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

Page 5 of 5

Lessons Learned

In all of these works you do extensive interviewing -- with the Hiroshima survivors, with the Nazi doctors, with the cult members. Tell us a little about the complexity of that process. On the one hand, you have to imagine yourself in their situation, and on the other hand you have to distance yourself from it to understand it.

I was trained in interviewing in my psychiatric residency and it's a kind of modified psychoanalytic interviewing in which you evoke the life experiences of the person you're talking to. And so for me early on in my work the interview was a very central kind of instrument, if that's the word. But as I've used it over the years, I think it's a beautiful instrument and I think that it's underused. It can be used by almost any kind of researcher, and that can be in the humanities as well as in social science or any kind of investigation.

And I found that I wanted to modify it very much because after all, these weren't people who came to me for help in my sense of having been trained as a clinician. Rather, I went to them seeking some knowledge of their experience. So I tried to make it more of a dialogue, a give-and-take in which they could ask me questions about my life, and at the same time I was probing what they were telling me. And I think it requires a kind of a double level in which one is constantly a human being in a dialogue and is not immune from very human questions as you might be if you're distancing yourself as a doctor who's on a level above the patient you're talking to. But at the same time, I tried to bring to bear my professional knowledge, my psychological knowledge, in order to grasp what they were telling me.

I describe in my book on Hiroshima how, in the first days of those interviews, I was stunned and overwhelmed by the stories they were telling me, and I thought, yes, this is a worthwhile study; but can I really do it? And then I noticed that after a few days or a week of doing this study, I found myself less affected and more able to think about the categories of response that I was hearing. And that I came to call "selective professional numbing." I needed at least that to be able to do the work at all. But I realized it was kind of a danger because it's usually over-weighted in a lot of professional practice on the numbing side, rather than the exaggerated feeling. Either one can prevent one from undertaking these studies.

But the interview has to be, above all, a kind of human exchange. And I think I learned more over time from practice and found that people derive a great deal of value [from] interviews when they're on this level of give-and-take. It's a chance for them to examine their own lives, and that was even true of former Aum Shinrikyo members, who had to first have my trust as they were working their way out of this cult in a way, psychologically. But they told me in most cases they derived a certain kind of value from it because they could explore what they had been through in ways they hadn't otherwise been able to do.

We have time, unfortunately, for only one more question. I want to ask you about what lessons we might draw from your extraordinary body of work about, on the one hand man and woman's capacity to survive, and on the other man and woman's capacity to do evil.

My work is full of study or recording of evil. It seems to be all too frequent, all too readily called forth, and people all too readily socialize to it or are able to adapt to evil. At the same time, I've also seen the other side of it, survivors able to bring knowledge from their ordeal, recreate themselves with the help of others and with the help of love around them. So I'm careful not to insist upon a single kind of lesson from all of this. I would say for me, and I consider myself neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but to simply confront and make my way through these dreadful events is an act of hope. And in recording some of what people are able to do in spite of their exposure to them, also an act of hope. So I consider myself still a hopeful person and I think all of us have to work to combat these events and take steps to prevent their recurrence in some kind of spirit of hope. That's what I try to convey to my students and to others with whom I share these matters.

And I would throw at you a quote from your own writings, "One looks into the abyss in order to see beyond it."

Yes, well that's very much the spirit of my work. You look into the abyss, but you don't want to be stuck there. Otherwise your imagination is deadened and defeated by the very event you're studying. So you want to look into it in order to see beyond it. If you don't look into it, you are ostrich-like. If you get stuck there, you're incapacitated. So you want to look beyond it to other human possibilities.

Dr. Lifton, thank you very much. I would like to go on for another hour or two! Thank you very much for sharing with us the story of your intellectual journey.

Thank you very much.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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