The cut, the cut, cut, cut, cut, the cut. The cut. Just a warning, this episode includes discussion of sexual abuse. Chris is the subject of a false memory experiment, I remember in my psych one or one class, we watched this absurdly Nyos video.
The Loftus researchers had several of his family members record in a journal, some real events shared by the family. A false event being lost in a shopping mall at the age of five was added to the journal, which Chris read and ultimately remembered as real. I remember getting lost and I was crying. I knew I was in real trouble.
Chris was remembering details of something that never happened. I remember stories big short of stories. An older man approached me. He was tall and he had a flannel shirt on. I remember my mom told me never to do that again.
My reaction to this study was like the reaction I had to every single study in my college psych class, which is basically, holy shit, I would totally fall for this.
Like if someone in my family told me that I had gotten lost in the mall as a kid.
Of course, I believe them would be like, oh, wow, OK, how would I know any differently what someone described something to you and you trust that person.
You can start imagining it and seeing it in your head and thinking maybe that really did happen. And does that count as a memory? Katie Haney is a senior writer at the Cut.
The Lost in the Mall study is Canon at this point. We know that it's taught in a bunch of psychology textbooks, and we also know that interest psychology is the most commonly taken college course freshman year alongside required freshman writing courses. So this is something that many young people have some exposure to early on. And I think especially when you're young, when you see something like that in a textbook, you take it as fact.
The Los Alamos study is a scientific study, but it also has a worldview and an argument it's trying to make. I don't necessarily think that's something that everyone realizes when they're 18 years old taking a college psych class. Katie's been working on the story for a long time now about some of the faults and ramifications of this lost in the Mall experiment. It's a story of two very different psychology professors, one whose life was torn apart and one whose career was made.
We'll start with the first one, Jennifer Fried.
So this is where I live. Obviously, we are going to walk to like, OK, this is my reporting tape.
When I flew out to meet Jennifer in February to talk to her in Palo Alto, we were walking through her neighborhood.
I had been hosting Christmas for a while and my parents and my sister had been traveling to my house for Christmas.
So this story actually begins in nineteen ninety. A few months before Christmas, Jennifer Frid and her husband had been hosting Jennifer's sister and their parents for Christmas each year. But that year, Jennifer's sister gave her a call and said she wasn't going to come in that conversation.
She said, We ended up talking about my parents and various things and she said, you know, Peter was sexually abused, right?
Peter is Jennifer's father and hearing her sister use that term sexually abused kind of rattle Jennifer and she couldn't really understand why. So with a few weeks left before Christmas, she decided to go to therapy. In Jennifer's first or second session, the therapist asked her the standard and questions like, do you smoke, do you drink, etc. One of these questions was, have you ever been sexually abused? And Jennifer said, no.
But then at some point after that, had some memories come. Within the next few days, she started to remember some experiences at the hands of her father that she had to consider abuse.
I have snippets of memories from when we were living in New York, and I think I was just mostly around age three plus or minus six months.
And she kind of reexamined some of the things that she did always remember with new eyes.
There were things that were. In the category of weird, but I told myself some story around the. Jennifer doesn't talk about what exactly she remembers, and she never has. She doesn't even really like to put a label on what she remembered, but it was abuse, sexual abuse.
So it was very. A sense of like everything was shaken and I probably at times was trying to make sense and remember things, and other times I was probably trying to not to get it out of my mind.
Christmas comes around. Her parents come into town a few days before, and by then she's remembered something of the abuse. She will go on to remember more, but she feels very uncomfortable.
My parents arrived for Christmas and I very much had wanted to suppress it all and get through Christmas. Right. I could not I couldn't write. And the form it took was absolute terror for the safety of my children. I could kind of suppress it for me. I could not suppress it from the maternal side.
She can't get over thinking of her children's safety. And so in the middle of the night, she called a colleague and she and her husband got the kids out of their beds and they all left the house. In the morning. Jennifer asked her husband to call the Fried's the parents and tell them that they needed to leave, and Jennifer's husband just sort of blurted it out that Jennifer had begun experiencing these memories.
