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"Witness to an Extreme Century": An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton

Darkness is only driven out with light,
not more darkness.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eminent psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., now age 85, has spent his life at the often dark and bloody confluence of psychology and human history.   He is perhaps most well known for his research on the character and human consequences of historic mass traumas such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and the counterinsurgency wars of the past half-century.

Dr. Lifton’s studies have revealed not only the immense capacity for human cruelty and inhumanity, but also the astonishing resilience of survivors.   He has strived to create a model for humane behavior as he has warned of the dangers of “totalism” or totalitarian beliefs that preclude any independent thinking.  Dr. Lifton’s profound understanding of pain and suffering led him to become a prominent voice against war and nuclear weapons while advancing constructive, life-affirming strategies for a more just and peaceful world.

In his new memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century (Simon and Schuster), Dr. Lifton traces his journey from his Brooklyn boyhood to his distinguished career in psychiatry.   Anthropologist and author Mary Catherine Bateson wrote that the book “offers a model of the relationship between introspection and ethical commitment.”

 As well as discussing his groundbreaking research, Dr. Lifton recounts his friendships with a range of influential intellectuals and artists from his mentor Erik Erikson, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and historian Howard Zinn to writers Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kenzaburo Oe. 

Kirkus Reviews honored Witness with a starred review and described the book as a “call for a moral awakening by a deeply compassionate chronicler of our time.”

Dr. Lifton is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the City University of New York.  His books include the National Book Award Winner Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima; Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide; National Book Award Finalist Home from the War: Learning from Vietnam Veterans; The Protean Self: Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation; and Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World.

Dr. Lifton recently spoke by telephone from his home in Massachusetts about his life and innovative scholarship.

Lindley:  Did you see yourself as a doctor when you were a little boy?

Lifton:  I did not see myself as a doctor when I was a boy.  I was always interested in history.  It wasn’t clear to me how I would use history in later life.  I wasn’t the type of kid who imagined himself in a white coat at a very tender age.  That interest in medicine came later and was uncertain even as it developed.

Lindley:   It seems your mother and father significantly influenced your views.

Lifton:  All parents have a significant influence, and in my case my father in particular was concerned about social issues and was a progressive person.  He had gone to City College of New York, and that was a great experience in his life.  He never ceased being an advocate for free higher education.  And my social and ethical concerns are part of those my parents had.

Lindley:  Where were you when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?

Lifton:  I was fifteen years old in 1941.  I was riding in a car with a close friend and his uncle was driving us from Long Island to Brooklyn.  I remember being shocked when I heard about it.  I understood it would mean war, but didn’t fully understand how widespread its effects would be. 

Lindley:  How did you react at age nineteen when you heard about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Lifton:  When I was nineteen, I was already in medical school because of my accelerated education.  I’m rather ashamed of it, but I was joyous at hearing the news because we had a new weapon that would help us win the war quickly and I wouldn’t have to fight in it.  I quickly got over that response when I found out more about the atomic bomb, but my initial reaction was, unfortunately, a fairly conventional one at the time.  It took me and many others a while to grasp what this new weapon meant.  I spent the rest of my life atoning for that first response.

Lindley:  At the time, American leaders believed the atom bombs would save hundreds of thousands of American lives.  You disagree with that opinion.

Lifton:  Very strongly.  The use of the weapons was a grave mistake and the war could have been won quickly without them because Japan was absolutely annihilated.  In the end, the treaty of surrender didn’t vary from what the Japanese were offering:  unconditional surrender except for keeping the Emperor on the throne, which we eventually agreed to.

Lindley:  Had you decided to go into psychiatry by age 19 in 1945?

Lifton:  No.  I had read some psychology, but had no idea that I was going into a psychological field or psychiatry.  At medical school, I [had an] intellectual interest in psychiatry and helped organize a psychiatry club with medical students.  It still wasn’t clear that I would become a psychiatrist, but over the course of medical school I made that decision.

Lindley:  You’ve combined your interest in history with psychiatry in your examination of the major human traumas of the past seventy years.  How did history shape your career?

