BOOK REVIEW- Witness to an Extreme Century by Robert J. Lifton
I had always wanted to learn more about the interesting work of psychiatrist Robert J. Lipton that I had heard about, but I never got around to reading his various books and other writings. This is the reason that I was pleased to embark upon reading this recent memoir. The author not only reviews his four main projects but he shares his recollections and feelings about the many people he has met along the way of his fascinating life’s work.
Lifton’s psychiatric training was interrupted by having to join the military as a physician during the Korean War. Although he was able to resume and even ultimately have some training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, he never became a conventional psychiatrist or analyst. After spending sometime in Hong Kong Lifton became intensely interested what had become known as Chinese thought control. The Chinese communists had embarked upon what they had called a “reeducation” program aimed at indoctrinating everyone in the country but especially the educated and the young people to completely and without any question accept the sanctity of their leader and the validity of their doctrine.. Lifton’s technique of gathering data was to make contact with appropriate subjects and then hold open ended exploratory interviews. He used a trusted translator most of the time. He had made friends and contacts in Hong Kong who led him to meet various people from China who had been subjected to this mind control. A variation of this technique was applied to the Americans airmen taken prisoner of war by the Chinese in the Korean War. At that time the term “ brain washing” became popularly applied to what was being done .The techniques involved isolation, repetition of ideas, raising self doubts about old ideas. It was a relentless style of re-education which also included the encouragement of reporting to the authorities anyone known to rebel and not accept this new way of thinking. As Lifton saw the overall impact on Chinese society, he applied the term “totalism” to the complete penetration of this doctrinal thinking in all phases of living in China. Lifton was to also use this term when he studied other groups particularly the German people falling under the influence of Hitler. His suggestion that any group whether it be religious, political or even social which makes an all out effort to control the thinking of it’s potential followers should be identified as applying “totalism” to its efforts. He is very clear about the destructive nature of such thinking and the reader cannot but think how various modern day movements may be leaning in this direction.
While it is difficult to say which of his experiences had the greatest impact on him as they all obviously did and each embellished on the other. However, it seemed to me that his study of the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing which he did when he was in his early 30s, emotionally penetrated deeper than anything he subsequently experienced and irreversibly changed him. Through his personal interviews with the subjects of his research, as a relatively young man he repeatedly encountered the meaning of death, destruction and mutilation. He appeared to feel their despair. While he intellectually understood and scientifically described the complicated grief and walking death that so many of the Japanese were to live throughout the rest of their lives, Lifton was transformed into a lifelong and very effective pacifist. Those of us who never had the emotional confrontation with the results of the A Bomb, might be able to accept President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on the calculation to save the lives of many thousands of Americans who would have invaded Japan. Lifton I believe, never raised this issue and appeared to believe in retrospect it had to be the wrong decision. He continues to bring a pacifist point of view to every relevant modern political and social issue of his time.
While I never met with anyone who went through anything approaching the magnitude of Hiroshima, my experience as a consultant to a major burn unit and having had some professional work in the aftermath of 9/11 gave me some perspective to to relate to his writing on this subject. However his decision to attempt to interview the Nazi doctors was “ mind boggling” to me, meaning that I had no frame of reference to this subject. Since this was his memoir, it probably was relatively short on the details of this work and conclusions which was covered in his earlier published work. But this book was relatively long on his personal reactions to the people with whom he met. His own perspective in approaching the Nazi doctors was as physician, psychiatrist, pacifist and a Jew. He seemed to have no trouble making the contacts and finding the surviving doctors who were willing to speak with him. In this memoir Lifton shares his struggle to understand whether these doctors were inherently evil people or whether circumstances might induce people to do terrible things to other people.
Lifton’s analysis and discussion of his experience in looking at the Viet Nam War and anti-war movement carried through to his comments on the U.S. war in Iraq. His reasoning and anti-war point of view is not simply founded upon his pacifist point of view but brings in a political and historical analysis. He also describes his interest in understanding post traumatic stress. He may have originated the term psychic numbing based on his earlier observations as well as those on the returning Viet Nam veterans. It is not surprising that he had great interest in understanding the My Lai massacre and raised once again how could descent people (in ths case the American soldiers) do horrifying deeds.
It was a special treat to learn about the many writers, historians and other intellectuals with whom Lifton interacted over the years. His personal discussions with people as diverse as Erik Erikson and Norman Mailer were recounted. Many of them took place at seminars he and his wife held at their summer home in Wellfleet. Betty Jean Lifton died shortly after her husband finished most of his memoir She was a writer mostly of children’s books but she shared his passion for psychohistory and their relationship is warmly reflected at many places in this book.