The Fried's were surprised. They were confused. One can imagine that it was startling and jarring. So Peter and Pam left the house denying Jennifer's claims. Now, Jennifer Frid is an academic, and she already was back then in the 90s, pretty successful one.
And in this way, Jennifer Frid took after her father, Peter.
Peter was an academic, a well-known and well regarded mathematician. Pam, Jennifer's mom was a public school teacher. She had wanted to be an academic, but had always put her husband's career and her children before herself and never really had a chance to break into academia.
In the months after this Christmas encounter, Pam got concerned that Jennifer was telling people in academia what happened and calling herself an incest survivor.
Jennifer says she did not tell anyone and that she didn't want it to be public.
But Pam somehow got the impression or chose to believe that she was under attack. And so she started developing a defense. And that's when she started working on this article that she'd publish in a small academic journal. And it's called How Could This Happen? Coping with a False Accusation of incest and Rape.
The article is basically the entire story from Pam's perspective, and it offers other explanations for Jennifer's allegations. Pam writes all these theories and, you know, quote unquote explanations as to why her daughter might be making these allegations. None of them, of course, are that it's true. It's all these other reasons why this might have happened. And they include, you know, saying that Jennifer had done drugs and she was a kid, that she had an eating disorder as a kid.
And by the way, not all of this was true.
Pam used a pseudonym for her daughter in this piece, but it was obviously about Jennifer.
There was enough information there that made it very clear to anyone who knew the Fried's that this was about them.
I think Pam felt immediately moved to defend Peter against these allegations and didn't believe that her husband could be capable of this, and so she wanted to present an explanation for why their child was the one who should be trusted rather than Peter. The other motivation here is that this is an opportunity to publish something in an academic journal. It's personal, too, but it's academic. So it has this veneer of a larger purpose and this austere association. So Jennifer didn't know that her mom was writing this article and she only found it when someone at her place of work at the University of Oregon had a copy.
I was wanting to talk to my colleague about something unrelated, but while we were sitting there, she just handed it to me, said, do you know anything about this?
Jennifer's paging through it, sees this article and recognizes herself in this story.
And I was just sort of thumbing through it, you know, and landed on that article at some point and said, wait a minute. She was under consideration for promotion to full professor at the time and certainly was worried that this would have an impact, this might have remained the sort of like small academic world scandal. But the Journal article got picked up by the Philadelphia Inquirer in a piece that was headlined Accusations of Sex Abuse Years Later. And in this story, they claimed that Jennifer had recovered her false memories through hypnosis, which she's told me she never got hypnosis at any point.
The journalist who wrote that story for the Enquirer, Darrell Sifford, went on to publish three more stories on so-called false memories. Sifford told Pam that these articles did wildly well.
He had never in his career received the kind of response that he did to this story and that he had gotten overwhelmed with calls and letters from families who said that the same thing happened to them, that their children had accused them of something that they didn't do and they didn't know what to do about it. There was no resources at the time for people in this situation. And so Pam sort of, I think, took that as an invitation to be the person who created that resource.
So she started working on a group that she would eventually call the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
Good morning. The last few days, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1992, is staffed mostly by relatives of adult children who have made accusations of recovered memories of incest.
And that name, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, sound super scientific, but false memory syndrome has never been given any diagnostic criteria. It's not in the DSM and isn't really recognized as a psychological condition. I actually went to visit the archives of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in upstate New York, and there are file cabinets in this room full of letters from what they call the false memory syndrome of probation families, which is two thousand or more individuals and couples been accused by one or more of their adult children of child sex abuse.
Pam and Peter Fried and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation also began reaching out to other media outlets and assembling a board of academic advisors. And one of the most well-known people on this board was a psychology professor named Elizabeth Loftus, the author of The Lost in the Mall study, as seen in that 90s video from my psych class.
Well, in terms of Chris's memory, there was no man, there was no flannel shirt. There was no mother who said, don't ever do this again.
And Elizabeth Loftus, the second psychology professor the story is about, weaves her way in after the break. This is advertiser contact. Who we are sleeping terribly right now, neurobiologists are calling this trend of increased sleep disturbances, covid insomnia. So how do we fall and stay asleep? To understand, we have to go back to its building blocks. We have to look at something called sleep architecture.
