I recently watched an episode of TV’s Dateline where members of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team discussed the sexual abuse they suffered at the hand (pun intended) of team doctor Larry Nassar. Ultimately, almost 200 victims testified that Dr. Nassar “fingered” their genitals under the guise of medical treatment. Dr. Nassar ultimately pled guilty to sexual assault charges dating as far back as 1997. Amazingly, more than 20 of the victims said there was a parent in the room during the abuse. How could such a thing happen and go on for so long? Gymnast Aly Raisman gives one explanation: “He does touch me, and I know he touches some of my teammates inappropriately, but he tells us that it will heal certain parts of our bodies, so we think that it’s okay.” Jessica Howard, who was the U.S. national champion in rhythmic gymnastics from 1999 to 2001, adds, “He started massaging me. And he had asked me not to wear any underwear. And then he just continued to go into more and more intimate places. I remember thinking something was off, but I didn’t feel like I was able to say anything because he was, you know, this very high profile doctor.”
Although minors, like these gymnasts, are the most vulnerable, all of us, at any age, are not immune from being deceived, especially by those in authority and by those we trust. Magician and escape artist James “The Amazing” Randi, in the documentary, An Honest Liar,[i] summed it up this way: “I know how to deceive people, and I know how to recognize when people are being deceived. I can cheat you countless different ways, and you won’t know, you won’t catch me…. Don’t be too sure of yourself. No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.”
As captured in An Honest Liar, Randi spent the first half of his life entertaining people with his tricks and escapes, and the last half of his life exposing frauds who, for their own monetary gain, took advantage of people who trusted them. Here is the trailer for the documentary. It can be found on Netflix and is worth your time to watch it:
To me, the most frightening part of the documentary is when Randi exposed televangelist Peter Popoff’s faith healings as a fraud, but his victims didn’t seem to care. Randi and his investigator discovered that Popoff got his “revelations” not from God but from his wife (she spoke to him through an earpiece Popoff wore, providing him information that his “victims” had put on prayer cards before the show). These disclosures led many TV stations to drop Popoff’s show, eventually forcing him into bankruptcy. But Popoff rebounded by making faith-healing infomercials. These informercials reportedly brought in donations of more than $23 million in 2005 alone from viewers sending in money for promised healings and prosperity.
My profession is one that deals with gray areas when it comes to deciphering truth from deception. Before witnesses can testify in a lawsuit, generally speaking, they must experience what they intend to testify about. Witnesses must see it, hear it, feel it, taste it, or smell it. They cannot rely on the experiences of others; that’s called hearsay. But evidence, even that which we physically experience, is almost never pure and undefiled. We filter it through our biases, experiences, physical limitations, culture and beliefs. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the classic story about the blind men who, after feeling different parts of an elephant, try to describe what an elephant is. Each witness is right, as far as his limited experience goes, but each is also dead wrong considering the elephant as a whole.
My family lived in Austin, Texas, for about seven years and Lance Armstrong was not only the local hero but the nation’s hero. He overcame cancer to win biking’s most prestige race, the Tour de France, not once but seven times. I even wore one of this “Live Strong” wristbands for years.
When a teammate alleged he was doping, few of us could believe our hero was a cheater. Here is a scene from The Program,[ii] which sums things up well how so many of us responded when we first heard the allegations of Armstrong’s deception:
In addition to letting our personal filters color how we see and remember things, we can deceive ourselves merely by how our brains work. When it comes to our experiences, the human mind tries to do two things. First, it fills in the gaps. We want to know how a person or a situation got from Point A to Point B. If we don’t know, our brains make something up. And we consciously don’t even recognize this fabrication. Second, we try to make sense of things. We want to be able to say that everything happens for a reason, whether it does or not.
