ETHICS COMPLAINTS FILED AGAINST PROMINENT FMSF BOARD MEMBER
APA Declines To Investigate
In December 1995, two women filed ethics complaints with the American Psychological Association (APA) against Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, regarding her published statements about two legal cases involving delayed memories of sexual abuse. Citing procedural considerations, however, the APA has declined to investigate the women's ethics complaints.
Jennifer Hoult (a concert harpist living in New York) and Lynn Crook (a Washington State consultant) each filed separate complaints with the APA, alleging that Loftus mischaracterized the facts of their legal cases in published articles. Both women brought successful civil suits because of the sexual abuse that the fathers (and the mother, in Crook's case) perpetrated against them during their childhoods. At their trials, they presented corroborative evidence that met the requirements for judicial proof of their allegations.
Loftus serves on the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc (FMSF). She also had been an active member of the APA since 1973, but she resigned in January 1996, shortly after the filing of the complaints. In a brief telephone interview with TREATING ABUSE TODAY, Loftus confirmed her resignation from the APA, but she denied any knowledge of the ethics complaints. She also cautioned that TREATING ABUSE TODAY should not state or imply that she resigned from the APA to avoid investigation of the ethics complaints.
When the ethic complaints were filed against Loftus, Jeffrey N. Younggren, PhD chaired the APA Ethics Committee. During his tenure in this position, Younggren appeared as an expert witness in many trials involving so-called "false memory syndrome," generally as a witness for accused perpetrators or against therapists accused of implanting "false memories." At the time Hoult and Crook filed their complaints, Younggren and Loftus were both working as expert witnesses on the same side of the same case. When asked about this coincidence, however, Loftus stated that she had no knowledge of the fact, because she worked on many cases simultaneously and didn't always know which expert witnesses were scheduled to testify in any particular case.
Responding to a query from Crook regarding the relations between Loftus and Younggren, Marguerite Schroeder, a senior investigator in the APA Ethics Office, stated that, if Younggren had faced such a conflict of interest, he would have recused himself from the matter. She further stated that Younggren hadn't been made aware of the ethics complaints against Loftus, and so had played no role in the decisions regarding them. According, however, to the Rules and Procedures of the APA Ethics Office, "complaints are evaluated initially by the Chair of the Ethics Committee [Younggren] and Director of the Ethics Office" ("Rules," 1992, p. 1614). Crook and Hoult filed their complaints on or before December 18, 1995, and Loftus submitted her resignation on January 16, 1996. In her response to Crook's query, Schroeder offered no explanation as to why Younggren hadn't been informed of the two complaints, even though they were filed nearly a month before Loftus's resignation.
According to both Crook and Hoult, Schroeder stated that APA policy generally bars the resignation of members when they're under the scrutiny of the Ethics Committee. Schroeder, however, further stated that Loftus hadn't yet come under the Committee's scrutiny, and that she hadn't been informed of the complaints against her, even though Crook and Hoult filed their complaints nearly a month before Loftus submitted her resignation.
Based on these procedural considerations, the APA Office of Ethics declined to investigate the ethics charges. Schroeder told Crook and Hoult that it's "unusual" for a member to resign in the timeframe between receipt of a complaint and a committee decision regarding appropriate action. When such a resignation does occur, however, Schroeder indicated that the APA no longer has any authority to pursue ethics complaints against the member.
Both Hoult and Crook have contested the APA's decision. In a strongly worded letter of objection to Schroeder, Crook argued that APA policy clearly bars the resignation of a member under the scrutiny of the Committee. She asked that the APA immediately rescind Loftus's resignation and proceed with an investigation of her complaint. Hoult asked for the same actions, as well as asking the Ethics Office to send her the procedures for filing an ethics complaint against the Ethics Committee.