Lifton:  I was very interested in history as a kid and in high school, but I had no idea how important it would become for me.  Later, when I began my research, it seemed natural to combine individual psychological interviews with evaluation of the larger historical forces.  It was an intuitive feeling on my part.  Also, my post-war intellectual generation was exposed to history with our country being thrust into new dimensions of historical involvement by the war and the post-war era, creating in many people in my generation an interest in larger history.  And that was my experience. 

I was sent to Japan in 1952.  There was still an American occupation when I arrived.  One was confronted by historical forces by being sent abroad as I was.  All that contributed, I think.

Then later on, I came under the influence of Erik Erikson, who was one of the few psychoanalysts to immerse himself in history and look at larger questions rather than reducing history to psychiatric concepts.  I had a strong interest in history before I met Erikson [but] he helped me channel that interest into a method or approach to history.

The method I used was a psychiatric interview highly modified to become a dialogue so I could get at individual psychological struggles but also take into account what I came to call a mosaic of larger social and historical influences.  That became my method of research.  My studies were on very different subjects, but they all required that combination of psychology and history.  Of course, [my research] dealt with very destructive forces, but I emphasized aspects of resilience and hope as well.

Lindley:  And you’re a master interviewer.  Did your approach grow from Erikson and or did you develop it independently?

Lifton:  I developed my own method in my first study before I had met Erikson.  My approach was more hands on.  I interviewed people who had been subjected to or brought about profound historical events.  That general principle, which I came to call shared themes, was my own concept. 

Erikson influenced me in terms of the concept of identity and of the idea of a psychoanalyst or psychiatrist connecting with the world stage.  There was that suggestion in his work, although he didn’t go about his work in the same way I did.
I talk about Erikson using the great person approach, trying to evaluate the psychology of the great man or woman and then examining the interaction of that psychological struggle with the shared psychology of that era, whereas my approach of shared themes meant studying a group of people who had been through such events and doing it in a nitty gritty way in the field.

Lindley:   You mention serving in the military in the wake of the war.

Lifton:  I was in the military only during the Korean War and served two years because of the doctor draft. 

Lindley:  Although you critique authoritarian or “totalistic” institutions, you call your Air Force service a gift.

Lifton:  My experience of the Air Force didn’t have anything in the way of basic training or of the intense control of a training process, which can have a totalistic element. I reported in, was sent to a hospital in Massachusetts and did psychiatric work, and hardly had any briefing.  In that sense I was spared what could be the more totalistic influences.

I called it a gift because it brought me into the world and took me to Japan and Korea.  I discovered Japan with my wife and [that was] an exciting and transformative experience for us, which influenced everything that followed.  It was the Air Force that made possible my highly idiosyncratic work.  It’s conceivable that without the Air Force I might not have taken such direction. 

Of course, my last Air Force assignment was to interview returning prisoners of war who had been subjected to “thought reform” by the Chinese in North Korea.  That work with POWs interested me in the thought reform process.  Then in Hong Kong I interviewed people coming out of China who had been through that process, and that led to my very first study. 

In a way, all of that stems from the Air Force assignment, which I was far from happy about.  I didn’t want to go into the military and went because I was drafted.  And I wasn’t happy about being sent abroad because I was comfortable working in Massachusetts in routine ways at Westover Air Force Base, but still that experience opened up a world for me and had an important bearing on my career, and that’s why I called it a gift.

Lindley:  When you studied Chinese thought control or brain washing and totalism, wasn’t there an echo in the United States with the McCarthy persecution of suspected communists?  Can you talk about totalism?

Lifton:  Totalism is a psychological equivalent of totalitarianism and means an all or none system of belief and claim to ethical virtue, which leaves no room for opposition or for alternative views or approaches.  So it’s a closing of the mind over a claim to absolute certainty.  It is one of the gravest human dangers and it played a major role in all of the research studies of destructive behavior [and] became a leitmotif of my work in general.

My work on thought reform is not as well known as some of my other work, but it was extremely important because it gave me a chance to study a systematic process that illustrated totalism at its worst and taught me a great deal about its danger.

