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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Finding a Focus

Now, to talk about your research, we can actually work on several planes here, but throughout your work you're looking at the psychological tendencies common to all mankind, those especially that give special emphasis within a particular cultural tradition, and then finally those stimulated by contemporary historical forces. So it's an interesting mixture of culture, history, and the psychology of the individual.

What I found was when I started my first study, and then in subsequent studies, is here you have people under some kind of duress, or I chose to study them because they represented some kind of historical event, as it impacted on them or as they helped to create it. Say, survivors of Hiroshima [who] were, in a sense, caught up in a certain historical process. As you study them, who were they? How did they get their sense of who they were? I began to think through, influenced by various anthropologists, some of whom I got to know, like Margaret Mead, who was very supportive in my work -- her work and Ruth Benedict's work, and then later on Erik Erikson's work in psychoanalysis. And so I came to what was for me a kind of obvious tripartite idea: they were creatures of the immediate historical process that had brought me to them; at the same time, of a cultural tradition and a long cultural history which made them the kind of people that they were in many ways; and they were human beings, and in that sense had universal psycho-biological struggles. And that's been a rough model for ways of looking at people in different cultures that I've studied, because I looked at people in Japan, from China and Chinese experience, and Germany and the United States. And this kind of approach applies in all cases.

And these cases that you've looked at, whether Vietnam veterans, Hiroshima survivors, Nazi doctors, and now terrorist cults, it's really individuals in extreme circumstances.

That's right.

Why that focus, do you think?

You know it's hard ... I think it would be easy to say, well, that's very important for us to know and that's why I did it, but that's not the way it happens. It happens in a much more erratic way, and you find yourself doing certain things. I did the first study because I had been exposed to something that I took to be important and interesting -- this thought reform process -- in the military. And then I saw a chance to study it unencumbered by any military limitations. And I did that, and I thought that work was interesting for me and useful to the world. Then my second main study came after I had spent quite a lot of time in Japan studying Japanese youth. And I just decided to make a trip to Hiroshima, with my wife, to look into what happened in that city.

And this would be about what year?

This was 1962. And I did that. Isn't that I became, say, anti-nuclear because I learned what was going on, what happened in Hiroshima; it was kind of the reverse. I had been at Harvard for number of years and I became a close friend to David Riesman, a great sociologist who was the first American faculty person to be an adviser to an antinuclear group. And we formed a little newsletter that he mostly did, talking about the American shelter-building craze and some of the absurdities of strategic declarations about fighting and winning nuclear war.

"Better dead than red" was the slogan of the times ...

All that, yes. Well, one of the favorite moral questions of that time was, if you saw your neighbor coming to your shelter where he might use up some of the valuable oxygen there, should you shoot him? And I thought there's something wrong with the society where that's one of its main moral questions.

It was because of my deep concerns about nuclear weapons that I went to Hiroshima. And then I was astounded in Hiroshima to find that nobody had really studied it. I mean, that was a real insight of a kind of its own. People resisted it. And also the Japanese were so overwhelmed by it, some came to help but it was hard to study it in that kind of atmosphere. And I just then received an appointment to Yale and I was able ... I'm eternally grateful to Fritz Redlich, who was the chair of the department then. I wrote to him saying, look, I'm supposed to come to Yale now but I've discovered this situation in Hiroshima that nobody has studied, I really want to stay here and study it. And almost by return mail he wrote back saying, okay I've arranged for a modest research grant. You can stay there. And I stayed there for six months and did the work. But that was my second study and I had the sense I had done one which had been especially intense in that sense, an extreme historical situation, and I could do this as well. I knew something about Japan. I was concerned about these questions. I had a little experience. I felt I could do it. I wasn't without doubts, but I felt I could do it. So one builds a sense of self that one is the kind of person who just might be able to do this kind of work. And that's how it happened, with a lot of anxiety along the way about whether I could carry it through, or sometimes in response to others who thought it seemed a little crazy for a psychiatrist to be out there doing such things. But nonetheless, one develops a sense of oneself or one's own identity as one who can and wants to do that kind of work.

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