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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Research: Survival

In the volume called Explorations in Psychohistory, which is a collection that you edited referred to as the Wellfleet Papers, you laid out a research agenda in the early sixties, and you pointed to an intellectual theme that interested you and that you thought was coming to be more important, and that is, men and women in confrontation with the issue of their own death and the continuity of life. Tell us a little about your turn to that. Obviously, in the work you were doing in Hiroshima, that problem was posed rather starkly. But it's a theme that recurs again and again, even up until your most recent book on the Japanese terrorist group.

Yes, as a theme in my work it really developed directly from my Hiroshima experience.

Prior to that I had been under the influence, much to my benefit, of Erik Erikson, whom I met very early in my work and who took an interest in my work. And I used a lot of his concepts of identity, or ego identity, in the analyses that I applied to my first book on Chinese thought reform. But when I went to Hiroshima and began to study or just listen to people's descriptions of their work, it was quite clear they were talking about death all the time, about people dying all around them, about their own fear of death. And when I brought back that work to write it up, I realized that neither in Erikson's work nor in any place in psychoanalysis or psychiatric theory was there much about this, about death-related concepts. Freud was very concerned about death but it didn't fit into his particular structure, except in a very broad and vague way with the death instinct. So I began to try to formulate a new, but as I say, very old kind of model or paradigm of life continuity or death and the continuity of life as a basic model within which all of us live. It was necessary to do [so] to understand Hiroshima, but as I did that I realized that the symbolization of life and the symbolization of death is what we're all about, not just Hiroshima survivors. And I see that, as I said in that paper that you refer to, as the most useful kind of model or paradigm for any kind of historical work, because all historical groups are working within some sort of struggle around their people, about their experiences, that have to do with life-and-death rather than the more classical Freudian model or concept of instinct and defense.

You write in that essay, addressing yourself to a concern with the "incapacity to feel or to confront certain kinds of experiences due to the blocking or absence of inner forms, or imagery, that can connect with experience." You go on to speak of the "more fundamental process of creation and re-creation of images and forms within the mind." Why has that become such a central problem in our time, do you think?

I came upon the idea of what I call "psychic numbing," at first I called it "psychic closing off," in trying to understand what Hiroshima survivors were describing to me. They would say such things as, "the bomb fell" -- or they would describe the experience they had: "I saw this array of dead and dying people around me. And I saw everything, but suddenly I simply ceased to feel anything." Some used the metaphor of a photographic plate that was overexposed. It was as though the mind was shut off. And I came to call that psychic numbing.

When I thought about that, I began to wonder not just about those who were exposed to the atomic bomb, [but] what about those who make, not just atomic but nuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs? And I thought about the psychic numbing involved in strategic projections of using hydrogen bombs or nuclear weapons of any kind. And I also thought about ways in which all of us undergo what could be called the numbing of everyday life. That is, we are bombarded by all kinds of images and influences and we have to fend some of them off if we're to take in any of them, or to carry through just our ordinary day's work, or really deepen whatever we have to do or say. And yet, it isn't all negative. For instance, I realize that if you take the example of a surgeon who is performing a delicate operation, you don't want him or her to have the same emotions as a family member of that person being operated on. There has to be some level of detachment where you bring your technical skill to bear on it. And from that I formulated a model for professional work that I saw myself working at, and others too, of a combination of advocacy and detachment. And the detachment could involve selective professional numbing of that kind, but one's advocacy was right out there as well, as was mine in studying as accurately and as rigorously as I could the effects of the atomic bombings, but at the same time coming to that study as a person very worried and critical about nuclear weapons.

In speaking of this problem of dealing with death and the new kinds of realities that we're creating in our world with things like nuclear weapons, what is available to terrorist groups in the way of biological warfare, you talk about how in previous times that we've had various ways of dealing with this problem of our own death, through children, through the notion of life after death, through our good works, our creative products, through identification with eternal nature. But you point to the notion that in our time what you call "experiential transcendence" seemed to be on the horizon more than it has been in the past.

What I was talking about was how all of us, not just religious people or people who think philosophically, but all of us need some sense of being part of something that precedes and extends beyond what we know in some parts of our mind, however we may deny it, to be our limited life span.

