A Century Of Atrocities, Through A Psychiatrist's Eyes

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Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include The Nazi Doctors and Home From the War. i

Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include The Nazi Doctors and Home From the War. Richard Sandler hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Sandler
Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include The Nazi Doctors and Home From the War.

Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include The Nazi Doctors and Home From the War.

Richard Sandler

Robert Jay Lifton wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life when he left the Army in 1954 after serving in the Korean War. He was living with his wife in Hong Kong and was about to return to the U.S. to pursue a predictable career. Instead, the psychiatrist made a last-minute decision to stay in Hong Kong — and it changed everything.

Since then, his work has delved deep into the complications of human behavior, even inspiring a new field known as psychohistory. He's explored the darkest chapters of the human experience, including China's experiment with mind control, the victims of the atomic bomb, the veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Nazi doctors who sent millions of Jews to the gas chambers.

Lifton tells NPR's Rachel Martin that as his subjects changed, he changed, too — from the detached psychiatrist and to the impassioned activist. Now 85, he re-examines his life's work in a new memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century.

Chinese Mind Control

One phenomenon Lifton explored early on was China's experiment with so-called "thought reform" in the 1950s. He first encountered the mind control techniques in returning American prisoners of war.

'Witness to an Extreme Century'
Witness To An Extreme Century: A Memoir
By Robert Jay Lifton
Hardcover, 448 pages
Free Press
List Price: $30

Read An Excerpt

"But I came to realize that had been a kind of export version, and the main use of thought reform was on the Chinese population," Lifton says. "It was practiced in special institutions — so-called 'revolutionary colleges' — in regular universities, in places where people worked, in neighborhoods ... it penetrated the entire Chinese population."

Lifton was fascinated by the Chinese Communist Party's systematic effort to alter peoples' opinions. As he studied mind control in China, Lifton saw parallels to what was happening in the U.S. with the rise of McCarthyism.

"People would come to see us from the United States, and they would tell us these horror stories about McCarthyism control and how people were now concerned about the magazines they were subscribed to or what they said in public," he says. "I had the feeling the whole world had gone mad!"

Hiroshima Survivors

Lifton's research in Hong Kong helped him to find a professional identity on global scale, doing studies that combined individual psychology and larger historical forces. Without knowing it, he was at the forefront of a new type of psychiatry.

Lifton's next topic of study brought him to Hiroshima, Japan, where he spoke with survivors of the atomic bomb. One story he remembers well is that of a historian who lost his wife and many other family members in the bombing.

"Soon after the bomb fell, he looked over the whole city from the outskirts and he thought Hiroshima had disappeared," Lifton says. "This left an enormous impression on me."

The idea of an entire city vanishing from a single weapon haunted Lifton for years, leading him to advocacy work in the anti-nuclear movement.

Nazi Doctors

Lifton says perhaps the most difficult series of interviews he conducted were with Nazi doctors.

In 1962, Lifton and his wife, BJ, arrived in Hiroshima where Lifton studied the human consequences of nuclear weapons through conversations with survivors of the atomic bomb. i

In 1962, Lifton and his wife, BJ, arrived in Hiroshima where Lifton studied the human consequences of nuclear weapons through conversations with survivors of the atomic bomb. Courtesy of Free Press hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Free Press
In 1962, Lifton and his wife, BJ, arrived in Hiroshima where Lifton studied the human consequences of nuclear weapons through conversations with survivors of the atomic bomb.

In 1962, Lifton and his wife, BJ, arrived in Hiroshima where Lifton studied the human consequences of nuclear weapons through conversations with survivors of the atomic bomb.

Courtesy of Free Press

"My previous work had all been with survivors," he says. "But I came to think, as I gravitated toward a Holocaust study, that it was very important to study the psychology of perpetrators."

Lifton never excused the actions of those he spoke with, but he says they did come to recognize their humanity.

"These were, unfortunately, human beings who were capable of evil," he says, "and that had to be part of my story."

The interviews led Lifton to describe a phenomenon he called "doubling," where the Nazi doctors formed two separate selves to reconcile their actions.

"One of those selves could allow them to go back for weekends or leaves to Germany from Auschwitz and be ordinary husbands and fathers, while doing the work of killing in Auschwitz five or six days a week," Lifton says. "I was forced to look at the complexity of human beings and the degree to which ordinary human beings could be socialized to evil."

Studying Himself

After a lifetime writing about the survivors of horrific events, Lifton himself became the subject of study for his memoir.

