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Whatever Happened to ‘Jane Doe’?

Special Early Release

Carol Tavris

Volume 32.1, January / February 2008

In ruling on a lawsuit prompted by a noted recovered memory case, the California Supreme Court has decided overwhelmingly in favor of social scientists Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin J. Guyer and this magazine. It is an important victory for open, skeptical inquiry and free speech.

Five years ago in this magazine, Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin J. Guyer published a two-part article called “Who Abused Jane Doe?” (Loftus and Guyer 2002a, 2002b). It was their critical interpretation of a case study that provided alleged evidence of a repressed and then recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse, and its subject, “Jane Doe,” was not happy with their account. In February, 2003, she sued both of them, this magazine, its publisher, me, and a few others involved in the investigation for defamation, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. She claimed twenty-one counts and causes of action within these four categories, and she wanted more than a million dollars in punitive damages and compensation for her injured feelings. The invasion of privacy claim was especially ironic, given that Loftus and Guyer never once revealed her name, and the Skeptical Inquirer and I didn’t even know what it was until she filed the lawsuit in her own name. And so, it was Jane Doe herself who told the world that her real name was Nicole Taus.

After wending its way for years through the California courts, ending with a ruling in early 2007 by the California Supreme Court, the case was finally resolved. Taus lost resoundingly on twenty of the twenty-one counts. The Skeptical Inquirer’s right to publish the articles was completely supported; Loftus, Guyer’s, and my right to write and talk about the case was given complete protection; and the Supreme Court ruled that because the defendants won the “overwhelming majority” of Taus’s claims, we were entitled to recover fees and costs. Taus thus faced a bill for $450,578.50—the cost of nearly five years of litigation and fees for the attorneys representing all the defendants she had accused. All in all, it was a sound defeat for the plaintiff and a tremendous victory for open, skeptical inquiry and free speech—with one quirk related to that lone twenty-first count. Here is the full story.

First, some background. In 1997, psychiatrist David Corwin and his colleague Erna Olafson published a case history that proponents of recovered-memory therapy quickly began using—in conversation, in scholarly writing, and in court—as proof of the existence of repressed memories. Corwin had entered Taus’s life (at that time, noted as “Jane Doe”) during a custody evaluation in the early 1980s, when child sex-abuse allegations were reaching a peak, and videotaped six-year-old Taus as she claimed that her mother physically and sexually abused her. Corwin believed her, and the mother lost custody and even visitation rights. Taus lived with her father until he became seriously ill, at which time she went to live with a foster mother. When she was seventeen, Corwin returned to interview and videotape her once again. During this encounter, she at first didn’t recall any acts of sexual abuse but eventually did. Corwin’s detailed account, and his repeated showing of her videotapes as a child and teenager at conferences, were persuasive to many mental health professionals, researchers, and of course prosecutors.

Yet Loftus and Guyer were suspicious of Corwin’s story. Using public records and newspaper clippings, they eventually located Taus’s family. After poring over thousands of pages of court records documenting the virulence of the original custody battle, including a thorough, court-ordered report by a clinical psychologist who doubted that Taus had been sexually abused (a report not mentioned by Corwin), and after interviewing several key players in the story, they became convinced that Taus’s biological mother was almost certainly innocent. When the mother learned that someone believed her after so many years, she sobbed and said, “I never thought this day would come.” It had been more than a decade since she had lost custody of her daughter.

As Loftus and Guyer were getting ready to publish their findings and interpretation of the evidence, however, Nicole Taus complained to the University of Washington, where Loftus was a professor, that her privacy was being violated by a faculty member who was investigating her story. Despite having already permitted her face to be shown and the details of her life to be publicly revealed, she pursued her complaint. University officials seized Loftus’s files, and although university regulations stipulate that all such complaints against faculty members are to be resolved within 120 days, the investigation against Loftus went on for nearly two years, during which time she was forbidden to speak or write about the case. Eventually Loftus was completely cleared of wrongdoing or ethical violations. At the University of Michigan, Mel Guyer was enduring similar harassment from his Internal Review Board, but finally he, too, was free to publish.

And so their two-part article “Who Abused Jane Doe?” appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, along with a companion piece that I wrote describing the struggles that Loftus and Guyer had endured at their respective universities (Tavris 2002). “Who Abused Jane Doe?” offered an alternative explanation to the one proposed by the repression proponents: namely, that the child had probably not been abused at all, but that her “memories” were the result of suggestive influences on the part of her father, her stepmother, and perhaps a few mental health professionals as part of her father’s determination to gain custody of his daughter.

When Nicole Taus filed her lawsuit, the lawyers representing all the defendants hoped to get the case dismissed immediately on the grounds that Loftus and Guyer had not done anything that ordinary investigative journalists would not do. The lawyers argued that Taus’s suit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), filed in retaliation for the defendants’ protected exercise of free speech.1 Our anti-SLAPP motion alleged that the plaintiff’s suit was intended to interfere with certain constitutional rights of the defendants and the public’s interest in being informed of important issues and questions of public policy and controversial topics. Once we made our motion showing that fundamental constitutional rights were placed at risk by Taus’s suit, Taus was required to show that she had a chance of prevailing on any of her claims if they were to proceed to trial. As the case made its way through the courts, the plaintiff was found to have filed a suit that indeed infringed on our constitutional rights, that her claims lacked any likelihood of prevailing if the case went to trial, and that all of her charges were without legal foundation (Taus v. Loftus et al. 2007). The California Supreme Court dismissed all counts against the defendants but split on one single factual question involving Loftus only.

