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The Memory Wars

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

How much do we really remember? Are our memories picture-perfect, or are they prone to manipulation and susceptible to fantasy? The stakes couldn’t be higher, especially when it's a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

In September 1969, an eight-year-old girl walked out of her suburban home and never came back.

Twenty years later, the girl’s best friend, Eileen Franklin, began remembering details of the day. She remembered the car the two were riding in that afternoon and the wooded area where her friend’s killer took them. Her memory had been repressed for 20 years, she told family and friends, but now she could see the day clearly: The killer, who was never apprehended, was her father, George Franklin.

Franklinwas arrested and put on trial. Unlike most murder cases, the prosecution relied almost solely on Eileen’s recovered memory of that September afternoon. Though the details Eileen provided all could have been gleaned from newspaper articles, the prosecution argued that Eileen’s memory had been repressed, pushed down after years of abuse at the hands of her father.

Elizabeth Loftus, a young psychologist practicing at theUniversityofCalifornia Irvine, was called in to testify for the defense. After thorough research, Loftus informed the court that there was no evidence to suggest that traumatic memories could be recovered years later. After one day of deliberations, the jury disagreed. George Franklin was sentenced to life in prison.

So began the public career of Elizabeth Loftus, today the undisputed leader in the field of repressed memory, a distinction that has brought her praise from some corners and calumny, lawsuits, and even death threats from others.


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