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Friday, June 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Unrecallable memory: Who's twisting the truth?

Special to The Times

The most important and far-reaching issue about the situation described in Susan Kelleher's article ("Professor questions study, then others question her," Times page one, March 17) is the breach of an individual's right to privacy after she had agreed to the publication of a scientific article about her case.

Violations of privacy like this threaten all those who agree to share confidential information about their health or other personal facts for the advancement of science with the promise that their identity will not be disclosed.

Several years ago, after I published the article "Videotaped discovery of a reportedly unrecallable memory of child sexual abuse: comparison with a childhood interview videotaped 11 years before" in the May 1997 issue of Child Maltreatment, Elizabeth Loftus, then with the University of Washington, Melvin Guyer, with the University of Michigan, and a private investigator determined the real identity of the young woman I referred to in my article as Jane Doe.

My 1997 article focused on two videotaped interviews with Jane Doe. Jane was the subject of a forensic evaluation that I conducted for a court in the mid-1980s regarding her allegation of sexual abuse by her mother. The first interview described was actually my third interview with Jane at age 6. It occurred after I had submitted my report to the court supporting her allegation against her mother and shortly after her mother and maternal grandmother had taken Jane to a hospital and, as alleged by Jane, she was forced by them to make a false allegation of sexual abuse against her father.

The second is with Jane at 17 as I prepared to show her the videotapes. Jane asked to see the tapes because she said she could no longer recall some of what she previously disclosed. Due to my concern about possible adverse effects on Jane, I conducted a careful informed consent before showing her the videotapes. While still recording, I videotaped her informed consent and asked what she could recall. Jane experienced her recollection of the sexual abuse at that moment before seeing the previous videotapes.

This was not research. Jane's reported recollection was unforeseen. Early drafts of my article contained almost no information about her case. My article focused on Jane's spontaneous recollection as captured on videotape and compared to my videotaped interview with her 11 years earlier.

Six experts, selected for their different perspectives about the memory controversies of that time, were invited to review the videotapes and draft of my article and to publish their commentaries in the same journal. One of the commentators suggested I include some of the facts from Jane's case that supported her sexual-abuse allegations. I did so.

After my article appeared, Loftus, Guyer and a private investigator violated Jane's privacy by determining her real identity and interviewing her mother, brother, stepmother and foster mother. The investigator also attempted but failed to contact Jane. In May and July of 2001, Loftus and Guyer published two articles in the Skeptical Inquirer titled, "Who abused Jane Doe?"

Loftus is a well-known proponent of the view that recollections like Jane's are likely false. Loftus and Guyer did not contact me prior to violating Jane's privacy nor did they obtain Jane's consent for determining her identity, interviewing her childhood caregivers or publishing their articles about her childhood and abuse allegations. It is also now clear that they did not have authorization by their universities' Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) for their actions regarding Jane Doe's case.

A very important fact described in Kelleher's article was that Loftus did not respond to the UW Institutional Review Board's questions about her proposed research in Jane Doe's case because Michigan's IRB had given her co-author, Melvin Guyer, the "go ahead to proceed." After reading this in Kelleher's article, I began to suspect some "truth twisting" about an IRB approving the violation of Jane Doe's privacy. I inquired about this assertion with the University of Michigan IRB office and was informed that it has no record of any such approval for research by Guyer on this case. The Michigan IRB had decided that the study did not come within its scope.

Such a decision is not a "go ahead" but rather a caution that the IRB committee is not providing its approval or guidance nor is it forbidding the applicant from using his or her own judgment on how to proceed. Also, approval at one institution in no way constitutes approval for another institution without prior agreement.

Kelleher's article quotes me as saying, "A case study need not be an exhaustive recitation of every fact but rather should include information that supports the author's conclusions." This quote is drawn from my explanation to Kelleher of why my 1997 article contains only selected details about Jane's case. To clarify, I do not believe that an author should just "include information that supports the author's conclusions." My case report was about the recollection and not the validity of Jane's allegations that I conceded to not know with certainty. If the focus of my article had been to explore evidence for and against the validity of Jane's allegations, then including more facts, both pro and con, would have been warranted.

Readers who wish to form their own opinions about "who's twisting the truth" about my 1997 article may find it and the accompanying six commentaries through the Child Maltreatment page of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children's Web site:www.apsac.org

Dr. David L. Corwin is medical director of the Primary Children's Center for Safe and Healthy Families; chief of the Pediatrics Division of Child Protection and Family Health; and professor of pediatrics, University of Utah School of Medicine.

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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