And yes, I did apply [it] to the United States.  I [was] troubled when I was in Hong Kong by the extent to which groups could try to manipulate truth and impose falsehood on others in a totalistic practice like thought reform.  Then I heard of not exactly systematic but parallel tendencies in the United States in relation to the McCarthyism of the fifties and the terrible atmosphere where friends were even afraid to subscribe to certain magazines or express critical views in public.  I began to feel much of the world had gone mad in that totalistic direction.

Also in the George W. Bush years in particular—but not only during the Bush years—I was intent on looking at the relevance of my thought reform work for this country.  Even though our behavior may not be as extreme as elsewhere, if destructive behavior on the part of others can illuminate relatively lesser transgressions on our own part, then it’s our responsibility as scholars to make those connections.

Lindley:  Your anti-nuclear activism began even before you did the study of Hiroshima survivors in the 1960s.

Lifton:  A prior experience helped bring me to Hiroshima.   That is, in the late fifties I came under the influence of David Riesman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I had an appointment as a research associate at Harvard.  He had been an early student of nuclear danger not only of what the weapons do, but how they influence the country, their impact on American society.  It was a way of looking rather interpretively and profoundly and socially at nuclear weapons.  And I tried to look at them psychologically as well. 

When I was in Japan subsequently from 1960 to 1962 on a different study on the psychology of youth, I decided after that study to make a trip to Hiroshima.  That decision was influenced by that prior influence of Riesman.  In that way, one’s ethical and political influences can take one to the study rather than vice versa.  And of course my Hiroshima study deepened my knowledge of what the weapon does and contributed to my anti-nuclear passion.

Lindley:  You capture the difficulty of interviewing the Hiroshima survivors and mention their psychic numbing and your own professional numbing.

Lifton:  I call it selective professional numbing.  I found that I could talk to people in Hiroshima about the bomb and what it did.  But once I started the actual psychological interview, which meant going over in detail every aspect of the experience and hearing about the extremity of suffering and the experience of a sea of death around them and injuries and burns—both what they themselves experienced and what they saw in others—[it] was an overwhelming process for me as an interviewer.  After a few interviews, I was overwhelmed by that material and anxious and having bad dreams.  I really wondered whether I could do the study.

A short time later, the anxiety diminished.  I didn’t cease to be responsive to what survivors told me, but I found myself gaining a very minimum of detachment necessary in carrying out the study.  It happened almost inadvertently because
I was very intent on doing the study and I sensed that I needed to combine compassion with a modicum of detachment to carry that out, and I call that selective professional numbing.

You can see parallels in psychiatrists who treat troubling and difficult psychotic patients, or even more so a surgeon who does a delicate operation who cannot afford to feel the emotions of people close to the patient.  That selective professional numbing, as I call it, was crucial to the study.

Then I realized that numbing or the diminished capacity to feel is of course is an overwhelming response of survivors themselves, in which case it can be life saving.  They needed some diminution of feeling just to survive mentally and physically.

Lindley:  It’s striking that the survivors describe their reaction to the extreme horror of death and injuries as an out-of-body state.

Lifton:  The extreme psychic numbing is a form of dissociation, or one part of the mind being separated from the rest of the mind.  The numbing is a turning off of psychological experience.  While most that I talked to were aware of the dreadful things happening in the city—that people were dying and something extraordinary of a highly destructive nature had taken place—what was turned off were the emotions or feelings ordinarily associated with such an experience and that served their capacity to take action and survive.  If there was too much numbing, they’d be immobilized.

Lindley:  Isn’t an overarching theme of your work death and the continuity of life, or the need for connection and continuity in the face of the inevitability of death?

Lifton:  Yes it is.  The Hiroshima study thrust me into death-related issues, and how to articulate them and use them to understand what I had witnessed in my Hiroshima interviews.  Most psychological and psychiatric work had not extensively studied death-related ideas.  There was the Freudian work on the death instinct or death drive, but in terms of placing death within one’s theory or interpretations, more was needed.  I tried to draw upon what I could find.

I focused on death and the continuity of life as a model or a paradigm—the kind of model from which you understand the world or organizing principle in that sense.  In a way, it’s a very obvious principle, but most psychoanalytic work before that focused on a paradigm of instinct and defense:  certain instincts were sexual or destructive with various inner defenses against them that we try to mobilize in the self or ego.