Your world explained, brought to you by both sleep buds.
Two, There are four phases of sleep we go through every night. The first two are later sleep. The next two stages are critical. That's where all the recovery and repair happens. During Stage three, our bodies do the hard work of recouping from the day we just had.
Then their stage four REM sleep REM Sleep First takes place around 2:00 a.m. and is crucial for learning and memory. It's where our brain activity accelerates. This stage is so important that NASA is working to improve REM sleep for astronauts in space, if you're asleep by 11 p.m., you'll build three full non-random stages before entering REM sleep at two a.m..
What this means for you is not just less exhaustion. High quality sleep is tied to increased resiliency, lower anxiety and even better heart health. Great sleep starts with a coolroom distance from your screens, quiet and really letting yourself relax.
Both sleep adds to can help when you use both sleep adds to soothing sounds, help you fall asleep and stay asleep as noise masking tuck keeps out sounds that could wake you all helping you be the architect of a better night.
With the arrival of the New Year, it's a good time for a mental health check and maybe you'd like to give therapy a try for the first time or you're feeling ready to try it again.
Whatever the case, better help is here for you with licensed online counselors who are trained to listen and help in areas like family and relationship, conflict, depression, self-esteem, anxiety and more. Whatever you're feeling, better help can help you navigate it. The advice that a lot of people always like to give when I'm facing a problem is listen to your heart. What do you want? And therapy is a way to really assess that, because oftentimes I don't know the answer.
I don't know what I want. I don't know what is right. And I know finding a therapist can be intimidating and time consuming.
But the thing is, with better help, you can simply fill out a questionnaire to help assess your specific needs and then they match you with your counselor in under 48 hours, easily scheduled secure video or phone sessions, plus exchange unlimited messages with your therapist from the comfort of your own home. If for any reason you're unhappy with your counselor, you can request a new one at any time. No additional charge. Better help is a convenient and affordable option.
And our listeners get 10 percent off your first month with discount code. The cut get started today at better HELOC Dotcom, the cut. There is no shame in asking for help.
Elizabeth Loftus was kind of the crown jewel in the academic advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. She was and is a really prominent researcher.
Elizabeth Loftus is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine. Now, in up until 2001 and for most of when this story takes place, she was a professor at the University of Washington. She has had a prolific career side career, second career as a expert witness for the defense.
I got involved in my very first repressed memory court case, which was the case of George Franklin, who was accused by his own daughter of murdering a little girl 20 years earlier.
Elizabeth Loftus testified for the defense in a case that's now known as the George Franklin case, in which George Franklin's adult daughter, Eileen, claimed that she'd recover memories of watching her father rape and murder her childhood best friend 20 years earlier.
And supposedly the daughter had repressed her memory for 20 years and now the memory was back.
Loftus heard this story and thought there was a strong possibility that this didn't happen and that maybe something else was responsible for making Eileen think that this happened and considering it a memory if the daughter's memory wasn't real, well, could all of this detail come from?
So for a few years, I tried to figure out how could I study this? I came up with the idea, why don't we try to make people believe and remember that they were lost in a shopping mall.
So Loftus decided to start this whole thing, rolling with an extra credit assignment to her undergraduate cognitive psych students worth five whole points go out and distort somebody's memory so they could see for themselves how they might do it.
In crude terms, those basically like go home over break and brainwash your little brother.
One of Loftus is students at the time was a young man named James Cone. James thought this idea sounded fun and easy enough for five points. So James went home and figured he would try to plant a false memory of being lost in the mall in his 14 year old brother, Chris.
I remember stores. I remember my mom told me never to do that again.
So Chris was the boy from the video I watched in my psych one to one class. His brother, James Cone, was able to successfully convince him that he had been lost in the mall as a child.
Cohn goes back to school with this little story about his brother, and Loftus is super excited. This is basically exactly what she hoped would happen. And then she decides from there like I need to make this into an actual study. Loftus repeated this procedure using twenty four pairs, you know, one person being a relative and another being the subject to be told this false memory. And by the end of the process, six of the twenty four subjects were said to believe the false memory of being lost in the mall, either fully or partially.