Elizabeth Loftus[iii] is a psychologist who specializes in false memories or how we can deceive ourselves into believing something that didn’t happen. She tells the true story of Steve Titus who police arrested for the rape of a female hitchhiker. The arrest came following a report that Titus’s car “looked something like the car the rapist was driving.” Upon his arrest, police took a photo of Titus and put it in a photo line-up with those of other men. The victim pointed to Titus and said, “That one’s the closest.” But by the time the trial came around, the victim testified that “I’m absolutely positive that’s the man.” How did the victim’s memory change from he’s the closest to absolutely sure? Perhaps the suggestions of the prosecutor or law enforcement changed or at least influenced her memory. Perhaps her mind, working alone to find certainty, convinced herself of Titus’s guilt. In any event, based on her testimony, and despite his credible alibi, the jury convicted Titus of the rape. Subsequent events led an investigative journalist to the real rapist, who ultimately confessed. Police also tied him to at least 50 other rapes in the area. Loftus, who worked on the Titus case, explains that we often allow suggestions to create a false memory, which we ultimately adopt as the truth. Studies back up Loftus’s statements. In one study of 300 people convicted of crimes that DNA evidence later proved they did not commit, at least 75 percent of those convictions were due to faulty eyewitness memories.
In short, Loftus believes, when you feed people misinformation about an experience they had, whether stressful or not, you can distort or even change their memories. She concludes, “Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean it really happened.”
Often, people or institutions we trust intentionally feed us misleading or false information to retain their preeminent position with us. A political consultant calls this spin. Psychologists refer to this technique as gaslighting. Technically, gaslighting is a form of mental abuse where information is twisted, spun or omitted, or false information is presented, with the intent of making victims doubt their memory or perception, or even their sanity. The term comes from the 1938 stage play, Gaslight, which was adapted as a movie in 1940, and again in 1944. In the film, a husband murders his wealthy Aunt twenty years previously and hides it from his wife by convincing her she is going insane through his manipulation of her memory. This scene from the 1940 version of Gaslight[iv] will give you the idea:
So what happens when we see or hear something that doesn’t fit into our current understanding of the truth? If it is a single event, we often consider it an aberration and dismiss it, or at least set it aside. But if we keep getting those same or similar messages, we often then change the narrative so our brains believe the altered memory is what happened all along. And if we take the use of these false memories to their logical conclusion, the result is mind control to the point where we can turn loyal soldiers into assassins of even their fellow soldiers, without remorse and perhaps even without any recollection that such atrocities occurred, as illustrated by this scene from the remake of The Manchurian Candidate:[v]
Someone once said, “If you succeed in cheating someone, don’t think that the person is a fool. Realize that the person trusted you much more than you deserved.” I hope we don’t find pleasure in deceiving anyone, especially if we are in a position of trust to the person we have taken advantage of. In many ways, we would be no different than Dr. Nassar taking advantage of Aly Raisman, Jessica Howard, or any of his other numerous victims. But as important, we need to constantly guard ourselves against harmful false memories, deception and the abuse of gaslighting. And remember someone’s definition of stupid: Knowing the truth, seeing the truth, but still believing the lies.”
[i] An Honest Liar
- Production Company: Left Turn Films, Pure Mutt Productions, and BBC Storyville
- Directors: Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein
- Screenwriter: Tyler Measom and Greg O’Toole
- Starring: James Randi, Deyvi Pena, and Penn Jillette
- Release date: November 2, 2014
[ii] The Program
- Production Company: Anton Capital Entertainment, StudioCanal, and Working Title Films
- Director: Stephen Frears
- Screenwriter: John Hodge (based on the book by David Walsh
- Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, and Jesse Plemons
- Release date: March 18, 2016
- Production Company: British National Films
- Director: Therold Dickinson
- Screenwriter: A.R. Rawlinson (based on the stage play by Patrick Hamilton)
- Starring: Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard
- Release date: June 25, 1940 (UK), November 10, 1952 (USA)
[v] The Manchurian Candidate
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Clinica Estetico
- Director: Jonathan Demme
- Screenwriter: George Axelrod (based on the novel by Richard Condon)
- Starring: Denzel Washington, Live Schreiber, and Meryl Streep
- Release date: 2004