"It was difficult," Lifton says, "but it came to be quite satisfying. When one writes a memoir, one perhaps gives a more orderly narrative to one's life than it actually had — or at least than it actually seemed to have at the time."

In the end, Lifton says, writing his memoir helped him find lost moments and experience them again in a powerful way.

Excerpt: 'Witness To An Extreme Century'

'Witness to an Extreme Century'
Witness To An Extreme Century: A Memoir
By Robert Jay Lifton
Hardcover, 448 pages
Free Press
List Price: $30

1

The Decision

In late April of 1954, when I was twenty-eight years old, I took a long walk through the streets of Kowloon, a crowded part of Hong Kong. Those streets were teeming with people as I passed shops of every kind, from small noodle stands to elegant dress stores with European man­nequins, along with endless houses and small factories. My mind was on neither the people nor the buildings. I was painfully preoccupied with the important life decision I was trying to make.

My wife, BJ, and I had been living in Hong Kong for about three months, staying in a comfortable bohemian garret room we had negoti­ated at the then modest family-oriented Miramar Hotel. I had been inter­viewing both Westerners and Chinese who had been subjected on the Mainland to a remarkable process called "thought reform." The reform­ers employed considerable coercion, sometimes violence, but also power­ful exhortation on behalf of a new Chinese dawn, seeking to bring the beliefs and worldviews of participants into accord with those of the trium­phant Communist regime. I could observe that thought reform was by no means a casual undertaking but rather a systematic and widespread pro­gram that penetrated deeply into people's psyches and raised larger ques­tions about the mind's vulnerability to manipulation and coerced change.

Hong Kong was supposed to be just the second stop on a leisurely round-the-world trip, which began in Japan, where I had arranged to be discharged from the military after two years of service as an Air Force psychiatrist. But that trip was interrupted by interviews arranged by peo­ple I met in Hong Kong with Western missionaries and teachers, and Chinese students and intellectuals who had been put through thought reform, and by my deep absorption in — one could say obsession with — those interviews. But now I was getting anxious. Our money was running out, and I was experiencing a sense of duty, a feeling of necessity to return to America for the serious business of psychoanalytic training and pursuit of my psychiatric career in general — that is, to get back to the structures of real life. I was very reluctant to leave Hong Kong but could not seem to imagine staying. BJ was game either way. Hence my solitary walk.

As I circled ever more widely from the hotel, walking away from the harbor to places that seemed quieter and a little less populated, I found myself coming to a decision. I rushed back to make my announcement to BJ. We had to leave and make our way home. It was impossible to stay.

Yet somehow the next morning, I was, with BJ's help, working on an application for a research grant to remain in Hong Kong. "You did not make the decision — the decision made you" is the way a friend put it when I told him the story. My profound inner desire was to stay, but I could not quite accept that desire — could not see myself as one who would do so — because it seemed to be a kind of transgression, a rejection of an expected career and a safer life.

It was just a decade after the end of World War II, and American psy­chiatry had been reenergized by the influence of psychoanalysis and had become an admired and lucrative profession. I had never doubted that I would be part of this surge, that I would combine psychiatric practice with a certain amount of related teaching and research. Remaining indefinitely half a world removed in a British colony did not seem to be a way to do that. At the same time I was not only fascinated with the interviews them­selves but drawn to the larger historical world in which I found myself. I was having lively discussions with knowledgeable American, European, and Chinese scholars, journalists, and diplomats. These "China watchers" conveyed to me their insights on the appeal and excesses of the Com­munist revolution, and were in turn eager to hear my impressions, as a psychiatrist, of a thought reform process they found psychologically con­fusing. It was a heady immersion into immediate historical forces, and I wanted to sustain that immersion. I was aware of Hong Kong's antiquated status as a British colony in which there was limited contact between Europeans and the predominantly Chinese population. But I was none­theless drawn to the place with its ferries and hills and relationship to the surrounding sea, as well as its partial access to the often mysterious events occurring during the early years of Chinese Communist governance of Mainland China. That partial access had special importance at a time when the United States did not recognize Communist China and there was little communication between the two nations.

My intellectual excitement about thought reform was accompanied by a sense of adventure, of plunging into realms that seemed uncharted. But I was also frightened by that impulse. It seemed dangerous, bound up with too great a risk, which is why I went through the motions of reject­ing my desire to stay. BJ's support did much to help me overcome my anxiety. She never looked upon staying in Hong Kong as a transgression.

Excerpted from Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir by Robert Jay Lifton. Copyright 2011 by Robert Jay Lifton. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.

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