As human beings, we are the animals or the creatures who know that we die, however we fend off that knowledge. And being part of something larger than ourselves is what I call the symbolization of immortality. And that can be done through biologically our children, or our works, our influences in the world, or through being bound up with eternal nature. And also through some sort of religious belief system. But all these are in some way called into question, both by the rapidity of historical change where we lose a clear sense of value structures or belief systems, and also through the existence of ultimate weapons or what I call "imagery of extinction" that accompanies ultimate weapons. Every adult in the world has some sense that he or she might be obliterated at any time by these weapons that we have created. And that at least, it doesn't destroy our need for symbolic immortality or our ways of expressing it, but it does cast doubt to these ways. And I think that's why we tend to then embrace what I took to be a fifth form, which is the experience of transcendence or seeking high states whether it's through meditation or drugs or something that takes us beyond ourselves or into something like what we call "ecstasy," which can be in quiet or very dramatic ways. And of course we have seen much of that, not just in the sixties in this country and afterwards, but I think continuously. And I think that nuclear weapons have something to do with it, importantly, and so does the speed and confusions of historical change. And then a third dimension that relates to both of these is the mass media revolution which feeds us with so much in the way of imagery as we were discussing before, that we become ever less certain of what structures we want to stay with or believe.

In the book on the Vietnam veterans you talk about confronting these realities, reordering the images within your own mind, and then seeking a renewal of both the self and the institutions around you.

book cover Yes. I learned a lot from Vietnam veterans, especially as some of them turned against their own war. And I found that a lot of these young men, they were all men in the groups that I worked with and some other professionals, they had been used to the idea that when your country calls you to the colors you go. They were patriotic. And they had a kind of macho feeling that war was a kind of testing ground for manhood. And also, the idea that in many cases they'd literally sat on their father's knee, he'd been a veteran of World War II and told them about the glorious victory, and they wanted their moment, with war glorified sometimes in that way. But when they experienced their first deads, sometimes that they had brought about in the Vietcong or the enemy, or else saw a buddy shot up next to them, but were in some way involved in a death encounter, their comfort in all of this was shattered. And in many cases they simply could no longer justify their being there. And they felt everything there seemed strange and bizarre and, for many of them, wrong. There was something wrong or dirty about that war. And there were many atrocities that they witnessed or participated in. So an encounter with death could threaten one's entire belief system and then one had to struggle with what one learned, what images came from that encounter, reorder them, put them back into some kind of structure that one could use, which is a whole restructuring process of the self. And then there could be a process of renewal. And that's what a number of the Vietnam veterans whom I and others worked with in so-called rap groups and individual exchanges were struggling to do.

You write somewhere, "any experience of survival, whether of large disaster, intimate personal loss, or more indirectly, severe mental illness, involves a psychic journey to the edge of the world of being. The formulative effort is the survivor's means of return."

Yes, I've been very preoccupied with the survivor all through my work. And, you know, when we talk about all of this in retrospect it all sounds very logical as though one just wafted through it. It's not that way at all in the way that it happened. I struggled with each of these studies and I was uncertain about what they meant, and often confused, and then I tried to put together what I was seeing. And the survivor has been a very important leitmotif all through them. The survivor is really double-edged, and that's what I was saying that you just quoted. Survivors can go one of two ways, or usually both ways: one is, having touched death, they can close down and remain numbed and really be incapacitated by what they've been through. Or they can confront, in some degree, what they have experienced and derive a certain amount of insight and even wisdom from it that informs their lives. I think that great achievements have occurred in relation to survival, including spiritual and religious moments. And so there's another dimension of the survivor.

In work that's both very early and very recent on the Protean self, I try to evolve a kind of concept of the self that can move from survival or from a death encounter into various kinds of imagery, absorbing many different images and forms, and taking in even seemingly contrary dimensions. But the general idea is that one can use a death encounter and re-create oneself in relation to it. I've seen this happen in various people whom I've interviewed. The Vietnam veterans were very striking in this way because, as we ran these rap groups, we could see them undergoing changes, and they were changes about their views of the war and war-making and about macho and maleness, and about their ideas about life itself. It doesn't mean they were changing entirely, some things of course remained the same. But very important aspects of themselves were changing within months, or even weeks, not years. Some over years as well. So this was very important for me to grasp and it influenced everything I did subsequently.

Next page: Research: The Roots of Evil

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