Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir, by Robert Jay Lifton, Free Press, 448 pp., $30
Robert Jay Lifton is probably not the first person you’d want to invite to a garden party. Like a rubbernecker at a car crash who stops to interview the victims, Lifton has spent his career exploring some of the 20th century’s most horrific instances of mass homicide, from Auschwitz and Hiroshima to Vietnam and Aum Shinrikyo. In award-winning books, he has pioneered the study of “psychohistory” (his effort “as a clinician to identify psychological experiences of people caught up in historical storms”); compiled a unique body of knowledge on the experience of survivors (helping to codify post-traumatic stress disorder as a mental condition); and made a name for himself as a vocal critic of American militarism.
Of course, as Lifton notes at the outset of his memoir, it was the military that helped to turn the product of a “Jewish Huck Finn childhood”—playing stickball and sneaking into Brooklyn Dodgers games—into “Dr. Hiroshima,” as the psychiatric residents at the Yale Department of Psychiatry once nicknamed him. In 1951, as the Korean War heated up, he was finishing his psychiatric residency. His draft board gave him a choice: enlist as a doctor or be drafted into the Army as a private. So he joined the Air Force, put in for Paris, and instead was sent to Tokyo, the start of a lifelong association with Japan. By then, Lifton had been steeped in the fashionable New York Left, hanging out with I. F. Stone at the apartment of Yip Harburg (lyricist of “Over the Rainbow” and the Depression anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”) and playing tennis with Paul Robeson (“old . . . but athletically graceful”) and Henry Wallace (“a terrible but good-humored player”). His psychiatric training had also brought out what he characterized as a profound allergy to dogmatism—the beginnings of a lifelong aversion to the kind of “all-or-none beliefs and emotions” that he would come to describe as “totalism.” And thus, a future scholar-activist was born.
But Witness to an Extreme Century is less a conventional memoir than a backstage look at four of Lifton’s signature works: his behavioral studies of Chinese prisoners, Hiroshima victims, Vietnam veterans, and Nazi doctors. In 1953, as an Air Force psychiatrist in Korea, Lifton interviewed 90 returning American prisoners of war who had been subjected to “thought reform” by the Chinese. This research prompted him to move to Hong Kong following his discharge, where he interviewed 50 Western and 15 Chinese survivors of similar “re-education” efforts in Communist China. Listening to one Italian priest recount his ordeal, he was struck by how “relentless manipulators could not only extract elaborate falsehoods from their victim but in the process press that victim into creating falsehoods that were credible.” (A half century later, drawing on a 1957 paper by one of Lifton’s Air Force colleagues, U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo would adapt similar Chinese techniques.) This project helped Lifton to devise his exhaustive interviewing technique. It brought him to the attention of the neo-Freudian Erik Erikson (coiner of the phrase “identity crisis”), whose work on human identity initially helped to shape Lifton’s. And the apocalyptic focus of his work in Hong Kong—China’s thought reformers wanted nothing more than to destroy one world and replace it with another—prefigured themes in his later research.
Yet as Lifton admits, when he returned to Japan in 1960, he had “no intention of doing research in Hiroshima.” Instead, he planned to spend two years studying the interplay of history and psychology in Japanese youth. But in part through the influence of his friend the sociologist David Riesman, Lifton had long been developing his case against nuclear weapons. When he arrived in Hiroshima for a brief visit in April 1962, he became seized with the city’s story. (In one of several perhaps obligatory self-analyses, Lifton attributes his intense reaction to his mother’s recent death; elsewhere, he juxtaposes his sadness over a beloved dog’s death with his anxiety about the Cuban Missile Crisis.) What followed was a National Book Award–winning study that illustrated “the malignant influence of the atomic bomb on every level of human experience.” You don’t have to share Lifton’s views on the decision to drop the bomb to appreciate the psychological courage it took for him to interview scores of survivors. Imagine sitting face-to-face with a Japanese man recounting his memories of himself as a 13-year-old boy: shielded from the blast by his mother, he couldn’t carry her to safety and had to abandon her to the flames, only to find his father already dead, and his grandmother and baby brother about to die in front of him from their burns and radiation sickness. Multiply that story by 75—the number of hibakusha, or bomb victims, whom Lifton interviewed. Now you get the picture.
That same courage and commitment radiates from The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. In a memoir section both mesmerizing and disturbing, Lifton recounts his interviews with 29 high-ranking Nazi doctors (including five who served in death camps), 12 prominent Nazi nonmedical professionals, and 80 Auschwitz inmates who worked in medical blocks. When revisiting this research for his memoir, he says, “I experienced a sense of dread and a tightening in my chest.” Who could blame him? In addition to exploring the horrors of camp life, Lifton had to suppress his own outrage and anger, not least because he is Jewish himself. A case in point: one Nazi doctor at Auschwitz justified his participation in selecting which inmates should be sent to the gas chamber by saying, “Which is better, to die in shit, or to be sent to heaven by the gas?” As Lifton writes, “I remember the rage I felt toward him as he told me this, even though in so doing he was acceding to my request for concrete description.” Lifton observes that not one of his subjects would admit to being part of something evil, seeing themselves instead as “beleaguered men more or less victimized by circumstances.” Remarkably, Lifton manages to retain an eye for the absurd. At one point, interviewing Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, Lifton describes the buildings in a book of Nazi architecture as vulgar and totalitarian. Speer’s response: “I admit that the proportions are all wrong. . . . But of course it was what the client wanted.”
Speer’s complicated feelings toward Hitler later remind Lifton of the relationship that cult members had with Shoko Asahara, the murderous head of Aum Shinrikyo, the religious cult that released sarin gas in Tokyo’s subway. Likewise, Lifton explains the similarities between the survivors of Hiroshima and those of Auschwitz—the abiding taint that both felt, the “psychic numbing” that enabled them to get through their experiences, and other shared characteristics that he distills into a compelling portrait of the survivor mentality.
Still, what are we to make of this statement: “For me all that took place in Vietnam was inseparable from Hiroshima.” It’s an equivalence that, given Lifton’s intimate knowledge of the atomic bomb’s devastating effects, many will find galling and an example of a disturbing trend in his work. By the late 1960s, Lifton was spending less time in the cloisters and more time on the barricades protesting the Vietnam War, testifying on behalf of the Berrigan brothers, joining Judy Collins and Benjamin Spock for sit-ins in Congress. By his account, he was among the most politically active members of the Yale faculty. Or as he somewhat disingenuously puts it, “The activist tail was wagging the scholar dog, even if that dog insisted on carefully probing psychological and historical evidence.” What if a judge or a journalist were to say, “I was becoming a very different kind of professional, one who could permit himself to combine specialized knowledge with passionate plunges into moral and political realms.” Chances are, you wouldn’t want the judge to try your case or the journalist to tell your story. The political cant of Home from the War—a study of Vietnam veterans, which Lifton calls his “angriest” book—casts doubt on the book’s clinical merits. Indeed, some analysts argue that the Vietnam veteran population as a whole was much less damaged than his book suggested.
Toward the end of his career, Lifton posited that the opposite of totalism is the protean self, a construct he first applied to the self-fluctuations of Japanese university students. It’s tempting to grant Lifton this Whitmanesque latitude—the ability to contain multitudes, to transform oneself, to embrace odd combinations. And yet, despite the lasting value of some of his writings, he himself seems consistently to have espoused a doctrinaire leftism, and his memoir is punctuated with slaps at people whose politics he disagrees with, or who “changed” in ways that didn’t suit his fancy. In this telling of a life, at least, scholar-activist still feels mostly like a contradiction in terms.