I sought a more encompassing model with death and the continuity of life.  There are others who didn’t necessarily call it that but work with that in different ways as in working with dying patients.

Lindley:  In your book on Vietnam veterans, Home from the War, you describe combat survival and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Lifton:  Yes.  I spoke mostly in terms of survivor psychology and survivor struggles and pain.  The later concept of posttraumatic stress disorder drew upon some of the work [from] my Hiroshima and my Vietnam studies.  And I work on a small committee of psychiatrists which presented evidence for a concept of posttraumatic stress disorder.

The whole experience of being a survivor and of adult trauma has been very important in my work.

Lindley:  Your Vietnam survivor work deals with death imagery and then how survivors move to a search for meaning.

Lifton:  Yes.  I developed a series of concepts about the psychology of survivors, but the overarching principle was the quest for meaning.  I speak of all human beings as meaning-hungry creatures.  We need meaning whether we express it or assume it in living out our lives as to why do this or that or how we treat our children or parents and what advocacies we make in the world and what we impose.  That is all based on meanings that we live by.

A survivor often has had his or her meaning structure undermined or even overturned [and] spends much of his or her life seeking a meaning structure or trying to re-assemble or reintegrate meaning.

Some Hiroshima survivors define their meaning and mission in telling the world what that first atomic bomb did and warning the world about nuclear weapons.  So that became a very important theme in my work:  the idea of survivor meaning, then the idea of survivor mission that stems from survivor meaning.

Lindley:  You speak of atrocity-producing situations in Vietnam—and that concept is now relevant with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lifton:  Yes.  An atrocity-producing situation is so structured that very ordinary people who are in no way particularly bad can engage in atrocities and that can be the case because of the way the environment is structured.  In terms of Vietnam, body counts, free fire zones, and search and destroy missions were military policy that made killing civilians all too easy.  The kinds of experiences soldiers, especially angry grief they suffered [as] buddies were killed when they were unable to engage the enemy, [are] likely to occur in counterinsurgency wars where it’s hard to distinguish combatants from civilians.

The importance of the concept of the atrocity-producing situation is that it can apply in other environments of war, atrocity or destructive behavior.  It certainly has applied in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.  Both are counterinsurgency wars as we had in Vietnam, although they’re very different wars.  All counterinsurgency wars present difficulty in distinguishing combatants from civilians.  There can be this license to fire and this angry grief in terms of what one has experienced.

So the concept of atrocity-producing situations haunts us in various wars.  Vietnam had much to teach us about that.

Lindley:  In your study of Nazi doctors you move from victims to perpetrators, but many of the Nazi doctors presented themselves as victims and brought up the moral quandaries they faced.  These interviews had to be especially challenging for you.

Lifton:  Yes.  I was drawn to the work because there had been little direct study of what went on in the psyches of the Nazis, and there was almost no study of the Nazi doctors.   I came to recognize that Nazi doctors and others in the biologically related professions were key people in the Holocaust.  The Holocaust was a biological vision of getting rid of bad genes and bad races in what I call the biomedical vision of healing the Nordic race by destroying those groups that had undermined it, especially the Jews but also other races.

The Nazi doctors was the first group for which I had less than sympathy for the people I was interviewing.  I was caught in a paradox, but I encouraged the Nazi doctors I spoke with to tell me in full frankness about their feelings and their environment and even conversations among Nazi doctors in places like Auschwitz.  As they told me that, I found myself seething because they were vicious ideas and so-called jokes, which would be extreme to anyone, and my being Jewish further intensified my feelings. 

I was quite aware that I would be among those the Nazis designated as those they wished to kill.  The very information and ideas that I so much needed for my research were a source of enormous pain to me.  It was also difficult to control my anger and even rage at some of their own described behavior.  So that study had its difficulties.

Lindley:  It had to be difficult to hear their justifications, such as avoiding combat by working in a concentration camp.