Loftus categorized this result. Then, as a quarter of all people can believe false memories because six out of twenty four, that's a quarter. In one of the first studies we did, we used suggestion and planted a false memory that when you were a kid, five or six years old, you were lost in a shopping mall, Lost is always says about a quarter of people can be made to believe false memories that are externally implanted.
She also talks about the mall study in a TED talk she gave in 2013. And that has more than five million views.
And we succeeded in planting this memory in the minds of about a quarter of our subjects.
Part of the issue here and one of the main criticisms has always been, is that getting lost in the mall or getting lost in a store when you're a kid happens all the time. Like pretty much everybody, I think, in the United States of America can probably go back and imagine a time when they couldn't find their parent for however long in a grocery store and target at the mall or whatever, and got scared like it's something that happens a lot.
It's hard to keep track of one's little kids. And so even if it didn't happen to you, it's something that probably most of us can imagine. So it's not necessarily a leap to get most people to agree that that could have happened, particularly if you have your mom there or your brother there saying this did happen to you because I was there and I remember it.
How do you tell the difference between a younger sibling or someone just sort of accepting what their older sibling tells them versus genuinely developing a false memory?
Well. I don't remember exactly, you know, was the very first one since that people of design better studies, there's a similar study where you're the false event is spilling punch on the bride's dress at a wedding.
As a kid, there's ones about almost drowning in a pool. There's ones about like these sort of like really embarrassing, scary, like high adrenaline situations, but still nothing super out of the ordinary.
And then in 1997, just two years after the original mall study came out, a new study presented a real rebuttal. It was conducted by Kathy Pesek, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont Graduate University.
Getting lost in a mall is a very plausible right for planting a memory, for that is one thing and it has nothing to do with karma.
In Pesek study, she presented 20 subjects with one true memory and two false ones. One of the false memories was again being lost in the mall and the other was receiving a rectal enema be replicated, go off the study using the lost in the mall scenario, exactly the same material encoding scheme, everything.
But we found that when we use this other event, which was implausible, it was like, no, not everyone said, no, no, no, no. That never happened to me.
Three of twenty subjects, quote unquote, remembered having been lost in the mall, but Véro remembered the enema.
A typical response was no fucking way. I didn't have it.
What Pesek wanted to demonstrate, which I think she did really effectively, is that we can only be made to remember things that seem plausible to us. For most people, rectal animals are not a plausible childhood event, so they're not going to develop a false memory of that, even if a relative tells them it happened. The natural response is something that incredible is the push back. And you let me make it something as genuinely traumatic and stigmatized as child sex abuse.
The average person just won't be easily convinced that that happened to them just because someone else encourages them to think so, it's probably not impossible.
But Precedex research suggests that actually very few people might be susceptible to false memories of child sex abuse and that the percentage is likely much, much smaller than the quarter of participants that Loftus study found and that Elizabeth Loftus continues to cite.
She talks about it all the time. She cited it in providing her expert testimony in defense of Harvey Weinstein and in countless other trials, she has testified on behalf of people like Ted Bundy, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and said in many of those cases that what the accusers were recounting might be a false memory or that they might be wrong in some way because of the way memory works.
Can you see where someone might look at the list of people for whom you've provided testimony and and wonder about your motives in providing that testimony for like. Oh, like, well, you know, Scooter Libby.
Now, Harvey Weinstein, you might also mention that I also consulted on the Duke lacrosse rape case where they ended up being innocent.
After all the George Franklin case, the one Loftus first worked on, was overturned.
This path to a federal judge reversed George Franklin's 1990 murder conviction due to a technicality.
George Franklin was convicted of murder based on his daughter's record memory of him murder her friend 20 years earlier, although then this case was reinstated and then thrown out again, which goes to show how complicated cases made on memories are.
