Elizabeth F. Loftus, a San Francisco psychologist, was suspicious when she read about a 17-year-old called “Jane Doe” who purportedly had recovered a memory of her mother sexually molesting her as a child, reports the Los Angeles Times. The claim, published by two psychiatry professors in a professional journal, was being hailed as proof of “repressed memory,” a theory that says the mind avoids intense pain by sealing off recollection of traumatic events. Under the theory, the victim may recover the memory accurately years later, usually in therapy.
A professor at UC Irvine, Loftus is a leading figure in the so-called memory wars, a divisive dispute about whether repressed memory is the biggest fraud to hit psychology in decades or the outcome of careful therapy in which patients are able to heal themselves by finally coming to grips with painful pasts. Loftus decided to investigate Jane Doe, and her expose has ignited a firestorm over the ethics of revealing information about subjects of case studies and a legal battle over privacy rights that has reached the California Supreme Court.