A review of the APA's published guidelines regarding investigation of ethics complaints seems to bear out the objections lodged by Hoult and Crook. Information provided to complainants states that "the date of filing is the date on which we [staff of the Ethics Office] receive the correctly complete APA [ethics complaint] form" (APA, 1995, p. 2, emphasis added). The Rules and Procedures further state, "Plenary ethics proceedings against a member are initiated by the filing of a complaint" (APA, 1992, p. 1 622, emphasis added). These two statements taken together would seem to indicate that Loftus came under the scrutiny of the Ethics Committee on the date of the filing of the complaints, and thus the APA should have barred her resignation, as stated in the Rules and Procedures.
In her complaint, Hoult alleges that Loftus used distortion and misstatement of fact to seriously misrepresent Hoult's legal case. In 1988 Hoult brought a civil suit against her father, alleging that he had raped and otherwise sexually abused her throughout her childhood. After several years of legal wrangling, the case finally went to trial in June 1993. On July 1, 1993, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Jennifer Hoult, awarding her $500,000 for the suffering caused by her father's incestuous abuse. All higher courts have upheld the jury's decision, including the first circuit appellate court. When Hoult's father petitioned the US Supreme Court, his petition was rejected as untimely. At some point during all these proceedings, Hoult's father joined the FMSF.
In the March/April 1995 issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER (a publication of the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP), Loftus published an article titled "Remembering Dangerously." Subsequently, this article appeared as a resource document on separate Internet home pages maintained for CSICOP, for the FMSF, and for Loftus at the Department of Psychology, University of Washington. In the article, Loftus reviews a number of high-profile cases involving delayed memories of child abuse. The introduction to the article, giving a cartoon view of the legal process, indicates Loftus's general approach to the cases she reviews.
We live in a strange and precarious time that resembles at its heart the hysteria and superstitious fervor of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Men and women are being accused, tried, and convicted with no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser. Even when the accusations involve numerous perpetrators, inflicting grievous wounds over many years, even decades, the accuser's pointing finger of blame is enough to make believers of judges and juries. (p. 20)
Of the several cases reviewed in the article, Loftus includes "the case of Jennifer H" (p. 26). Though Loftus ostensibly offers Hoult a degree of anonymity by using an initial for her last name, she actually identifies Hoult by citing the case (Hoult v. Hoult) in the article. In an interview with TREATING ABUSE TODAY, Hoult stated that Loftus's article distorts her case through a broad range of unethical practices. Among others, Hoult asserts that Loftus misrepresents her competence, expertise, and personal motivation to speak as an expert on trauma and abuse. As many others have already pointed out, Loftus has never worked as a clinician and thus lacks training or clinical experience in child psychology, trauma, the processes of traumatic memory, the evaluation of alleged sex offenders, and child sexual abuse generally. In this regard, Hoult alleges that Loftus violated a number of APA ethics guidelines, including the need for truthfulness and candor, misuse of influence, and making claims outside the area of her expertise.
Hoult also alleges that Loftus used mischaracterization and omission of facts to misconstrue Hoult's legal case against her father. She pointed out many inaccuracies that support this allegation. In the article, for instance, Loftus claims that "Jennifer was a 23-year-old musician who recovered memories in therapy of her father raping her from the time she was 4" (1995, p. 26). Actually, Hoult began to remember the abuse at 24, at which time she was an artificial intelligence software engineer. Records in the case show that the bulk of her memories emerged outside of therapy. Furthermore, Hoult never stated that the rapes began when she was four, a "fact" apparently created by Loftus for the purposes of her article.
In another passage, Loftus claims that Hoult "remembered one time when she was raped in the bathroom and went to her mother wrapped in a towel with blood dripping" (1995, p. 27). A review of court records, however, shows that Loftus has added two elements of her own making: the memory of the rape itself (the trial transcript shows that Hoult never claimed to remember a "rape") and the blood-soaked towel (again the transcript shows that Hoult only reported a small amount of blood between her legs, which wasn't visible to the mother until Hoult dropped the towel from around her body). Hoult argues that these misstatements by Loftus put her in violation of several APA ethics guidelines, among them ethics in media presentations and ethics regarding matters of law.