I think Loftus genuinely feels that there is a grave risk of false accusations in this area and feels that someone needs to stand up for those who are accused and that she is that person and that she can be that hero for these people. She's sort of the go to person. If you are a powerful man who's been accused of sexual assault or sexual abuse in some area, Elizabeth Loftus is the person you want on your defense team.
I've testified about approximately three hundred trials and since June of nineteen seventy five, over the years since the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded, Loftus and Pam Fried have sort of funneled people each other's way.
So if someone contacted Loftus and said, I saw. You testified on behalf of someone who was accused, my kid is accusing me of this and I didn't do it then, Loftus says, sures an organization that I've heard of. You should look them up. They're great. Sends them to the F MSF. And then on the FMF side, if they get someone who says, I was falsely accused, I want to press charges or I need help with my defense, they can send that person over to the office.
So I think it's a symbiotic relationship in that respect.
Every parent that reached out to the foundation was presumed innocent and falsely accused and welcomed in as a member of this sort of wrongfully charged family. And that includes some parents whose adult children always remembered being abused but only confronted their parents about the abuse as adults.
Pam Fried writes back to all of these families and maintained correspondence with some of them for many years. And Pam, you know, I think formed a relationship with a lot of these people in part to replace the connection that she had lost with her own daughters and her grandchildren.
But, of course, who better to explain why Pam Fried made the False Memory Syndrome Foundation into her life's work than Pam herself?
I retired after the accusations because she would feel people looking at you or worrying about you don't help. It changed my life.
Pam Fried was worried that people would see her differently and she couldn't be around kids anymore. She quit being a teacher and devoted herself entirely to her work at the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
I was not going to be, nor have I been anywhere near children since this all about me either Peter, nor I have.
So in Pam's viewpoint, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation's existence does not undermine support of survivors. She thinks that it doesn't discount the prevalence of child sex abuse. And if anything, she thinks that her husband's own personal experience of abuse as a child makes him better qualified than most to share an opinion on what is and is not appropriate between adults and children.
Believe me, he is well aware of what can go wrong with inappropriate sexual relationships between adults and children. Nobody is better than him. He was abused. Yes, you can look experiences of life turn you into a victim or you can take the approach that you're going to be above it. And so he decided he would be above it and he wasn't going to let it destroy his life.
So, of course, then her thinking goes, he would never do this to someone else. It was a way to make sense of something that she didn't know how to deal with. And I think she feels that it was what she had to do in order to survive. That said, she does have mixed feelings.
You know, there is just this. Awful, awful. I'm going to use the word tearing, I guess, feeling that if I were if we had not gotten involved with the foundation and things had been quieter, perhaps there would have been a greater probability that our family might have gotten back together again. But when I now look at I see what's happened to so many thousands of families who have been no guarantee, but. At this point, Soviet.
On New Year's Eve 2019, when I've been reporting this story for about two months, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation abruptly announced it would dissolve. It was sort of startling and not well when you're in your age now that your health isn't going to be good forever.
Pam and Peter are in their 80s and nearly half of the board members listed on their website are marked with this morbid parenthetical deceased. And I think that they see themselves as having completed the work that they set out to do. They really did shift the narrative. The legacy of the false memory syndrome is, I think, more present than a lot of people realize.
Time, life, hell, you're not swear to God. I never saw you before six weeks ago. Our marriage is just a memory implant bullshit.
This idea that we can't trust our own memories pops up all over the place in weird places. It's in The Matrix, it's in Total Recall. And that long ago it was employed as a plot device.
In an episode of the CBS Web series Pacard, have you considered the possibility that someone may have implanted false memories in here? False memory syndrome idea provided this really powerful criminal defense for people accused of sexual violence. But it's also a really reassuring explanation for anyone who wants to believe the child sex abuse is a common. And I think that's something most people want to believe because it's a horrible thing to think about. But given what we know, it just isn't that rare.
The child abuse prevention nonprofit Darkness to Light reports that one in 10 children are sexually abused before the age of 18. That's one in seven girls and one in twenty five boys. There's still a lot we don't know about child sex abuse because it's something people don't tend to report. It's a very taboo issue and most victims feel ashamed. That being said, it's unlikely that every single allegation of child sex abuse is fact or that it happened exactly as the person remembers it, because that's just not how memory works.
