Twenty-two years ago today, the New Yorker published a remarkably exaggerated and unsupported claim. It was in the second part of “Remembering Satan,” Lawrence Wright’s article about the Paul Ingram case. (Some of Wright’s claims about this case have since been debunked by Karen Olio and William Cornell’s peer-reviewed article, “The Facade of Scientific Documentation: A Case Study of Richard Ofshe’s Analysis of the Paul Ingram Case.”) Beyond the Ingram case, however, Wright asserted that what happened to the Ingrams was “actually happening to thousands of other people around the country who have been accused on the basis of recovered-memory testimony. Perhaps some of the memories are real; certainly many are false” (Wright, Remembering Satan–Part II, New Yorker, May 24, 1993, p.76).
What evidence did Wright provide in support of his claim that there were “thousands” of cases? On what basis was he “certain” that “many” of those were false? None whatsoever. The “thousands” claim is pure fiction. There were thousands of phone calls to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which were often mischaracterized by the Foundation as “cases.” But Wright did not investigate any cases beyond Paul Ingram’s, so his certainty that hundreds, maybe thousands, of other cases were “false” is a measure of his prejudice, not a product of his reporting. Wright is an accomplished and award-winning author; but in this important instance, he got it wrong.
There was a piece in the New Yorker in March called “Remembering a Crime that You Didn’t Commit.” It begins with a brief description of the McMartin Preschool case that omits virtually all of the evidence of guilt, while exaggerating the extent of satanic claims in the case. (See this post for more detail.) The author then pivots to a description of Elizabeth Loftus’ Lost-in-the-Mall study, claiming that the experiment caused “six of the twenty-four test subjects [to] internalize the story, weaving in sensory and emotional details of their own.” But the vaunted fact checkers at the New Yorker were wrong about more than the McMartin case. They apparently failed to consult the original Lost-in-the-Mall study which makes it clear that the 25% figure includes those who “remembered” the event “either fully or partially,” and partially includes “remembering parts of the event and speculations about how and when it might have happened” (p.722). Speculations, of course, are not memories. And remembering, say, the “part” about being lost is hardly remarkable, since everyone has been lost at one time or another. In short, the original article never claimed that 25% of subjects internalized the false story. A much smaller number did.
Memory experts are quick to point out that memory is constructed and it changes over time. Curiously, those who cover memory researchers rarely, if ever, pause to ask whether professors describing their own research might reconstruct their “findings” over time, remembering results they didn’t actually find. That seems to be the real, but unrecognized, legacy of the Lost in the Mall study. To many, the study stands for much more than it ever actually found.