Robert Jay Lifton Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

>Evil, the Self, and Survival: Conversation with Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and author, 11/2/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Lifton, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

You wrote several years back, "We may say that every insight expressed by a healer or investigator, every use of the eyes of the understanding, is a function of his formative place, of all that goes into his special relationship to history." In the spirit of that observations, where were you born and raised?

I'm a Brooklyn boy. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there, and spent most of my childhood there.

How did your parents shape your character?

Well, very importantly. My parents were second generation. They were born in America, but barely. That is, their parents had been born in shtetels in Russia. My father in particular was a progressive person, a person who made his way in this society by attending the City College of New York. It's kind of interesting that I've somehow made my way back to the City University, which is an outgrowth of the City College. But he stood for progressive principles that I think affected me, and people around me in my family were concerned with these issues.

What books did you read as a young person that you recall today?

I don't have the feeling that as a very young person I read books that absolutely made their mark on my mind.

As a kid I was fascinated with sports, and I loved sports more than anything else. The first books I read were about sports, like books about Baseball Joe, as one baseball hero was called. And, as a matter of fact, I remember as a kid feeling that almost all that adults did was boring because it didn't have a ball or some kind of sports play. And actually, this kind of imagery is still very much in my mind, and it's part of whatever mental or creative process I may have expressed. Later, maybe when I got into my early teens, I did become interested very much in history. I read [William] Shirer about the Third Reich and various books about contemporary history. And now in retrospect, you know Freud once said that he spent all of his professional life making his way back to his original interest, which was ancient cultures. Well, I could say that I have spent a good deal of my professional life making my way back to what was at least a very early interest, that of history and the historical process.

That is something that becomes an important component in your work, as do studies of the mind and of the healing process.

That's right. My work, though I didn't call it this at the very beginning, fits into something we call psycho-history. That can be very mystifying, but what it really means is simply the application of psychological methods to historical questions. And just about all of my studies fit into that category.

You were nineteen, I believe, when World War II ended. What formative events in history do you recall from those years?

I've publicly in my writing made a confession which, in a sense, I've been trying to live down ever since. When I heard about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially the first one, I was stunned but pleased, because I thought it would end the war and then I wouldn't have to go, and other people wouldn't have to go, and America would win a glorious victory. Later I felt very ashamed of that kind of feeling, but I feel it's necessary to mention because of the attraction that large-scale destruction can have if it seems to be on your side, and for what we take to be virtuous purposes. That certainly had an enormous impact. I think that all of World War II had an enormous impact on me because at that time, the Nazis were very much in my lenses, all the more so as a Jew. And I had the idea, as many people had at that time, that our government and our country stood for decency and progressive policies -- an idea that most of us have lost over the decades. That was all very important for me.

At the same time, I think I got from my parents and my father in particular a kind of critical sense that the government and people in power can do wrong things that one should contest. That was a very early feeling of mine.

And also a sense of ethics? Because that is another recurring theme in your work.

It's very hard to gauge for me exactly how a sense of ethics developed. It wasn't out of any religious conviction. Again, I was influenced by my father, who was very much an atheist and took pride in combating the traditional or orthodox forms of Judaism, which his parents and which my mother's parents were very steeped in. And I must say that that orthodoxy felt very suffocating to me as a kid growing up and witnessing it, though not really entering into it. Yet, I do think there was an ethical idea about human beings, who ought to be treated well. It was very vague in that sense, in a secular form, very early on. It has remained secular in me ever since, and yet it has some spiritual component.

Were you shocked when you learned of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II?

I was enormously shocked, and I think that families like my own who were middle-class had complicated feelings, almost guilty feelings, that we were so privileged in not having undergone any of that ordeal. At the same time, terrified and outraged because it was directed at Jews like ourselves. And the Holocaust was there, it wasn't talked about a lot in my family as it was happening. Maybe we didn't want to know it was happening. Later on, soon after the war, I remember seeing pictures that were shocking, and doubly so that people were murdered this way because they were Jewish, as I was.

After your undergraduate work, you chose to go to medical school and you became a psychiatrist.

That's right. When I was young I was very unclear about what I wanted to do. I was interested in history; I didn't know where that would take me. I had a kind of interest in medicine and had read, early on, some books about "healers of the mind," as they were called. And so I had an early but somewhat vague interest in both medicine and in what was to become, in my mind and in my work, psychiatry. I was rushed through my early education because a lot of it was during the war, and yet I was always a very intense student, interested in my work, and very committed to it. But I spent just two calendar years at Cornell University, though it was covering more than three years of work, and then went to medical school and did become interested in psychiatry, and even helped form a kind of psychiatry club in medical school. Sometimes it's said that psychiatrists are doctors who are frightened by the sight of blood. I might have fallen into that category. I never quite envisioned myself a proper doctor under that white coat, but I was interested in the idea of healing and in the psychological dimension rather early on.

And to follow through on your career, before we talk about the actual work you wound up doing, you went into the army and that changed the course of your life in a way. Tell us about that.

Very much so. When I was still in my psychiatric residency training in New York City, I was subjected to the doctor draft of that time, during the early fifties, at the time of the Korean War. And I was called up by my draft board and I was the first sent to Westover Field in Massachusetts, but then there was a request for somebody to be sent overseas and I was the one who was selected to be sent overseas. And of course, like a red-blooded young American lad, I asked to be sent to Paris. They sent me to Japan and then quickly to Korea. It may sound terrible, but I often say that the military saved me from a conventional life in the United States and I've never really thanked them for it, because I haven't exactly been pro-military in my work. But I did make wonderful discoveries when living in Japan for almost a year and a half with my wife, immersing ourselves in Japanese life. We never lived on the base, we lived in among Japanese groups and families, formed groups with them, especially a discussion group where we met a lot of young Japanese students who later became ambassadors and leading figures in Japanese life. And we really were drawn to Japan and to the world.

The other thing that happened was my last military assignment -- this was in the air force; I had enlisted in order to avoid being drafted as a private, and of course I only practiced medicine or psychiatry in the air force so I was never in any kind of violent combat. For my last assignment in the air force, I was sent back to Korea to interview, along with other air force and army psychiatrists, GIs returning from North Korea where they had been in Chinese Communist custody and had been put through a process that we later came to call "thought reform," which is a direct translation of what they call their process. And that interested me in this process, which was also called "brainwashing" in a more casual way. So when my wife and I had decided to take a trip around the world after I was discharged from the military, we only reached our second stop, which was Hong Kong, when I began to hear stories of people subjected to a more intense version of this process. And I managed to arrange to get some research support and to stay in Hong Kong for another year and a half, interviewing people coming out of China, both Westerners and Chinese. And that was my first real research study on thought reform or so-called brainwashing.

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