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A Century Of Atrocities, Through A Psychiatrist's Eyes

Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include <em>The Nazi Doctors</em> and <em>Home From the War</em>.
Richard Sandler
Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. His books include The Nazi Doctors and Home From the War.

Robert Jay Lifton wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life when he left the Army in 1954 after serving in the Korean War. He was living with his wife in Hong Kong and was about to return to the U.S. to pursue a predictable career. Instead, the psychiatrist made a last-minute decision to stay in Hong Kong — and it changed everything.

Since then, his work has delved deep into the complications of human behavior, even inspiring a new field known as psychohistory. He's explored the darkest chapters of the human experience, including China's experiment with mind control, the victims of the atomic bomb, the veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Nazi doctors who sent millions of Jews to the gas chambers.

Lifton tells NPR's Rachel Martin that as his subjects changed, he changed, too — from the detached psychiatrist and to the impassioned activist. Now 85, he re-examines his life's work in a new memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century.

Chinese Mind Control

One phenomenon Lifton explored early on was China's experiment with so-called "thought reform" in the 1950s. He first encountered the mind control techniques in returning American prisoners of war.

"But I came to realize that had been a kind of export version, and the main use of thought reform was on the Chinese population," Lifton says. "It was practiced in special institutions — so-called 'revolutionary colleges' — in regular universities, in places where people worked, in neighborhoods ... it penetrated the entire Chinese population."

Lifton was fascinated by the Chinese Communist Party's systematic effort to alter peoples' opinions. As he studied mind control in China, Lifton saw parallels to what was happening in the U.S. with the rise of McCarthyism.

"People would come to see us from the United States, and they would tell us these horror stories about McCarthyism control and how people were now concerned about the magazines they were subscribed to or what they said in public," he says. "I had the feeling the whole world had gone mad!"

Hiroshima Survivors

Lifton's research in Hong Kong helped him to find a professional identity on global scale, doing studies that combined individual psychology and larger historical forces. Without knowing it, he was at the forefront of a new type of psychiatry.

Lifton's next topic of study brought him to Hiroshima, Japan, where he spoke with survivors of the atomic bomb. One story he remembers well is that of a historian who lost his wife and many other family members in the bombing.

"Soon after the bomb fell, he looked over the whole city from the outskirts and he thought Hiroshima had disappeared," Lifton says. "This left an enormous impression on me."

The idea of an entire city vanishing from a single weapon haunted Lifton for years, leading him to advocacy work in the anti-nuclear movement.

Nazi Doctors

Lifton says perhaps the most difficult series of interviews he conducted were with Nazi doctors.

"My previous work had all been with survivors," he says. "But I came to think, as I gravitated toward a Holocaust study, that it was very important to study the psychology of perpetrators."

Lifton never excused the actions of those he spoke with, but he says they did come to recognize their humanity.

"These were, unfortunately, human beings who were capable of evil," he says, "and that had to be part of my story."

The interviews led Lifton to describe a phenomenon he called "doubling," where the Nazi doctors formed two separate selves to reconcile their actions.

"One of those selves could allow them to go back for weekends or leaves to Germany from Auschwitz and be ordinary husbands and fathers, while doing the work of killing in Auschwitz five or six days a week," Lifton says. "I was forced to look at the complexity of human beings and the degree to which ordinary human beings could be socialized to evil."

Studying Himself

After a lifetime writing about the survivors of horrific events, Lifton himself became the subject of study for his memoir.

"It was difficult," Lifton says, "but it came to be quite satisfying. When one writes a memoir, one perhaps gives a more orderly narrative to one's life than it actually had — or at least than it actually seemed to have at the time."

In the end, Lifton says, writing his memoir helped him find lost moments and experience them again in a powerful way.

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