And we do know that some people sometimes say things happen to them that didn't. But it's also unlikely that they're all made up. And between those two ends, there's this whole range of possibility where we have to acknowledge the child sex abuse does happen. The way my father treated me was screwed up, no question, and, you know, but it's not that it was OK, but in a world in which so much bad stuff happens. So many kids get treated horribly in so many ways, I don't think, but my childhood experience, particularly Rex.
Jennifer Fried understands that, unfortunately, her own childhood experience of abuse isn't particularly unique, but what is unique, of course, was her parents reaction in starting this whole foundation. That response is what most interests Jennifer. In her work as a psychology professor, Dr. Fried has researched the ways people respond to accusations of abuse. And she's come up with a couple of theories. One of them is called Davo, which is what she theorizes perpetrators do when they're confronted with accusations.
Darbo stands for Dinni attack and reverse the victim and the offender. And this theory has really taken off. We see this all over the place in the media and in pop culture.
It was even on Southpark, Davo, Randy Dinni attack, reverse victim and offender. All right, let's role play. You be your accusers and I'll bet you look, I go hey you you blew up people's yards who are growing their own marijuana. No, I didn't. Are you joking? Psychopath. Now you're blowing up my yard.
That does not happen to most psychology. Jennifer Fried did not ask for this attention or for this to become her field of study, but in a carmac parallel, she began her own research nonprofit, the Center for Institutional Courage, which aims to support whistleblowers and victims of abuse. And Jennifer Center for Institutional Courage earned five one C three status and almost precisely the same time her parents False Memory Syndrome Foundation announced it would shutter.
Part of the reason the Fried's decided to end the foundation now is because they said their work is done. But for how powerful a narrative this false memory theory has proven to be, the actual evidence is pretty thin, even though the lost in the mall study is still everywhere. But don't take it from me.
Take it from James Cone, that student and Elizabeth Loftus is class twenty five years ago who convinced his brother Chris he was lost in the mall as a child, went from doing what I thought was kind of a fun project to realizing that it was a flash point for this very flawed argument.
James Cone is now a professor of psychology himself at the University of Virginia.
Lots of people mischaracterized my role in this study. Lots of people mischaracterized the study itself, calling it a study when it was an undergraduate assignment for five point sixty five point five points and decades of Greece. And as Professor Cohen puts it, all the lost in the mall study proves is that for a short period of time, a person can be made to recount an event that never happened when supported by a person who says they were there.
Whatever this means for accusations of abuse is up to judges and juries to decide. It doesn't rule anything out or explain anything neatly. If anything, it only makes the murky, fallible nature of human memory still more confounding. This episode was reported by Katie Hainey. You can find her article, The Memory War at the Cut Dotcom Edits and Production by Allison Barrenger and me. B.J. Parker is our lead producer. This episode was engineered and scored by Brandon McFarland and Rick, one special thanks to the Cadenas and sensitising Kurts Syllabub and the shop Kawa are the show's executive producers were made possible by the team of New York magazine.
Read and support their work by going to the cut dotcom slash subscribe. I'm Avery Friedman. Thanks for listening. A park police say several young men got hit and a brother was stabbed in the park, things just politically exploded in Houston when it came out that the police had been the ones who murdered those a couple stories 40 years ago.
A Texas community's demand for justice led to a daring experiment for five young Latino officers with little training and even fewer resources. They were tasked with solving Houston's toughest crimes and rebuilding trust.
How would you like to go to homicide? I didn't know what homicide was. None of us knew what we're up against. They were torn between the neighborhoods that raised them. Some of my friends stopped talking to me after I told them I joined the police department and the badges they wore.
I had a Mexican flag on my desk and they came over to meet. The lieutenant is one of the Mexican flag over there. My name is Krystal Alonso and this is the story of the Chicano squad. I work so many whodunnits that I used to have a say.
And if you just throw me a fingernail, I'll find you the killer.
Subscribe to Chicano Squad from the Vox Media Podcast Network on Spotify or wherever you listen.