Professor questions study, then others question her
Seattle Times staff reporter
Elizabeth Loftus was suspicious.
Having spent years at the University of Washington twisting people's memories and making them "remember" things that had never happened to them, Loftus was sure that the doctor lecturing nationwide about a traumatic memory recovered by one of his clients was doing some truth twisting of his own.
The University of Cincinnati child psychiatrist, had videotaped his interviews with a girl, first when she was 6 and then when she was 17. Together, the tapes presented a compelling case for the controversial theory that the mind can bury painful memories, then recover them.
But Loftus didn't buy it. She set out to investigate the research. By the time she finished, she had cast a shadow not only on the psychiatrist, but on the integrity of case studies that have shaped the field of psychology for more than a century.
Darkened too, however, was Loftus' relationship with her own university. Colleagues there questioned the methods she had used in her challenge, and recommended she take an ethics class.
Ultimately, Loftus — the queen of the UW Psychology Department, who last year ranked 58th in a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century — left Seattle in anger to take a post at the University of California, Irvine.
Until now, the controversy surrounding Loftus' departure has been confined mainly to university offices and boardrooms. It is a story not just of one professor's battle against another, but of the treacherous academic territory Loftus tread in challenging someone else's work.
'Diva of Disclosure'
Exploring dangerous ground is nothing new for Elizabeth Loftus.
For more than a decade, she has challenged prevailing views of memory, demonstrating that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. In experiments, she showed that through suggestion and reinforcement, people can be made to believe they had experienced something that had never actually happened.
Her work helped change methods used by police, social workers and therapists, especially around allegations of abuse.
In 2001, the American Psychological Society gave her its most prestigious award, calling her research "ingenious," and noting that "the quality of basic-memory research and the fairness of the criminal-justice system have advanced substantially" because of her science. A 1996 article in Psychology Today magazine dubbed her "The Diva of Disclosure."
But Loftus' work also created enemies, people who put her in the same league as the accused killers, rapists and child molesters on whose behalf she has testified in court. The Psychology Today article quotes a letter from an incest survivor: "Please consider your work to be on the same level as those who deny the existence of the extermination camps during WWII."
Few hate Loftus more than those involved in the spate of lawsuits and criminal trials that began in the 1980s, when it seemed as if childhood sexual abuse and satanic-ritual abuse were becoming nationwide epidemics.
Parents and child-care providers were hauled into court for sexual abuse, even murder, on the basis of memories recalled decades after the alleged events. The cases grabbed headlines until a 1992 presentation by Loftus cast doubt on some claims.
"While certainly there have been enormous tragedies due to real crimes against women and children," Loftus wrote, "there have also been equally enormous tragedies of false accusations. Families have been destroyed, miscarriages of justice have occurred, and more than a few innocent people have been sent to prison."
The topic of so-called "repressed memory" remains charged with emotion and controversy, mostly because it is impossible to absolutely prove or disprove scientifically.
Researchers can't ethically torture a group of people and then check back with them 20 years later to see if any of them forget and then remember the abuse. The most they can do is evaluate instances in which such remembering has reportedly occurred. Those instances are written up as case studies and presented in professional journals.
Loftus was reading such a journal, Child Maltreatment, in May 1997 when she came across the case of reported abuse that roused her suspicions. In psychology circles, the case is widely known as "Corwin's Jane Doe."
Lack of memory
In the article, Dr. David Corwin, a well-regarded child psychiatrist who now teaches at the University of Utah and heads the Child Protection Team at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, described this situation:
A young girl was caught in a child-custody dispute between divorcing parents. Corwin was called in to assess abuse allegations made by 6-year-old "Jane." In his third videotaped interview with Jane, she folded her tiny fingers into a three-fingered Brownie salute and swore she was being truthful when she accused her mother of abusing her in the bathtub and of burning her feet on the stove.
After reviewing reports from police, doctors and social workers who already had examined and talked to Jane, Corwin concluded it was likely that Jane's mother had sexually abused the girl. A judge awarded custody to her father and stepmother, terminating the mother's visitation rights.
Jane's father divorced about three years later, and within seven years became incapacitated by a health problem. Jane was living in foster care when he died.
Before the father's death, Corwin called him to see if it was still OK to show the videotape of his interview with Jane for educational purposes. When the father became ill, Corwin called Jane herself to get permission. She asked him if she could see the taped interview from when was 6.
Jane was 17 when she saw the tape. She told Corwin she remembered accusing her mother of abuse but didn't remember if the abuse actually occurred. As she pondered her lack of memory, she suddenly recalled her mother abusing her once in the bathtub. Corwin was taping Jane at the time, and he asked for and received her permission to show that tape, too, for educational purposes.
When Corwin showed the videotapes at professional conferences, clinicians who routinely dwell in the wreckage of other people's traumas dabbed at their eyes.
But Loftus — clearly predisposed to doubt recovered memories — pounced on this one. She was struck by what she saw as a dearth of evidence cited by Corwin to support his finding that Jane had been abused as a child.
She spoke with a colleague, Melvin Guyer at the University of Michigan, and together they decided to do their own investigation.
"I think people have to be very suspicious of case histories, and be aware that this is half of the story and one person's opinion," Loftus said. "The problem is, as with many aspects of life, the vivid case histories that have a story and a face are always more persuasive than cold, hard statistics."
From the start, the methods used by Loftus and Guyer in re-examining the case were unorthodox.