To understand this one issue, you need to know that the Court doesn’t rule on the validity of a person’s claim but rather its legality. If you sue someone for calling you “a son of a bitch,” the Court doesn’t determine whether the person actually called you a son of a bitch but whether you have a legal claim against him if it turns out to be true that he said those words. In this case, Taus’s former foster mother, who had given Loftus information about Taus’s background, attempts to reach her biological mother, and other matters, alleged that she had given Loftus this information under false pretenses. (Guyer was not involved in that interview.) The foster mother claimed that Loftus had told her she was Corwin’s supervisor, thereby gaining information that she, the foster mother, would otherwise not have revealed. In issuing its ruling, the Supreme Court had to assume this allegation was true before it could determine whether there was any legal basis for remanding the matter to trial, where a jury would decide whom to believe. For example, the courts have ruled that certain categories of investigators—police officers and reporters among them—are allowed to lie to interviewees in order to gain information. Are social scientists? Realtors? Marketers? Employers?

By a narrow majority, the Supreme Court held that one narrow, particular kind of lie can be actionable: the kind the foster mother alleged. Investigators may not pretend to have a special relationship with the target of their investigation (e.g., Corwin) in order to lower their interviewee’s (e.g., the foster mother’s) normal caution about disclosing personal matters. They may not intrude on a privileged relationship in which the subject has an expectation of privacy. Taus, said the Court, had a reasonable expectation that no one would pretend to be privy to her special relationship with Corwin—that she could trust Corwin’s supervisor (as if he had one!) as much as Corwin. Although Taus’s own lawyer explicitly informed the Court that Corwin never acted as Taus’s therapist, the Court nonetheless decided that because Corwin is a psychiatrist, he and Taus had some kind of trusting, therapist-patient-like relationship. And so they ruled that the case could go to trial to determine that one factual issue: Did Loftus lie to the foster mother to get information about Taus? But, as one of the dissenting judges wrote, “In fact, it is fairly apparent that the impetus for this litigation is not Loftus’s investigative techniques but her perceived adversarial stance toward Corwin and, derivatively, toward Taus. But by any ordinary sense, the desire to deny an investigator information based on the investigator’s viewpoint cannot be called an expectation of privacy or seclusion, and the enforcement of Taus’s preference through tort law is contrary to free academic inquiry and the First Amendment.”

Some of Loftus’s opponents have misinterpreted the Court’s ruling for their own purposes as a confirmation that Loftus lied to the foster mother. In fact, Loftus is adamant that she did no such thing. The foster mother also claimed that during the interview, when she somehow discovered that Loftus was not whom she said she was (how would this have happened if Loftus was deceiving her?), the interview turned hostile and she demanded that the tape recorder be turned off and the tape handed over. Loftus refused, she said, and so she ended the interview at once. However, as witnesses to the interview can confirm, the interview was not taped; it lasted four hours until Loftus ended it, and when it was over, the foster mother amiably posed for photographs with Loftus, who had put her arm supportively around her. What seems likely, therefore, is that the foster mother repented of her conversation with Loftus in order to make amends with Taus. The phenomenon of “source remorse” is well known to journalists and biographers.

Nonetheless, there it was: Taus facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, Loftus facing a petty, but onerous, she-said/she-said trial.2 And then Taus made an offer to settle. She would drop the remaining claim against Loftus for $7,500—a pittance compared to the million she had been asking—plus an agreement by Loftus to forgo her portion of the attorneys’ fees she was otherwise entitled to receive from Taus. Accepting the offer, Loftus knew, meant that her enemies would say she was admitting that she used deceit to interview the foster mother. But accepting the offer also meant she would avoid years of potentially protracted and costly legal machinations. The foster mother, presumably wishing to remain in Taus’s good graces, might lie about how Loftus represented herself to her. Most of all, the defendants had won their biggest battle—to protect their right, and the right of journals such as the Skeptical Inquirer, to investigate case studies and publish alternate interpretations of them. So Loftus accepted the offer, and the case ended for her.

We other defendants, all of whom had been fully exonerated on all counts, pursued our right to recover legal fees and costs. Taus’s lawyer filed yet another motion, this time to decrease the amount of money that Taus was liable for, based on a subtraction of fees waived by the Loftus settlement. On October 2, 2007, a judge agreed to reduce the fees to those incurred on behalf of the remaining defendants, and as of this writing we await his decision as to the exact amount Taus will have to pay. (If it is too high, her attorney may appeal it.)

Who abused Jane Doe—and whom did she abuse? She wanted her story told her way, as everyone does; and when others disputed her version of events, she took out her anger the American way: by suing. Fortunately, this time, the result was an undeniable victory for free speech and scientific inquiry.

Notes

References

Carol Tavris

Carol Tavris, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, writer, and lecturer. She is author of a recent collection of book reviews and essays, Psychobabble and Biobunk, coauthor of three introductory psychology textbooks, and the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).