when she was thirteen. “I have a pretty good personality (not dull or anything), my family is one of the happiest.” She grew up in Bel Air, in Los Angeles, and spent weekends at the beach or at friends’ pools. For six years, she wrote in her journal every day, marking whether the weather was clear, cloudy, or rainy; recording compliments (in a middle-school poll, she won “best figure,” “lovable,” “most comical,” and “irresistible”); and describing the expanding circle of boys with whom she chatted on the phone. “Life is really my best friend,” she wrote.

She almost never mentioned her parents, whom she outlined in impersonal terms—“the family.” When I asked Loftus to describe her mother, Rebecca, she could come up with only one vivid memory, of shopping for a skirt with her. Loftus’s brother Robert said that he also faced an “empty canvas.” He told me, “I can’t grab an adjective or noun to describe my mother. There’s nothing that will allow me to say, ‘This is who she was as a person.’ There is no coagulation, no coherence.” He does have one memory, from when he was seven or eight, of standing by the front door of their house and misbehaving: “I was waiting for her to counter my disobedience with enforcement, and she just couldn’t pull herself together. I remember thinking, Oh, my God, she can’t even parent me. I pitied her.”

One evening, when Loftus was a young teen-ager, she and her father, a doctor, who was barbed and aloof, were driving through Los Angeles. They stopped at a red light and watched a couple, laughing, cross the street. “See those people having fun?” Loftus’s father said. “Your mother can’t have fun anymore.”

Loftus, seen as a baby, has few vivid memories of her mother, Rebecca.Source photograph courtesy Deborah Burdman

Loftus’s diaries read like an exercise in proving that she existed on a different emotional register from that of her mother. She summarized her mood with descriptions like “happyville,” “I’m so happy!” and “Everything’s GREAT!” It’s as if she were continually trying to outdo herself. “I can honestly say that this was one of the happiest days I’ve ever lived through,” she wrote in eighth grade. A few days later, she reached new heights: “I’ve never been so happy. I love the world & everyone.”

Loftus and her brothers didn’t have language to describe what ailed their mother. Their father seemed annoyed by her vulnerability. Eventually, Rebecca’s siblings intervened and sent her to a private psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania, near her brother’s home, where she was treated for depression. “My mother’s family blamed my father for being so emotionally flatlined and unavailable that he drove her to madness,” Robert said. In her journal, Loftus, who was then fourteen, never mentioned her mother’s absence. “Life’s wonderful!!” she wrote, after Rebecca had been away for four months. “When I’m old and lonely at least I’ll know once I wasn’t!”

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