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Confronting evil, in 'extreme' century

Eighty-five-year-old psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has written a compelling memoir of his professional life.

It is a corollary unexpressed but ably demonstrated that one cannot write about one's public life without revealing the private person.

Lifton, an emeritus professor at City University of New York, modestly calls his book "Witness." It documents his therapeutic role in analyzing some of the 20th century's most "extreme" events. (Regrettably, everything seems to be characterized as "extreme" these days, but in Lifton's title, the word fits.)

Throughout his work, he uses a systematic method of investigation in which he had been trained, the interview, as well as a "mosaic of historical and cultural influences."

Lifton grew up Jewish in Brooklyn. He loved the Dodgers. He calls his a "Jewish Huck Finn childhood." He respected his heritage but did not like his grandparents' version of Orthodox Judaism, with its stultifying rules. He rejected it as a form of what he would later call "totalism." To paraphrase Lifton, Orthodox Judaism was an example of zealotry with elements of extreme ideology.

One of the pleasures of "Witness to an Extreme Century" is the author's turning the tables on himself and analyzing his young self in psychiatric terms. For example, Lifton writes that he felt unprepared for his Cornell Medical College interview by two senior faculty members. He was flustered, didn't look them in the eye and thought he did poorly.

Dr. Lifton began his witness to cataclysmic events in the 1950s. He conducted research aboard a troop ship with returning American servicemen who had been held as prisoners of war by North Korea, as well as in Inchon, South Korea, and later in Hong Kong. He was interested in the stories of American POWs who were victims of mind control. Westerners were frequently subjected to torture. (Think of the GI played by Laurence Harvey in the 1962 film "The Manchurian Candidate.")

In the 1950s, Chinese Communists called this process "thought reform" and used it on hundreds of millions of intellectuals and students during Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward." By the mid-1960s, it was a "compulsory movement of purification and renewal," what Lifton called an "apocalyptic cleaning up of the past."

The Chinese leadership determined that a new mental life for the Chinese population had to be acquired through manipulative therapeutic and coercive measures, Lifton explains. Elements of self-criticism for those undergoing thought reforms were the norm. Thus, large segments of the Chinese population were made to confess that the "old society" with roots in Confucianism was bad and had to be eliminated.

Lifton published a few articles about his work on thought reform, but as a young scholar, he felt he needed direction from older members of his profession. Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst who developed the concept of identity and coherence, became one, calling Lifton's work "the psychology of ideology." Margaret Mead, Jerome Bruner and David Riesman were others.

"Totalism," which the author abhors, exists in all countries and many philosophies. It is contained in Confucius' teaching, extant in the British rule of India and considered by Lifton to be used in preparing priests for the Catholic Church.

Erikson noted this example in his book "Young Martin Luther" by asserting that Luther, while studying for the Catholic priesthood, projected his "Individual-psychological conflicts" -- struggles with guilt, conscience and religious authenticity -- into the flow of Western history. Any philosophy can be overdone, and Lifton takes issue with what he considers totalism's excessiveness.

After these experiences, he interviewed Hiroshima survivors of the atomic bombing, the "hibakusha," beginning in 1962 and developed an appreciation of the disease he calls "nuclearism." Lifton relates that his "witness was specifically focused on the suffering of people exposed to a cruel weapon at the hands of my own countrymen -- as well as the weapon's broader threat to the human future."

Lifton "struggled to witness the testimony of a man who said that after the bomb fell, 'Hiroshima just didn't exist.' " Lifton felt he couldn't cope with the stories unless he engaged in "some selective professional numbing." He reports that the increase in leukemia in children and adults "came to symbolize the bomb's endless 'invisible contamination.' "

"Nuclearism" continues to vex mankind. Consider Japan's continuing troubles with one of its nuclear plants after twin disasters struck and the implications for the rest of the world.

Later still, he worked with Vietnam War veterans who helped him define, through their memories of war and atrocities, "post-traumatic stress." In 1969, the My Lai village slaughter of several hundred civilians by American soldiers in a single morning made Lifton aware of what he later defined as an "atrocity-producing situation." That is, an environment could be so structured, militarily and psychologically, that an average person -- "no better or worse than you or me, on entering it, could be capable of committing atrocities."

One Vietnam War veteran tried to explain to Lifton about the massacre. He said that it occurred "because your judgment is all screwed up." Lifton's analysis was that the men momentarily "experienced an illusion that, in gunning down babies and old men and women, they had finally engaged the enemy." Regarding post-traumatic stress, Lifton wrote, spoke and counseled veterans in "rap groups" trying to heal the after-effects of what he called the Vietnam War: "an existential evil."

Lifton had a falling-out with many liberally minded friends over his hostility to the war. Riesman wrote to Eric Fromm that Lifton went over to the far left. Lionel and Diana Trilling of the Columbia University faculty, especially, considered Lifton "a symbol of that kind of betrayal [of the academic profession]." Irving Howe was another. Irving Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, had divergent political views from Lifton's. Today's reader may think these critics unimportant, but these names were at the top of the best of the best in academe in the '60s and '70s.

Lifton also interviewed Nazi doctors, trying to understand how they were able to normalize evil through their participation with atrocities during World War II. Lifton remarks that "with Nazi doctors the universe that had to be re-entered was so extreme and grotesque that I still find it hard to believe I spent so much time in it."

In interviewing the Nazi doctors, victimizers rather than victims, Lifton had to "retool" for confronting those who took part in the Holocaust. He used Erikson's suggestion, "You might even make contact with their humanity," as a start. It turned out that the Nazi doctors to a person were unable to say they had been part of something evil. All used the defense that they were "beleaguered men more or less victimized by circumstances."

This behavior of Nazi doctors led Lifton to postulate what he called "doubling." "The term connotes a form of dissociation in which the self divides into two separately functioning wholes: An "Auschwitz self" enabling one to live and work there and engage in mass killing; and a relatively more humane prior self enabling one to return to Germany during leaves and behave as an ordinary husband and father."

"Witness," he says, is "an imperfect balance between scholarship and activism."

These life experiences are far more than that. A life of activism for worthy causes based on scholarship is a rarity.

The author deserves credit for looking evil in the eye and coming away with some solutions about how to cope with it in what he calls "the service of the continuity of life."

More endearing still, "Witness" is Lifton's love letter to BJ, his wife of 60 years, who died last year.

Michael D. Langan is a former official of the Labor and Treasury departments and a frequent News reviewer.

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Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir

By Robert Jay Lifton

Free Press

448 pages, $30