IT'S MAGICAL. IT'S MALLEABLE. IT'S...MISREPRESENTATION.
In October 1991, Lynn Crook brought a civil suit against her parents based on her delayed memories of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by her parents. Loftus testified as an expert witness for the defense. On March 4, 1994, the judge in the case ruled in Crook's favor, awarding her $149,580 in damages against her parents, who chose not to appeal the case to any higher court.
In the January/February 1995 issue of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, Jill Neimark published an article titled "It's Magical. It's Malleable. It's . . . Memory." In her article, Neimark quotes Loftus, who gives an abridged and (according to Crook) seriously distorted account of her case against her father. In this part of the article, at the heart of Crook's ethics complaint, Loftus summarizes the legal case as follows:
Sometimes [Neimark states, summarizing Loftus] the memories become so seemingly fantastical that they lead to court cases and ruined lives. [Quoting Loftus] "I testified in a case recently in a small town in the State of Washington," Loftus recalls, "where the memories went from 'Daddy made me play with his penis in the shower' to 'Daddy made me stick my fist up the anus of a horse,' and they were bringing in a veterinarian to talk about just what a horse would do in that circumstance. The father is ill and will be spending close to $100,000 to defend himself." (Neimark, 1995, p. 80)
In an interview with TREATING ABUSE TODAY, Crook stated that Loftus's 79-word direct quote describing her case contained nine misstatements. "Loftus reworded events I recalled, and incorrectly claimed that a 'fantastical' memory had resulted in my filing this case." Crook pointed out, for instance, that Loftus contradicted her father's own sworn testimony that his health was "excellent." Crook also argues that Loftus should have pointed out that she (Crook) won the case, after presenting evidence that included testimony from two of her sisters who also remembered incestuous abuse perpetrated against them by their father.
Among other ethical concerns, Crook alleges that Loftus introduces the idea of memory progression ("from . . . to"), even though this claim had failed to hold up during the trial itself. During Crook's trial, Richard Ofshe, PhD, another prominent FMSF board member who testified for the defense, claimed to see a "progression" in her memories that called them into doubt. The judge in the case specifically dismissed Ofshe's attempt to cry "false memory" based on memory progression:
Finally, Dr. Ofshe characterizes plaintiff's memories as a progress toward ritual, satanic cult images, which he states fits a pattern he has observed of false memories. It appears to the Court, however, that in this regard, he is engaging in the same exercise for which he criticizes therapists dealing with repressed memory. Just as he accuses them of resolving at the outset to find repressed memories of abuse and then constructing them, he has resolved at the outset to find a macabre scheme of memories progressing toward satanic cult ritual and then creates them. (Lynn Crook v. Bruce Murphy and Lucille Murphy, Superior Court of the State of Washington In and For the County of Benton, #91-2-0011-2-5)
Despite the judge's statement, rendered from the bench, Loftus resurrected the "progression theory" in the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY article. According to Crook, Loftus should have indicated that her opinion had been rejected by the court, and that her failure to do so constitutes a violation of APA ethics guidelines dealing with truth and candor.
According to Crook, Loftus also transformed another memory, her recollection of the event involving the horse. In the quoted passage, Loftus does seem to imply that the memory involving the horse emerged as an elaboration and distortion of Crook's earlier memory involving her father, an implication that Crook denies. Crook also points out that Loftus omitted important information given by the veterinarian who testified during the trial. Though Loftus chose to present the possibility of anal penetration of the horse as a wholly fantastical absurdity, the veterinarian (who testified for the defense) pointed out that it's a common practice in veterinary medicine.
JUST TO BE BELIEVED
Crook told TREATING ABUSE TODAY that she hopes Loftus will be asked to corroborate all cases that she reports to the media. "I'm dismayed," she stated, "that Loftus would use her position as an expert witness in my case to try to prove to the public that I was yet another victim of 'repressed memory' therapy." Crook further stated that PSYCHOLOGY TODAY should have contacted her to check the facts of the case before they published Neimark's article.