Instead of going to Corwin for more information or permission to talk with Jane, Loftus and Guyer picked up on clues — her real first name, locations, the year of her parents' divorce and her father's death — and figured out Jane's full name and whereabouts.
With the help of a private investigator, they dug up divorce records and interviewed three women who knew Jane: her birth mother, foster mother and stepmother.
The results of their investigation appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, a mass-circulation magazine devoted to scrutinizing what it calls "pseudoscience." Their article alleged that Corwin had omitted important facts about Jane's family and her case history.
Among the omissions:
• Failing to note that a county child-protective agency had investigated the allegations when they were first made and had recommended that no action be taken.
• Not mentioning that a clinical psychologist had reviewed the case and had concluded that, while abuse may have occurred, the nature and source of any abuse was unknown and that Jane may have just been repeating suggestions from her father.
• Ignoring the contentiousness of the custody battle, which lasted five years. In a taped interview with Loftus, Jane's stepmother said she had worked hard to "get" Jane for her then-husband, and noted that they finally succeeded with the "sexual angle."
The information revealed by Loftus and Guyer didn't disprove the claim of abuse. But it raised doubts about both the original claim and the memory Jane said she later recalled.
The significance of that doubt extended beyond Jane's case: Corwin's finding already was being cited in other court cases as evidence in support of recovered memory.
In a recent interview, Corwin conceded he had selectively edited facts in presenting Jane Doe's case and said it was appropriate to do so. A case study need not be an exhaustive recitation of every fact but rather should include information that supports the author's conclusions, he said.
Besides, he said, "We don't know with absolute certainty what happened (to Jane), and we don't assert that we did."
Corwin said professional ethics prevented him from providing further information about Jane's case, even if it meant not being able to defend himself against Loftus and Guyer's criticisms.
Loftus expected laurels for shining light on this case. Instead, she found the light shined into her own eyes, as Jane herself complained to the administration of the UW that Loftus had violated her privacy.
Once university officials began their 21-month investigation of Loftus' "case study of a case study," they discovered how difficult it is to regulate research that falls outside traditional boundaries, as Loftus' did.
"We're in the grayest of the gray zones I've ever been in my entire life," said David Hodge, dean of UW's College of Arts and Sciences.
University rules for research involving human subjects were written mainly for medical experimentation. But, as Hodge and others found, they are much more tricky to apply outside that area, especially if someone is challenging a case study.
Faculty members conducting research are required to submit proposals to an institutional review board, or IRB. The IRB sets rules to protect research subjects from harm and to ensure they're fully informed before they agree to participate.
Loftus had submitted a proposal to the UW's IRB early on, but then had ignored the board's follow-up questions after her partner, Guyer, received the go-ahead from the University of Michigan's IRB.
Had Loftus gone through the UW board, it's unlikely she would have been allowed to challenge Corwin's work the way she did, according to John Slattery, who was director of the UW's Office of Scholarly Integrity at the time.
Slattery said Loftus would have had to seek the university's permission before contacting people for interviews. She would likely have been required to give the IRB a list of questions she planned to ask and a form explaining the potential risks of being interviewed.
She probably would have been required to contact Corwin for permission to review records and to interview Jane.
Such rules make challenging a psychological case study much harder than presenting one.
Psychological case studies are, by design, shrouded in secrecy. Although studies are reviewed by experts before publication, those experts do not know subjects' names and rarely see documentation.
Still, Loftus feels justified in deliberately penetrating Corwin's efforts to hide Jane's identity. Secrecy rules adopted to protect the privacy of patients or research subjects should not be used to obscure the truth, she said.
Loftus was already well into her investigation when she took a colleague's advice and spoke with Corwin about contacting Jane. He told her he would be happy to connect the two, but then told her Jane wanted to communicate through him. Loftus eventually exchanged an e-mail with Jane to put her in touch with her mother, but she said they never discussed the abuse claims or Corwin's article.
Calling Loftus' methods unethical, Corwin said, "I have no reason to hide anything. She could have asked me, and I would have gone through the steps that would have left Jane Doe feeling less violated."
Jane told UW officials that she objected to Loftus tracking down her mother and stepmother for interviews.
Loftus admits to befriending Jane's biological mother, and confesses that she was motivated in large part by a desire to unite mother and daughter. In an e-mail to Loftus, Jane's mother wrote: "You have helped me heal when I thought it was not possible. I value your caring friendship. I am truly thankful that you are in my life."
Loftus' ongoing friendship with Jane's mother complicated the UW investigation, which was conducted by an ad-hoc committee consisting of three faculty members.
The committee ultimately cleared Loftus of wrongdoing but required her to get permission from the IRB before contacting Jane's mother again. The panel also wanted Loftus to take an ethics class.
Angry, hurt and humiliated by the investigation, Loftus accepted an offer from the University of California, Irvine, which offered her more research money and a "distinguished professor" title. She began teaching there in September.
"I cried for a week before I made the decision and a week after," Loftus said. "I felt so betrayed by my university."
The University of Michigan gave no such scrutiny to Guyer, Loftus' partner in the research.
Meanwhile, Loftus has received letters of support from prominent psychologists and researchers from around the country, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applauding her efforts to make case studies more transparent and expressing anger at how the UW treated her.
Hodge, the UW dean, said the university is looking at a different system for evaluating the kinds of challenges that Loftus' investigation represented.
"We always want to allow challenges to other people's research. It's really about at what point does a relationship become a scientific relationship? That's where it becomes difficult," he said. "It's not clear where the line is between professional scientific research and non-scientific research."