Lifton:  There were some Nazi doctors who had second thoughts about what they were doing at Auschwitz, which was [their] major role in the killing process.  But those questioning thoughts were muted by the realization that, if they raised such questions, they could well be sent to the Eastern Front [where] there was an extremely high death rate.  The irony was that the Nazi doctors probably could have refused to do the selections—part of the killing process—if they presented their refusal as a form of inability or even personal weakness on their part rather than a rejection of the Nazis themselves.  They undoubtedly would have been transferred out of the situation because the Nazis liked their killing machines running smoothly, but if they had done that, they would have been sent to the front.

Lindley:  Physicians have a special role and are admired in society.  The Nazi biomedical vision of racial purity grew out of eugenics, which was taught in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Lifton:  America was a leading center for eugenics [along with] Great Britain, and initially moved further in the direction of eugenics than the pre-Nazi Germans. 

The idea of trying to control genetic transmission to build a more healthy and able race could be considered idealistic but, when there were abuses and deficiencies surrounding this in the United States and Great Britain, they could cease that focus on eugenics for, say, coercive sterilization, which was all too prevalent in the United States—but at least finally it could be stopped.  That contrasted with Nazi Germany, which, as a totalitarian country, simply did what was ordered by Nazi leaders including Hitler in connection with a policy of forced sterilization and then what the Nazis falsely called “euthanasia” as part of what I call the creation of a biocracy.  So the democratic possibility of changing one’s direction did not exist in totalitarian Germany.

Lindley:  The Nazi T4 “euthanasia” program with the destruction of so-called “mental defectives” in Germany was a step toward the Holocaust.

Lifton:  Most of the Nazi death camps where people were systematically killed in gas chambers were constituted by transfers from killing centers for the so-called “euthanasia program,” which doctors on the whole ran.  Both equipment and personnel including doctors were transferred from the “euthanasia programs” [establishing] a concrete link from so-called “euthanasia” to the Holocaust.

Lindley:  What lessons did you draw from your Nazi doctors study?

Lifton:  There are many lessons.  First, it’s important to confront this behavior in a scholarly way to learn exactly what it consists of and, as much as possible, what led to it.   Also, take a stand against any claim, even claims of idealism, that promise an enlightened and improved time at the expense of another group when it comes to harming or killing another group because of the needs of the majority.   When it comes to claims of the majority, one should be very suspicious.  I would add that any group taking a totalistic direction should be looked at critically.

Lindley:  You’re a leading anti-war and anti-nuclear activist.  Where are we now with our two wars and continued maintenance of a nuclear arsenal?

Lifton:  Not only my work but the work of many others has led to a national consciousness and a better understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons, but that doesn’t mean we’ve cured ourselves of what I call the spiritual disease of nuclearism:  embracing the weapons with an exaggerated dependency on them.

There’s a large number of nuclear weapons in the world, and there’s a grave danger that they’ll be used whether by us or by another country that possesses them.  Even so-called smaller nuclear weapons, say the size of the Hiroshima bomb—which is very small by present standards—are still devastating and a danger. 

Obama has improved the situation by speaking of nuclear abolition as a goal, but hasn’t followed through to the extent many feel he should.

Lindley:  You’ve also been outspoken on medical complicity in war crimes and torture.  Your work supports investigation of our own activities in war.

Lifton:  Yes.  I wrote a short piece a few years ago in The New England Journal of Medicine on American doctor collusion in torture in Iraq and elsewhere.  It’s been a great disappointment to me that the Obama Administration that has refused to confront participation in torture and to make clear what we’ve done [to determine] historical and ethical responsibility.  The fact that the administration has prevented that from taking place and the pursuit of the war in Afghanistan have been my major criticisms of the Obama Administration.  I think they’ve improved a great deal on previous administrations.

Lindley:  Where do you find hope?  Is it in human resilience?

Lifton:  On resilience, in the most extreme experiences, like Hiroshima or Auschwitz, there were people who managed not only to survive but to help others survive and renew their lives with extraordinary energy and find ways of living that could transform the very pain and suffering into some kind of insight and commitment to life-enhancing behavior. 

Resilience is one issue related to what I call the protean self or the many-sided self. I see the individual self in contemporary experience as having many sides and a certain amount of flexibility and capacity to renew itself and avoid dead ends.  That doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least it gives a psychological substrate to the possibility of changing and renewing and behaving in a resilient manner.