While researching this story, TREATING ABUSE TODAY contacted the magazine's editor, Hara Moreno, to ask about the magazine's formal fact-checking policies. Oddly, Moreno became extremely hostile. She demanded to know "on whose authority" we had undertaken our investigation. She further stated that we didn't "know anything about anything," and that she would only speak with the APA about the ethics complaint. We tried in vain to get Moreno to understand that we didn't want her to discuss Crook's complaint, that we only wanted to know the formal fact-checking policy of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. We never did get an answer. The editor of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER never returned our call to discuss that magazine's fact-checking policies, despite a promise from Brian Karr, the executive director of CSICOP, that the editor would speak with us.
In "Remembering Dangerously," Loftus warns that "supposedly de-repressed" memories could "trivialize the genuine memories of abuse and increase the suffering of real victims who wish and deserve, more than anything else, just to be believed" (1995, p. 29). Hoult argues that Loftus used her scientific credentials in an unscientific effort to trivialize her memories of violent abuse. "I've proven the charges against my father in a court of law," Hoult stated, "before a jury of his peers. I am believed, by my family and my friends." Hoult went on to say that she expects ethical treatment from people who call themselves scientists, including Loftus.
Loftus in fact cites scientific considerations as the reason for her resignation from the APA. In her letter of resignation, she claims that the organization had "moved away from scientific and scholarly thinking." Loftus further stated that she had decided to resign "to devote her energies to the numerous other professional organizations that value science more highly and more consistently." During her tenure as an APA member, Loftus served "as President of two distinguished divisions (Experimental Psychology and Psychology/Law)," a fact she points out in her letter of resignation.
Alice Eagly, PhD, who presently chairs the APA Board of Scientific Affairs, expressed puzzlement over Loftus's abrupt resignation from the APA. Eagly dismissed Loftus's attempt to draw a "global judgment" regarding APA's commitment to science. She pointed out that the APA fosters a great many scientific endeavors, and that it publishes the premiere scientific journals in psychology.
Loftus stated in her resignation letter that she resigned largely because of the increasing drift of the APA "away from scientific and scholarly thinking and . . . towards therapeutic and professional guild interests." The APA, however, recently approved the FMSF as a continuing education sponsor, [for more information on the APA's action, please see "APA Approves FMSF as CE Sponsor" in the same issue of TREATING ABUSE TODAY (Vol 5 No 6/Vol 6 No 1).] and one of Loftus's colleagues on the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board (Ulric Neisser, PhD) also serves on the APA Board of Scientific Affairs. Neisser declined to comment on Loftus's resignation. TREATING ABUSE TODAY sent written requests for comment to the other members of the Board of Scientific Affairs; with the exception of Eagly, none responded.
Peter Freyd, PhD, co-founder of the FMSF, issued a puzzling Internet statement (February 8, 1996) regarding Loftus's resignation. Under the subject heading, "It's their stupidity, stupid," Freyd stated:
The RMT ["recovered memory therapy"] people certainly go in for believing whatever rumors they like. For the record: there are no ethics complaints against Elizabeth Loftus. She resigned from the APA because it has moved too far from science.
From his brief statement, Freyd appears to endorse Loftus's claim that the APA no longer holds a strong, consistent commitment to science. The APA, however, recently recognized Freyd's organization as a continuing education sponsor, a move that many see as evidence of Loftus's claim that the APA has indeed moved away from science by entering into a partnership with an organization (the FMSF) that promulgates pseudoscience. Pamela Freyd, PhD, the FMSF executive director, declined to comment on the ethics charges filed against Loftus and her resignation from the APA.
American Psychological Association. (1995). INFORMATION FOR INDIVIDUALS FILING APA ETHICS COMPLAINTS [Brochure]. Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychological Association. (1992). Rules and procedures. AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, 47, 1612-1628.
Loftus, E. (1995, March/April). Remembering dangerously. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 19, 20-29.
Neimark, J. (1995, January/February). It's magical. It's mystical. It's . . . memory. PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, 28, p. 44-85.
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